I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “political correctness” used approvingly and without irony. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I’ve heard it used derisively. I regard it as one of the central ironies of modern politics that it hasn’t been politically correct to be politically correct since the notion first became a household term. This hasn’t stopped people from proudly proclaiming (often to great applause) the brave mantle of ‘Political Incorrectness’. Indeed, countless courageous souls have made sure we all know how little regard they have for political correctness. The near universal disregard for political correctness, as such doesn’t seem to faze its detractors. It pretty well goes without saying that if the subject is political correctness, the correct thing to say is that you’re against it. Do that, and you earn all kinds of points for being a independent minded maverick of sorts.
Just like all other independent mavericky people.
In fact, that story-line is so damned pat, you’d think even the dimmest among us would have second thoughts about it, but I guess not. The narrative is just too damned strong, and the benefits to plotting your politics inside it too great to resist. So, it pretty well goes without saying that anyone worth his salt would proclaim himself to be politically incorrect.
It’s the American thing to do!
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve heard the stories too, the PC-horror stories, I mean. Some of them piss me off too, and some of them are utter bullshit. It’s a big topic, and I could type out a lot of things about it, but for now I want to explore just one particular part of it.
That would be the part where a Presidential candidate and then a President (Donald Trump) would proudly proclaim his own political incorrectness. Among all the many absurdities that fly under the banner of the politically incorrect, there is at least one that is fairly unique to Donald Trump’s use of it. Because if there was anyone that we might expect to be politically correct, that we might actually want to be politically correct, you would think it would be the President of the United States.
Yes, I’m serious.
I realize that in most circles ‘Political correctness’ simply means whatever lefty political agenda people feel like dismissing at the moment, but if you stop and think about the phrase itself for just a minute, you might see some trace of a meaning that isn’t quite confined to that sort of canned polemic. Indeed, there is no particular reason respect for Christian values, honoring the troops, or celebrating a conventional American family would count as any less politically correct than support for gay marriage, celebration of black history month, or avoidance of any number of racial epithets. In principle, right wing causes could as easily count as political correctness as those of the left, and make no mistake about it; they are as likely to produce the sort of toxic pettiness that fill so many of those PC-horror stories people tell sometime between their second and third beers on a Friday night. We seem only use the word for left-wing causes, but there are numerous comparable cause in right wing circles. And if there is any trace of a positive meaning in that phrase, it’s this; that political correctness can mean thinking about the consequences of what you are about to say before you say it, taking into account the feelings of others and their likely reactions to your words before you decide what to say and do. That same notion may produce all sorts of stories about censorship, professional victimhood, and fake outrage. It also produces countless stories generally left untold, those in which someone finds just the right words, shows respect to people she might easily have slighted, or simply handles a tough topic with grace and dignity. We don’t seem to have a label for such stories. That label could as easily be ‘political correctness’ as any of those now provoking outrage in countless gossip circles all across the land.
To be sure, there are distinctions to be made between respect and dignity on the one hand and the pointless pettiness generally associated with stories of political correctness, but those distinctions don’t really fall along a left-right axis, and the phrase itself has never helped anyone to draw those distinctions with any care. Indeed sneering ‘political correctness’ at an issue is little other than an effort to avoid drawing those distinctions with anything approaching thoughtfulness and precision.
If there are those who have used the phrase with more care than i suggest, our current President is not among them. Think back to the infamous moment in which Megan Kelly (perhaps accidentally) separated herself from the right wing faithful, and you can see the character of Donald’s own use of ‘political correctness’. Asked about his frequent use of abusive words against any women who crossed him, Trump responded by saying that he didn’t have time to be politically correct. Of course that was after first trying to pass off the notion that he only denigrates Rosie O’Donnell, but when forced off that gambit, Trump settled on the notion that his lifetime of vicious personal attacks against myriad women was simply failure to obey the dictates of political correctness. Trump wasn’t asking us to reject some far left political agenda; he was asking the American public to accept his own personal vice on grounds that failure to do so would be an instance of political correctness. He was asking us to accept that the most flagrant contempt for common decency was somehow little other than a rejection of left-wing excess.
Here I must say, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sorrow, sorrow for the death of conservatism as I once knew it. Oh, I don’t count myself as a conservative, not since I was about 18 years old, but I’ve known many conservatives I have admired and respected over the years. They generally vote Republican and I rarely agree with them on much of anything, but if there is one thing that separates the old school conservatives I recall from my youth from the right wing politics of today, it is precisely the effectiveness of Trump’s ploy. There is simply nothing in cultural conservatism that is amenable to the kind of crass treatment Trump has dished out to women over the years. Not his personal attacks on female adversaries, and not asinine talk of sexual conquest. Time was, when conservatives would have been the first to object to such things, and perhaps some still do, but the bulk of the voting base for the Republican party seems to have shifted. Thus conventional respect for human beings in general, and conventional respect for women in particular became a sort of lefty, feminist, oppression, one gloriously vanquished with the promise of a President who couldn’t be pressured to treat a woman with dignity, at least not one marked for conquest, or one who had the audacity to get in his way.
