In 1991, New York Magazine published an influential cover story, titled “Are You Politically Correct?” The headline was splashed across the glossy’s front page in bold red and white letters, followed by a list of supposed “politically correct” questions:
The article opened with what appeared to be a heated exchange between students and a Harvard professor, Stephan Thernstrom, as he made his way through campus. As John Taylor, the author of the piece told it, Thernstrom was anonymously criticized by students in the Harvard Crimson for “racial insensitivity” in an introductory history course he taught on race relations in America. As word of the criticism spread throughout campus, Thernstrom quickly found himself embroiled in controversy — and the target of an angry group of students. The first paragraph describes Thernstrom’s reaction in vivid detail:
‘Racist’ ‘Racist!’ ‘The man is a racist!’ Such denunciations, hissed in tones of self-righteousness and contempt, vicious and vengeful, furious, smoking with hatred — such denunciations haunted Stephen Thernstrom for weeks… It was hellish, this persecution. Thernstrom couldn’t sleep. His nerves were frayed, his temper raw.
Taylor’s opening certainly painted a dramatic picture. But there was only one problem — it wasn’t exactly true. In a 1991 interview with The Nation, Thernstrom himself told reporter Jon Weiner that he was “appalled” when he first saw the passage. “Nothing like that ever happened,” he quipped, describing the author’s excerpt as “artistic license.” What eventually happened was perhaps unsurprising: Thernstrom decided not to offer the controversial course again. Although it was a voluntary decision, the professor’s story soon turned into a famous example of the tyranny of political correctness. The New Republic declared that the professor had been “savaged for political correctness in the classroom”; the New York Review of Books described his case an illustration of “the attack on freedom… led by minorities.”
These claims ultimately proved to be greatly exaggerated. Weiner tracked down one of the students who complained about Thernstrom; she explained that their goals weren’t to prevent him from offering the class, but to point out inaccuracies in his lecture. “To me, it’s a big overreaction for him to decide not to teach the course again because of that,” she said. A professor of government at Harvard went a step further, concluding that “there is no Thernstrom case.” Instead, a few student complaints were exaggerated and “translated into an attack on freedom of speech by black students.” The professor called the episode a “marvelous example of the skill of the neocons at taking small events and translating them into weapons against the pluralistic thrust on American campuses.”
Back To The Future
Back in the ‘90s, the conversation around political correctness was largely driven by anecdote that could easily be distorted to support a particular point of view. Last year, the same magazine that published Taylor’s 1991 story returned to the topic, this time publishing a treatise on political correctness by Jonathan Chait. The piece, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” describes a resurgence of the P.C. culture that flourished on college campuses in the ‘90s, even more ubiquitous now thanks to the rise of Twitter and social media. This new movement of political correctness, Chait argues, “has assumed a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular.” He describes it as: “a system of left-wing ideological repression” that is “antithetical to liberalism” itself. “P.C. ideology can be seductive to some liberals who can be misled into thinking that this is liberalism,” Chait told ThinkProgress. “And I think we need to understand that it’s not.”
It’s a depiction that’s made its way outside of coastal media commentary to rhetoric on the campaign trail. Criticism of the “illiberal” strain of political correctness has found an eager audience among a range of GOP presidential hopefuls, many of whom readily invoke P.C. as a leftist bogeyman. At a recent Republican Jewish Coalition Conference, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) declared that “the politically correct doublespeak from this administration has gone beyond ridiculous.”
Cruz’s proclamations coincide with a string of recent student protests denouncing institutional racism on college campuses throughout the country. At Yale and Georgetown, students have asked that buildings named after white supremacists and slaveowners be renamed. At Claremont-McKenna College in California, the dean of students resigned after students criticized her response to complaints of racism on campus, and at the University of Missouri, the president resigned from his position after failing to respond to several racist acts against students, including an incident where a student drew a swastika with feces in a university bathroom.
The protests have earned plaudits and harsh condemnation. The Atlantic denounced “The New Intolerance of Student Activism.” On Fox News, Alan Dershowitz claimed that a “fog of fascism is descending quickly over many American universities… It is the worst kind of hypocrisy.” The National Review argued that the notion that students “need a ‘safe space’ is a lie. They aren’t weak. They don’t need protection… Why would they debate when they’ve proven they can dictate terms? Pathetic.”
Others, meanwhile, are quick to point out that these angry responses often come from people who hold more institutional power than the students they critique. Marilyn Edelstein, a professor of English at Santa Clara University who wrote about political correctness in the ‘90s, said she’s been troubled by commentators’ impulse to dismiss important ideas and and perspectives as simply politically correct.
“I think what’s going on today is a resurgence of the same kind of fear by privileged white men that other people might have different experiences and legitimate grievances about the way they’re often treated,” she explained. “A lot of the commentators who are crying, oh ‘political correctness’ now again are not at risk of actually losing any power. Conservatives are controlling the Congress and Senate and a lot of state houses, and yet they want to mock 18 to 22 year-olds for caring about things like their own experiences of being excluded or made to feel like less-than-welcome members of a college community.”
