Is it Politically Incorrect to be Politically Correct?
By Bernie Mayer
“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”
― Donald Trump at Republican Debate, August 2015.
“I believe in evolution, scientific inquiry, and global warming; I believe in free speech, whether politically correct or politically incorrect, and I am suspicious of using government to impose anybody's religious beliefs -including my own- on nonbelievers.”
― Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream
And I am suspicious of the concept of Political Correctness. I think it is not Political Correctness that is primarily responsible for shutting down honest debate and dialogue, but the simplistic defense of all manner of demagogic behavior and political posturing in the name of “not being Politically Correct” that is the more serious problem.
I am not even sure what people really mean by being Politically Correct (or being too honest to be PC). Is it being PC to hold someone accountable for racism, misogyny, and homophobia? Or how about attacking someone for suggesting a mild restriction on gun ownership? It’s the easiest thing in the world to defend a destructive, inaccurate, or dishonest statement by pronouncing yourself as unPC and denouncing your critics for being enthralled to Political Correctness. It’s a cop out. But what are people genuinely concerned about when they assert their liberation from the shackles of the PC police? What are the genuine interests that underlie the attack on PCness?
Consider three possible meanings:
There is legitimacy to each of these possible meanings, but there is an internal contradiction. If I say what I really think (e.g., calling for a ban on Muslim immigration is racist) and you don’t like that, you can accuse me of being part of the PC crowd, and the implication is that I should shut up. So how is that not the same thing you are accusing me of?
Dealing with difficult issues requires genuine dialogue—and that means that we each get to say what we think about an important issue and what we think about what others are saying about it. It means we listen to each other, not just to debate but to understand. But it does not mean that we don’t disagree or stand up to beliefs or positions that we find reprehensible.
The paradox here, that conflict specialists know very well, is that effective conflict engagement requires listening respectfully to those we disagree with at the same time as wholeheartedly advocating for our own beliefs and values. We need to learn how to raise and often escalate conflict effectively in order to engage constructively, but we also have to work to create the space for others to do the same with us. Hiding behind anti-PC rhetoric makes it more difficult to do this because the underlying message of this rhetoric seems to be, “my views are legitimate, yours are not—and your criticisms of my views are not legitimate because you are telling me yours are legitimate and mine or not. “ (Got that?) Or as Trump said to Republicans who were critical of him: "Just please be quiet. Don't talk. Please be quiet. Just be quiet ...” (Politico, June 15, 2016).
We are going to continue to hear the anti-PC line because it seems to work. But it is fundamentally dishonest—and it covers all sorts and manner of sins. It’s not that people should not say what they think. The problem is what they think! The challenge we all face is how to really talk about differences—without implying (as so many in the news media seem to be doing) that each point of view is equal in validity or morality. I don’t think driving racist ideas underground is particularly healthy. But racist ideas are racist and need to be called out for that.
But how do we walk this path in a principled and effective way? This is at the heart of effective conflict engagement. Not easy, but essential. But how?
Of course, the consequences of those beliefs are very dangerous and harmful. So the focus of our concerns should be on consequences and the underlying concerns they stem from. If we think that once we label something as racist, for example, we are condemning someone as thoroughly evil or beneath contempt, then we can’t really deal with racism in an effective way. Confronting racism or sexism starts by understanding that they are built into all elements of our society, our culture, our institutions, and our consciousness. Of course there is a difference between those who understand this and want to grow as best they can beyond it and those who deny it or even embrace their racism and sexism (and homophobia, xenophobia, etc.). But unless we can see this as something other than an all or nothing proposition about morality and evil then we can’t really deal with the genuine evil involved.
The paradox here is that in order to confront harmful and hurtful behavior and beliefs, we have to some extent accept them.
The real problem with political correctness or anti-political correctness is that it casts our most difficult issues as all or nothing propositions. That shut downs genuine debate—and ultimately democracy.