On a call home from The Mountain School—a semester program for high school juniors—my son Noah complained about a committee he had joined to decide how the student body should talk about the coming election. The conclusion: delicately. “It was ridiculous,” he said. “I’m sorry but it was just so politically correct.”
The “I’m sorry” was for my benefit: he knows I hate the phrase “politically correct.” And yet I too found laughable the idea of protecting hypothetical Trump-supporting 16-year-olds from the intellectual judgment of their peers. Waah! You Vermont liberals are so mean! Don’t make me feel bad for wanting a sexist, racist, xenophobic nincompoop to be president.
“People’s beliefs are the only thing you should be able to judge,” said Noah. I agreed with his point. So why did I resist his terminology?
The phrase “politically correct” has bothered me since my college years in the late 80s and early 90s, when women’s studies became a doctoral field and Allan Bloom decried the tragic devaluing of the Western canon. Around that time, my father (who perhaps not incidentally teaches the most canonical subject possible: Shakespeare) used the phrase in a book he was writing and I was editing; I made him take it out. It’s a phrase that insinuates rather than specifies, I (maybe) said. It’s got the slippery exterior of jargon and it makes you sound like a grumpy white male.
Which was true. It’s also true that the term “political correctness” felt like a personal dig, an insult to me and my politics, the way it infuriatingly took the social justice issues I (and my father) cared about and lumped them together with a humorless obsession with terminology. Take, for instance, this New York Magazine cover story from 1991:
Are You Politically Correct?
Am I guilty of racism, sexism, classism? Am I guilty of agism, ableism, lookism? Am I logocentric? Do I say “Indian” instead “Native American”? “Pet” instead of “animal companion”? by John Taylor.
Every movement has its embarrassing excesses; in fact, “politically correct” began, according to Amanda Hesser of the New York Times, as a self-deprecating joke among left-leaning activists. No matter. The right soon appropriated it as a term of contempt, mocking leftist excesses in the hope of dismissing the serious issue beneath it all: the ways in which we unwittingly perpetuate prejudice, injustice, and inequality through our language and our institutions.
Twenty-five years later, the term “political correctness” is back with a vengeance, still resisting clear definition, still lazily making a range of hazy accusations:
- Oversensitivity to the rights of minorities
- Oversensitivity to the feelings of minorities
- Embrace of ever-evolving categories of oppression and oppressed groups
- Elevation of identity politics above all other concerns
- Mindless adherence to liberal orthodoxy
- Self-righteousness in the face of perceived infractions to the liberal order
- Suppression of free speech
That last one is a new one, I think. Today’s version of political correctness includes the implication that no one really believes the “p.c.” versions of the statements they make. In other words, President Obama wants to say “radical Islamic terrorism” but is forced by political correctness to say “violent extremists.” And while you know in your heart the right thing to say is “Merry Christmas,” you say “Happy Holidays” for the sake of . . . political correctness. That fundamental presumption of insincerity is what gives “politically correct” its weaselly edge and “politically incorrect” its proud air of truth-telling.
Which brings us to Donald Trump, self-described “truth teller.” For the past year, he has amplified the drumbeat against political correctness to such an extent that Americans polled in June think political correctness is a bigger problem than prejudice. Next to Hillary Clinton, political correctness is Trump’s favorite enemy. Trump uses the term “political correctness” to defend his own crass behavior (“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said, in response to Megyn Kelly’s question about his calling women “pigs” and “dogs”). He uses it to accuse others of liberal weak-mindedness (“The enemy is cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind” in a USA Today op-ed). And he uses it to preempt critiques of his policy proposals (banning Muslim immigration is “not politically correct, but I don’t care,” he said at a rally last December).
Basically, if you’re looking for a quotation that includes the words “political correctness,” look to Trump. Beware, however: you may get confused. I, for instance, thought it was simple respect that kept us from calling people “pigs” and “dogs”; that we didn’t cut off people’s heads and drown them in cages on account of basic human decency, American values, and international law; and that we refrained from banning Muslims due to our very own, Founding-Fathers-Approved, First Amendment.
Even Republicans have questioned Trump’s use of the term: After stating in a debate that Trump’s inflammatory anti-Muslim statements had real-world consequences, and after hearing the predictable “political correctness” scoff from Trump, Marco Rubio replied, “I’m not interested in being politically correct. I’m interested in being correct.”
I rejoiced at that comment, and then I took a moment to wonder how Marco Rubio and I could possibly agree.
This is how: Political correctness is going too far in the attempt to make sure other people are treated with respect. The reason the term is so slippery is that “going too far” depends on your perspective. One person’s “going too far” is another person’s marriage equality . . . affirmative action . . . even Civil Rights Act. But all of us, even liberals, have a line we draw somewhere in the shifting sands of human progress; cross that line and eyes will roll. Trump’s line appears to be somewhere around the time of the Crusades. Mine, I see now, is at The Mountain School, around the time of Trump.
If anyone is keeping track, that means Noah is right: it is indeed political correctness that is protecting teenage Trump supporters from the judgment of their peers.
The irony would be delicious if I could stomach anything that rich this close to the election.