If there’s one thing these two camps can agree on, it’s that censorship does exist on college campuses. But according to those who track incidents of censorship most closely, it’s impacting students and faculty across the ideological spectrum. Acknowledging the true nature of repression on college campuses is complex and does not neatly fit the narrative of P.C.’s detractors, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Absent a discussion rooted in reality, we appear condemned to repeat fruitless debate of the ‘90s.
The Censorship Bureaucracy
In “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a cover story published last year in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt examine the climate of censorship and political correctness on college campuses. “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities,” they begin ominously. “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”
Lukianoff and Haidt describe a number of incidents intended to demonstrate the surge of censorship on college campus. They distinguish the climate on campuses today from that of the ‘90s, arguing that the current movement is centered around emotional well-being. “More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.”
The authors cite real examples of suppression on campuses, but they blame the rush to censor on students’ apparent aversion to uncomfortable words and ideas. “The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable,” they conclude. “And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”
This narrative positions censorship as the product of students who seek comfort, “coddling,” and refuge from challenging ideas. But John K. Wilson, an editor at The Academe Blog and author of the book The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education, says that a significant portion of the criticism aimed at students is misguided. Commentators’ focus on student calls for censorship often ignores the growth of the administrative class, which can have just as profound consequences on speech.
“I think that where there is a lot of efforts of repression going on it’s coming mostly from the administration,” Wilson explained. ”One of the changes that has come about in the structure of higher education in recent decades is you have a dramatic growth in administration. And so you have more and more people whose sort of job is to work for the administration and in many cases suppress controversial activity.”
Wilson’s point is backed up by the data. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that the number of administrative employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the past 25 years. Moreover, the expansion of the administrative class comes as colleges and universities cut full-time tenured faculty positions. According to an in-depth article by Benjamin Ginsberg in the Washington Monthly, between 1998 and 2008, private colleges increased spending on instruction by 22 percent, but hiked spending on administrative and staff support by 36 percent.
Will Creeley, the vice president of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), explained that the growth of college administration has resulted in “the creation of new fiefdoms for administrators that previously did not exist. In order to justify their existence, those administrators will occasionally make themselves known by investigating and punishing speech that at public universities is protected by the first amendment or at private universities should be protected by the promises that the university makes about free speech.”
As the campus administration expands, there is no doubt that some conservative-leaning voices on university campuses have been censored. Earlier this year, a libertarian student group at Dixie University was blocked from putting up flyers on campus that mocked President Obama, Che Guevara, and former President George W. Bush. At Saint Louis University in 2013, a group of College Republicans was barred from inviting former senator Scott Brown (R-MA) to speak at a campus event over concerns it would jeopardize the school’s tax-exempt status. In 2014, the Young Americans for Liberty student group at Boise State University was charged nearly $500 in security fees for a gun-rights event featuring Dick Heller of the Supreme Court guns-rights case D.C. v. Heller.
Then there are examples of suppressed speech deemed hateful or offensive, such as the University of South Carolina’s suspension of a student who used a racial slur and the suspension of a student at Texas Christian University for tweets about “hoodrat criminals” in Baltimore. These instances are where questions involving censorship become more nuanced. For many, the line of acceptable, or even free speech, ends where hate speech begins. The definition of silencing, after all, depends on who you ask. To some, censorship comes in the form of tearing down a xenophobic poster; to others, it’s the impulse to equate student activism with the desire to be “coddled.”
But how do you define hate speech? Free speech absolutists say censorship is never the answer to constitutionally protected hate speech, no matter how offensive it may be. “There is no legal definition of hate speech that will withstand constitutional scrutiny,” Creeley pointed out. “The Supreme Court has been clear on this for decades. And that is because of the inherently fluid, subjective boundaries of what would or would not constitute hate speech. One person’s hate speech is another person’s manifesto. Any attempt to define hate speech will find itself punishing those with minority viewpoints.”
Liberals can, and have, gone too far in their calls for suppressing “hateful” speech. But the excesses of what’s been deemed “political correctness” are not representative of the culture writ large, nor do they signify a broad leftist conspiracy to silence any and all dissenting voices. The reality of censorship on college campuses is more complicated — and less useful to the most vocal critics of political correctness. Left-leaning voices are censored, too — they just rarely seem to provoke the same amount of public outrage and hand-wringing.
“When it comes to repression on college campuses, there’s really no evidence that there’s some left-wing, politically correct attack on freedom of speech,” Wilson said. “In fact, there are many examples of efforts to repress left-wing speakers and left-wing faculty.” Most of the attacks on academic freedom, he explained, “especially the effective attacks, come from the right.”
