“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.” So said Donald Trump in the first “debate” of some Republican Party presidential aspirants.
Trump is the master of hyperbole. No one else thinks that political correctness is “the big problem this country has” (emphasis mine). Even he does not think so, for he had not raised the issue before. His silence is the more surprising because he is not shy about claiming firsts, like his repeated and absurd claim to be the first GOP aspirant to raise the subject of illegal immigrants, apparently ignorant of prolonged debate about, and proposed legislation on, the issue for time out of mind.
No doubt, liberals are already upset with my use of the phrase “illegal immigrants.” Their preferred, now politically correct, nomenclature is “undocumented immigrants.” Liberals as well as conservatives recognize that the shift in terms is a shift in substance which smuggles in a new idea as a substitute for an old one. The old idea is that immigrants who enter the country without following the legal procedures for doing so break the pertinent laws. In fact, they do. The new idea is that they enter the country without the paperwork reflecting the end-of-process permission to enter it—a notion implying bureaucratic oversight, the correction of which by enforcement would be an over-scrupulous, excessive, and, worst of all, unfeeling application of legal rigor.
Understandably, this and other instances of contorted verbiage known as political correctness irritate conservatives and comfort liberals. Their respective emotional responses to such language distract both sides from the issues and divert them to scoring points in any debate. Issues become inflamed and intractable as each side tries to prevail in its terms. Conservatives rightly regard the language of political correctness as a coercive rhetoric and resist anything which might suggest a surrender to it. They insist on building an impenetrable barrier, a true mission impossible, between the United States and Mexico before discussing other immigrant-related issues as their counter to demand respect for the law. Meanwhile, liberals entirely fail to see that their rhetoric is illiberal and unworthy, and, in trying to skirt or elide the law to serve their humanitarian purposes, counter-productive. Otherwise, both sides might agree that enforcing the laws and reforming them could be concurrent efforts. So political correctness has contributed to the continuing impasse in the discussion of immigration policy, though substantial differences about that policy are, as I say, of long standing.
This instance of political correctness—“illegal immigrants” versus “undocumented immigrants”—illustrates the way in which political correctness makes the discussion of real issues more, not less, difficult. Ironically, liberals, especially academic liberals, viewed political correctness as one way to influence economic, moral, political, religious, and social issues for the better. They were foremost among those advocating political correctness in colleges and universities, then K-12 schools, nationwide. Ironically, the resulting campus speech codes are the antithesis of free speech and academic freedom, (and, on public campuses, should be banned by state legislators).
Everyone knows that some words have been coined or have acquired meanings to express deprecation of others because of their religion, race, gender, ethnicity, or national origin. Some such words—like “kike,” “coon,” “cunt,” “spic,” “Hun”—have had no other function. Others are more complex, like “nigger,” now allowed only in its politically correct elision, “n-word.” Some blacks assert, at least to whites, that the word is always offensive, but few of them really believe it; it is a word in common parlance in the black community, in which its meanings run from the pejorative to the honorific. (Anyone who thinks otherwise should see Pulp Fiction, in which the range of uses is wide and pitch-perfect, especially in one sudden shift to the word “negro.”) Blacks and whites together may use the word in serious discussions or between close friends, but, even then, they often share an edgy awareness that the word is like a loaded gun which can go off, with disastrous results.
When political correctness intrudes, its coercion prevents the honest discussion of difficult issues. Its intrusion appears in individual responses of readers or listeners who not only feel uncomfortable or take offense, but also claim a right to be free of anything which produces discomfort or umbrage, whether directed at them or not. The case of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is notable in this regard. In school district after school district, adults have waged war over its suitability for youth because of its use of the word “nigger,” as in the name sometimes applied to the Huck’s companion “Nigger Jim.” The ejection of this, perhaps the, American classic novel, as racist from the curriculum means that no one can learn the use of the word in different contexts or see that Twain makes the unconventional case, ironic in its use of this conventional term of moral inferiority, that Jim is morally superior to Huck, Tom Sawyer, and all the other whites in the book. Of course, the pretense is that high-school students do not know the word and might use it if they did; all do and some do, respectively. It would be for the best if they read the book and could discuss both it and this one word; imagine: the novel might provide the basis for a learning experience in discussing and dealing with racial issues.
