So here’s the question: what might be a suitable name for political correctness? What would properly reflect its inherent civilizing qualities?
Re-labelling is urgently needed because of the backlash we’re witnessing after more than two decades of political correctness. This furious rebound is provoking the emergence of an uglier, meaner politics in Europe, the United States and some other parts of the world. Politicians who supposedly tell-it-like-it-is – think Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the US; Nigel Farage in the UK; Viktor Orban in Hungary; Rodrigo Duterto in the Philippines – are able to use ugly and brutish rhetoric that stokes people’s fear and anger under the guise of rebelling against too much political correctness. Or, as the phrase goes, “political correctness gone mad”. Or, as Mr Trump told CBS’s John Dickerson on Sunday as he prescribed racial profiling of Muslims: “political correctness is killing us.”
This supposed tell-it-like-it-is politics can have disturbing consequences, such as the murder of British MP Jo Cox by a neo-Nazi man who wants “death to traitors and freedom for Britain” (whatever that may mean). It means the scapegoating of a whole faith community, such as America’s nearly 3 million Muslims at the hands of Donald Trump.
But what has political correctness done that’s so wrong and been so provoking? It’s merely taught us to use words in a way that treats other people with respect. It’s created a system by which we eschew racial slurs, no longer make jokes that denigrate people for their culture, the colour of their skin and their sexual orientation and disability.
I can’t see much that’s wrong with being kind and sensitive to other people but let’s go along for a minute with people who complain constantly about how political correctness is killing us all by stifling our sense of self. People such as a 22-year-old Trump supporter who told The Atlantic magazine in a long email exchange that the only reason he felt inseparably bound to Donald Trump was his burning anger about political correctness. Click on the link to read The Atlantic’s conversation with the Trump supporter.
“Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted, etc. It can provoke a reaction so intense that you’re suddenly an unperson to an acquaintance or friend,” the young Trump supporter told The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf.
This, he said, was his main reason for voting for Mr Trump. “For me personally, it’s resistance against what San Francisco has been, and what I see the country becoming, in the form of ultra-PC culture. That’s where it’s almost impossible to have polite or constructive political discussion.”
Is this true?
Yes and no.
I would venture to suggest that reasonable people with differing opinions can still discuss issues and disagree with each other, but they are now required to do it in reasonably polite terms. Political correctness has taught us that it’s not ok to tell someone in the course of an argument: “I don’t think you know what you’re talking about because you’re black and everyone knows that black people are ignorant.” In a sense, political correctness is not politically correct at all, it’s just the right way to behave.
So what could that young Trump supporter really want? Does he want to return to a time (that he does not know but merely fantasizes about) when people could callously call a polio victim who limps a “cripple”? Or a black person earning a minimum wage, a “no-good nigger”? Or tell a female mid-level corporate manager who’s panicking about delivering on a big project “ sweetie, go home, it’s beyond you. Is it your time of the month?”
Is that what the Trump-supporter really wants? Does he want to unmake the more compassionate linguistic world order and enable prejudice and prideful self-belief to flourish?
Actually, I don’t think so. He probably wants to escape the cage – the sense of being shut into a series of attitudes – and thinks that xenophobic, misogynist, race-baiting, Muslim-hating Donald Trump can liberate him.
I understand where he’s coming from (I’m not being PC, I really do). But I don’t think Donald Trump can spring him from that PC prison.
No one can.
Our world has moved on too much from being willing to insult and mock people for being who they are. But it is increasingly urgent to re-label political correctness as what it is: linguistic good manners.
(Tomorrow: What does the global extended day of rage against political correctness mean?)