Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How To Be Politically Incorrect

via the New York Times
With this week’s commanding Republican primary victories, frontrunner Donald Trump hasn’t outright secured the nomination, but he’s made anybody else getting a complete majority very, very unlikely. If we aren’t facing an inevitable Trump major-party candidacy, we’re certainly facing the humiliation of a lead political party having to second-ballot their presidential nomination, something unseen since 1952. Even if he loses, Trump has already made political history.

Whenever media pundits discuss this unfolding tragicomedy, they inevitably play one among a small handful of soundbites: somebody praising Trump for being “not politically correct.” Trump started that notion himself, repeating it with drum-like persistence, until his supporters have adopted the talking point themselves. It’s often coupled with the phrase “refreshing honesty,” with the implication that “political correctness” involves somehow lying. But that’s as far as formal definitions go.

Trump has used his rostrum to condemn Mexicans, Muslims, women, and journalists, creating several concentric circles of “insider” authenticity. In Trump’s case, political correctness clearly implies having no filter between his brain and his mouth. That couples especially darkly with how crowds at Trump gatherings behave. While praising their candidate for his divisive logorrhea, they’ve turned angrily, sometimes violently, on protesters, African Americans, dissidents, and students.

So. If Donald Trump says what I’ve been thinking, however ill-considered and contentious, he’s “not politically correct.” If somebody without money or microphone access says what they’ve been thinking, we’ll attack. Thus we encounter one basic problem with arguing from undefined terms: we can make them mean whatever we want. Politicians are often mocked for their vague rhetoric, certainly. But this exposes the violent potential in me-first language choices.

I first encountered the expression “politically correct” in a Reader’s Digest article in 1989. Though nominally nonpartisan, RD has frequently published articles praising Republicans, condemning solid climate science, and defending the status quo. This particular article presented “political correctness” as a legitimate complaint left-leaning ideologues used to shame and silence conflicting opinions. Raised Republican in that pre-Google era, I never doubted that article’s sound journalism and objectivity.

Except we don’t live pre-Google anymore. Five minutes of web searching reveals (really, try it) that “politically correct” was a term first used in Maoist revolutionary circles to maintain purity. Like most things Maoist, it imploded once the revolution became the state. The very concept became so embarrassing to leftist circles that by the 1970s, American progressives used the term to jokingly chide one another for drifting into doctrinaire thinking.

By 2000, sociologist Barry Glassner cited outspoken conservatives using the “politically correct” handle to belittle attempts to set public standards. As Glassner noted, most of the cases conservatives quoted actually consisted of attempts to define what constitutes polite versus rude behavior in public. Language that once sounded normal in public discourse, like using racial terms for minorities, or coarse, sailor-like language to describe women, probably shouldn’t survive in modern discourse.

That, though, was 2000. In some ways, the complaint has become more solid. Even Marxist writer Mick Hume openly complains that the desire to muzzle potentially inflammatory speech has reached dystopian heights. Comedians John Cleese and Chris Rock refuse to play the once-prestigious college circuit because “speech codes” have become so restrictive that they feel forcibly silenced. As Hume notes, good comedy is almost always cutting; nice people aren’t funny.

So maybe the Trumpistas have something. Maybe what sounds inflammatory from Trump’s mouth reflects an internalized self-censor. So what then becomes okay? That’s difficult to say. My heavily Republican father finds Donald Trump so offensive that he’s speculated on shooting the guy. Is that politically incorrect? Or is that something the Secret Service might investigate? And what makes that different from race-baiting and other trademark Trump behavior?

Billy Connolly
People embracing political incorrectness are basically inveighing against a term without real meaning. Comedian Billy Connolly, a self-described “hippie”, complains (in a video sadly unavailable in America) that “political correctness is destroying us all.” Connolly’s definition of political correctness: backup warning signals on garbage trucks. Categorically not the same as calling Mexicans rapists. Anybody can lump anything they dislike into “political correctness” and act vindicated for speaking against it.

Thus we reconcile the gap between Trump’s speech, and his attempts to silence dissent. Political correctness isn’t anything, or rather, it isn’t any one thing. It’s an attempt to control the discourse, not by the politically correct, but by their opponents. If you shush me, that’s political correctness. If I shush you, I’m a free speech hero. “I’m not politically correct” has become the new political correctness.

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