These two examples, one from the world of politics, the other from the world of the humanities, show that the liberal dogma of political correctness impedes the discussion of real issues and prevents their resolution. One might wonder if political correctness is not the means by which liberals actually perpetuate, while turning from, a problem which they purport to want to solve.
Years ago, when I missed a meeting of my wife’s church’s outreach committee, I was designated the church’s representative to a meeting of representatives from other organizations to discuss diversity in the nearly 95-percent white community. Many of its most educated members were self-exiles from academia in San Francisco who touted themselves as liberals. (In fact, most were so only with respect to LGBT issues, but were otherwise racist and anti-Semitic). After a showing of the movie The Color of Fear, in which a black man explodes in anger at a white man who professes to a family history of good and caring relations with his migrant farm workers, most were greatly troubled. Knowing my views on such matters, they wanted my opinion, but I deferred until I had heard theirs. All expressed shock at such anger, could not understand it, and then dismissed it as atypical. I made no friends by asking them where they had been, what television they had watched, what newspapers and magazines they had read that the knew nothing of the feelings of blacks observable in, and inferable from, the Civil Rights Movement; urban riots in Watts in 1965 and major cities in 1968; public demonstrations, protest marches, and university occupations during and after the Vietnam War; riots after the Rodney King beatings; and publicity given the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver, among others. (Looking back, I suppose The Bill Cosby Show or The Jeffersons defined their understanding of the black experience in America.) Referring to this meeting on diversity and, by implication, on racism, I asked them, what had prevented them from understanding, if not expecting, this explosion of one black man’s anger at what appeared to him to be the usual white blindness to white racism. Of course, my comment was a conversation-killer, and I knew that some left in discomfort and umbrage at my tacit insinuation of their racism. Do I trace their blindness to their racism to political correctness? Yes, in part, because their attention to talking in politically correct terms and to responding to the politically incorrect words of others had distracted them from self-examination for their filters and from honest confrontation with the real issues. (Reader, you might be asking yourself whether I am smug about myself. My answer: absolutely not. I monitor myself and I test myself with those in a position to detect filters in me. So far, so good, but I do not pretend that I am not susceptible to pernicious influences in American culture.)
I have emphasized liberals in my criticisms of political correctness. But I do not give conservatives a pass. Although they are right to deplore political correctness, they, too, have not self-examined themselves or honestly confronted the issues. Many of them support racist policies and practices, or ignore them, and resent those who draw obvious inferences from the facts and deny the conclusion that they are racist. (The conservative reaction to the drive to remove the confederate flag from display on pubic grounds insisted that it did not symbolize rebellion and racism. See more on this issue in my blog “Flying the Flag.”) Conservatives deprecate political correctness, but their talk about the talk of liberals in effect uses opposition to political correctness as liberals use political correctness: to avoid self-scrutiny and straight talk. In short, political correctness operates across the political spectrum to the detriment of self-knowledge and self-reform, and informed, intelligent discussion focused on the real issues.
One final point. Trump and some others use the rejection of political correctness as a justification of rudeness and indecency. There is nothing correct, politically or not, about insults or other personal attacks on people. However, it is not a personal insult or attack to label the use of language or the advocacy of ideas as racist or sexist or anti-Semitic if they are such. Almost no one wants to be associated with such pejorative labels, but, if they are supported by fact or inference from language or ideas, perhaps the writer or speaker should reflect before he or she responds. (Conversely, claims that the discussion of such issues causes, or may cause, discomfort or gives, or may give, offense are not valid reasons to curtail the discussion or penalize any participants.) Considering the log in one’s eye before the mote in another’s is pretty good advice. Reflecting that defilement comes, not from what goes into one, but what comes out of one, is also worth the effort.