I look back at Trump’s response to Kelly and marvel that anyone could find their way to a rationalization sufficient to support that guy. I also think about the time he stalked Hillary around the debate stage after threatening to lock her up and think the same thing. How did this kind of abuse become acceptable? In particular, how did it become acceptable to cultural conservatives? Near as I can tell, the answer lies in the narrative about political correctness. It recasts common crudeness, even cruelty, as a rejection of a obscure and nefarious political agenda, one no decent American would accept. That narrative alone was sufficient to lure millions of seemingly decent Americans to overlook some of the most brazenly abusive behavior to be displayed in public by a national politician.
It was a defining moment, and one that certainly doesn’t speak well of Trump’s character, or that of anyone who could defend it. It is objectionable in more ways that I could count, even with my shoes off, but the one objection that keeps haunting me is this simple thought; shouldn’t the President of the United States have time for political correctness? Isn’t that part of his job? When he enters into diplomatic negotiations, do we not want the President to be capable of choosing his words carefully? If you set aside the obvious angle of outright lefty-bashing, this is a job which requires all manner of careful judgements about what to say and what not to say, about who will be angry and what will they will do about it.
Only the stakes are much higher!
This is the thing that bothers me most about conventional PC-bashing. It makes a very convenient posture for many who, like Trump, seem think with their tongues. All too often, the notion that one is politically incorrect provides a ready-made excuse for all manner of perfectly conventional indiscretions. Sure, It’s the left wing that asks us to reconsider every day vocabulary for things like race, gender, and sexual orientation (among other things), but it’s not as though we are the only ones with any social sensitivities, and somehow the PC-bashing has became a sort of all-purpose excuse for the generally crass among us, the ones who just can’t be bothered to think before they talk.
People who cannot be bothered to consider how others will feel about their words seldom put much more thought into questions about the truth of those words. It’s one of the reasons why such people can be so damned sensitive themselves to any critical feedback they get. These folks can’t answer the criticisms and they know it, so they’d rather tell a story about the over-sensitivity of others, one which makes their first reflex into an unquestioned truth and the careful consideration of other just so much hogwash. PC-bashing ties this conventionally idiotic behavior to a broad range of set issues and it provides a blank check of sorts to anyone willing to play the role of the tough talking straight shooter.
It may seem that I am stretching the bounds of the concept. Political correctness doesn’t really cover that much of the issue, does it? Yet, I think it’s Trump who stretched the boundaries of the concept so broadly in this election, and not just in characterizing his contempt for women to political incorrectness. He also likened the expectation that people shouldn’t beat up protesters to political correctness. Trump himself has likened countless policy considerations regarding immigration, foreign diplomacy, and criminal law as instances of mere political correctness. And of course, it was Trump’s many sweeping attacks on Mexicans and Muslims that earned him the reputation as a ‘straight shooter’ back in the early days of his campaign. I never understood that. There was nothing straight or honest about Trump’s rhetoric, but so many seemed happy to equate rudeness with honesty that it became the standard media spin for awhile at least. Even Megan Kelly granted him that as she asked her infamous question. She too was willing to grant that Trump’s foolishness and cruelty should count as a kind of honesty. It’s the kind of equation best suited to the narratives of the politically incorrect.
…and it is doublespeak at its most deplorable!
It’s not just that Donald Trump expressed prejudice in his campaign rhetoric. He led with it. Prejudice was literally his first sales pitch. No, he didn’t say that all Mexicans were rapists, as his defenders often remind us, but he did say that Mexico was ‘sending’ its rapists. That wild accusation was not a call for immigration reform then, and it isn’t now. It was a clear and unmistakable signal to the racists in America that he would go after those they hated. How and when, and even why? All that would be made up later, …and so now we now get to see the GOP fiddle with token gestures at wall building. The physical wall that still haunts our policy discussions is merely the obligatory excretion of a rhetorical wall Trump built in that very first moment of his campaign. Through talk of a wall, Trump separated his supporters from the rest of us and polarized the nation as no American politician has done in my own life-time.
Why do we think of Trump’s various immigration restrictions as a ban on Muslims? Because he led with a call to ban entry of Muslims. It was only afterwards that Trump began walking the notion back to the various token policies now trotted before the courts. Ironically, folks now defend these policies by telling us Obama did the same thing (which is a stretch). This after Trump spent his entire campaign telling us how Obama wasn’t doing anything to protect us from terrorists. In any event, the point isn’t that Trump expressed a prejudice or three in the course of a campaign, or even in his Presidency. That would make him a run of the mill politician, perhaps even merely human. Prejudice was the centerpiece of his appeal from the beginning. It still is.
The result has been a non-stop clown show, a constant reminder that Trump doesn’t think before he speaks, writes, or even executive orders. We’ve all watched as his staff struggle to form policies around thoughtless statements and his surrogates have fought to rationalize the completely irrational utterances of the Ego-in-Chief. And this week we learn both that Trump sought to jail his critics in the press and that he shared intelligence secrets with Russian figures all in the space of a couple days. Whatever else this is, it is also the behavior of a man who doesn’t think before he does anything.
…and I can’t help but think all of this brings us right back to Trump’s response to Megan Kelly. He said he didn’t have time to be completely politically correct? In that very statement, Trump effectively told the entire nation that wasn’t then prepared to perform the duties of the President.
He isn’t now either.