Whose Political Correctness
Where is Political Correctness a problem? As the debate over Political Correctness has heated up again since 2010, the epicenter of the problem has been on college campuses, and in specific online communities. So is Donald Trump correct to say that America is becoming too Politically Correct?
In Fall of 2014, 10.6 million Americans were enrolled in four year postsecondary institutions, 8.1 million of those full time. It is hard to tell what percentage of those students are affected by Political Correctness. When campus protests broke out nation wide in the Fall of last year, protests were most significant in elite liberal arts institutions. So even among the relatively small portion of Americans who are currently involved in higher education, the portion that are likely affected is even lower.
Of course I would be the last to say that Political Correctness is not a problem. It is a big problem, yet seems to be, at least now, relatively confined to certain college campuses, and in the academia of the Humanities. These are places where good debate is most essential, so the fact that debate is being stifled is surely a problem, but is Trump right to say that America is becoming too PC?
When intellectuals debate the problem of Political Correctness in the news, the crux of the debate tends to concern how college students address and debate controversial issues. This tends to be the general concern that underlies debate about safe spaces, trigger warnings, speech codes and the other specific concerns that anchor the debate. So when Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write about Political Correctness in the The Atlantic, they write about these topics.
Does what Donald Trump is talking about have anything to do with this?
One way Trump uses Political Correctness seems to concern the way a modern society deals with masculinity, and the values that go along with it. Trump is (seems to be) concerned with with an absence of respect for masculinity, as shown in our rejection of toughness, violence, and strength. These values have declined in relative importance to modern ideals of respect for feelings and emotion and compromise. I think in many ways this is an interesting debate, and an interesting question of what the masculinity should look like in the modern era. And while I think Trump addresses the debate on a low level, I could see myself more on his general side than the one that always prefaces masculinity with “toxic” or “fragile.” But more importantly, this is a largely separate topic than the first usage of Political Correctness.
Trump also just uses the foil of Political Correctness when saying—if not blatantly sexist, racist, or Islamaphobic—at the very least, crude things. The question of how or whether we tolerate these remarks is interesting, and closer to the campus discussion of how we debate and discuss ideas, yet is still distinct. This had led to the equivocation of being politically correct and being polite. Is it polite to label a thoughtful objection to affirmative action hate speech? Probably not, but it is PC, at least in some usages. When remarks are obviously impolite and incorrect, the question of how to deal with them is interesting. To call in or to call out? To ostracize or to see their ignorance as a lack of education? Maybe Trump is suggesting that political discourse should be more freewheeling, even if that leads to offensive, divisive, or ad hominem language. While I see the how political language can confine politicians to Orwellian euphemism, I would still side against Trump on this debate of Political Correctness. The languages he employs inevitably feeds identity politics, which in turn feeds Trump. Using language that divides groups leads to the creation of identity oriented in groups and out groups. This cycle perpetuates itself with group identities strengthening, killing any chance of substantive debate. So long as Trumpist rhetoric is employed, public conversation will suffer.
In a brief search for Trump’s thoughts on safe spaces and trigger warnings, I cannot find a single example of Trump talking about them. The Republican nominee has probably made nods to these issues at various times through his campaign, but they are very far from central. The Political Correctness Trump laments is political.
Has the PC Haidt crusades against infected politics to a meaningful extent? It seems to have in the activist Left. We’ve discussed before of seeing it within the Sanders campaign, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence that it controls the establishment Left. In the past, I believed that the refusal of Democrats to label radical Islamic terrorism as radical Islamic terrorism as evidence to the influence of political correctness. But I have come to see it as a strategic decision made by figures like the President to control how we communicate with the Islamic world. It may be a good or bad decision, strategically speaking, but does not signal kowtowing to the PC police.
Like other loaded political terms, Political Correctness has become an umbrella term for a host of vaguely related issues, not even all of which are discussed here. Many of the issues touch big questions and are worthy of careful consideration, but the current vacuousness of the term Political Correctness only serves to confuse debate. Anything but meaningless debate is impossible until the term is unpacked into the relevant issues. In addition, this confusion gives a bad name to people fighting only against the true hinderance of free debate. When one talks about Trump opposing Political Correctness, he or she needs to make sure Trump is opposing the same PC that they even care about. If their concern is the quality of public debate at Yale, it is hard to believe he does.