Is it Politically Incorrect to be Politically Correct? - Staying w/Conflict - Election Edition 2016

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:

  • Don’t attack my values—they are as valid as yours  (Don’t patronize me)
  • Don’t’ try to shut me up--listen to what I have to say.
  • Let’s get real--necessary action should not be prevented by nice sounding platitudes


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?

  • We should not avoid our most significant differences—but we should not assume we understand fully where others are coming from.  We can approach even appalling ideas with curiosity.  I don’t understand how someone can think closing the border to Muslims makes any sense or can be morally justified.  I really don’t.  But that is the point—I don’t understand it. I can get a lot further in dealing with these beliefs if I can maintain even a modicum of curiosity about them.

  • We need to find every opportunity to talk to those we disagree with on important issues—like abortion, guns, affirmative actions, political candidates, health care, immigration, climate change—the more important the issue is to us, the more important it is to talk to those we disagree with.  It bothers me greatly how infrequently I actually talk to someone who supports a different candidate or party in an election. Where are those avid Trump supporters?

  • We should not shut down others from saying what they think—but we should not shut ourselves down either.  It is exactly politics and religion that we need to talk more about!  If all we do is listen, we are avoiding engaging, but if all we do is advocate for own views, we are also not engaging.

  • We need to accept that some of the most toxic beliefs that are present in both our public and private discourse, such as racism and sexism, are endemic in all of us.  I have come to think that the one of the reasons it is so hard to talk about racial or gender issues is that calling something out as racist or sexist feels like an intolerably harsh condemnation which will inevitably ruin relationships and end communication.  Just because someone is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., does not make them inhuman. 


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.


This blog post is part of the Staying w/Conflict - Election Edition 2016 series. Please check out the entire series by visiting the series homepage:

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