You don’t have to look far to find examples. Just last week, a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois was fired for claiming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Last month, George Washington University barred a student from hanging a Palestinian flag outside his bedroom window. In November, the Huffington Post reported that Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) attempted to block a graduate student at the University of Missouri from performing research on the impact of abortion restrictions. At the University of South Carolina in 2014, a performance called “How to Become a Lesbian in 10 Days” was canceled after state legislators expressed concern that it would “promote perversion.” A professor at the University of Kansas was suspended in 2013 for anti-NRA comments. At the University of Arizona, a professor was fired for conducting research on the effects of marijuana for veterans with PTSD. In 2015, a vegan rights activist at California State Polytechnic University was prevented from handing out flyers about animal abuse on campus. In 2014, campus police blocked students at the University of Toledo from peacefully protesting a lecture by Karl Rove. The same year, adjunct faculty members at St. Charles Community College in St. Louis attempting to unionize were prohibited from gathering petition signatures.
Still, these cases haven’t really become widely cited or popular talking points. Wilson says that’s because conservatives have been more effective at advancing their narrative. “The left isn’t really organized to tell the stories of oppression on campus and to try to defend students and faculty who face these kind of attacks,” he explained. “They need the institutional structure out there, organizations that are going to talk about the issues that will counter this media narrative of political correctness that’s been around for 25 years now.”
The Birth Of A Politically Correct Nation
Hundreds of years before “political correctness” made its debut in thinkpieces or the fiery rhetoric of presidential candidates, it appeared in an opinion written by Justice James Wilson in the 1793 Supreme Court case, Chisholm v. Virginia, which upheld the rights of people to sue states. Arguing that people, rather than states, hold the most authority in the country, Wilson claimed that a toast given to the “United States” was not “politically correct.” The Justice used the term literally in this context; he felt it was more accurate to use “People of the United States.”
The states, rather than the people, for whose sakes the states exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention. This, I believe, has produced much of the confusion and perplexity which have appeared in several proceedings and several publications on state politics, and on the politics, too, of the United states. Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language. Is a toast asked? “The United states,” instead of the “People of the United states,” is the toast given. This is not politically correct.
The Chisholm decision was ultimately overturned and Justice Wilson’s phrase slipped into obscurity. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the expression made a comeback, but, as John K. Wilson outlines in his book, The Myth of Political Correctness, it was mainly used jokingly among liberals in the twentieth century to criticize the excesses and dogma of their own belief system. Professor Roger Geiger wrote that it was “a sarcastic reference to adherence to the party line by American communists in the 1930s.” Conservatives began to subvert that framing in the 1980s and use it for their own political gain, eventually transforming the term “politically correct” to “political correctness.” The latter phrase was used to describe not just a few radical individuals, as politically correct was, but an entire conspiracy of leftists infiltrating the higher education system.
This narrative gained mainstream visibility in the 1990s, but it hadn’t come out of the blue. Fears about the radicalization of American universities had been brewing for years. “The attacks on colleges and universities that propelled it had been organizing for more than a decade,” Wilson wrote. “For the conservatives, the 1960s were a frightening period on American campuses; students occupied buildings, faculty mixed radical politics into their classes, administrators acquiesced to their standards, and academic standards fell by the wayside. Conservatives convinced themselves that the 1960s had never ended and that academia was being corrupted by a new generation of tenured radicals.”
These concerns eventually found a home in the conservative commentary of the 1980s, of which Wilson provides several examples: A 1983 article in Conservative Digest claiming a “Marxist network” doling out “the heaviest dose of Marxist and leftist propaganda” to students had “over 13,000 faculty members, a Marxist press that is selling record numbers of radical textbooks and supplementary materials, and a system of helping other Marxist professors receive tenure”; philosopher Sidney Hook’s proclamation in 1987 that “there is less freedom of speech on American campuses today, measured by the tolerance of dissenting views on controversial political issues, than at any other recent period in peacetime in American history”; and Secretary of Education William Bennett’s assertion in 1988 that “some places” on campus “are becoming increasingly insular and in certain instances even repressive of the spirit of the free marketplace of ideas.”
The media soon latched onto this narrative. Many of the articles published “were almost uniformly critical of the Left and accepted the conservatives’ attacks without questioning their accuracy or motives,” Wilson wrote. “By using a few anecdotes about a few elite universities, conservatives created ‘political correctness’ in the eyes of the media, and in herdlike fashion journalists raced to condemn the ‘politically correct’ mob they had ‘discovered’ in American universities.”
Fast-forward 25 years and not much has changed. Back in the ‘90s, the P.C. buzzwords were “speech codes” and “multiculturalism”; now, they’re “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions.” Whether or not you agree with microaggressions and trigger warnings, they don’t constitute an existential threat to free speech. Just because a person finds them frivolous or unnecessary doesn’t mean they’re censorious.
The term microaggression, for example, is often used to highlight subtle biases and prejudices. The point is to open up a dialogue, not to censor students. Nevertheless, microaggressions and trigger warnings are often used as examples of campus illiberalism. Chait wrote that “these newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first P.C. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses.”
But is there any evidence that the “P.C. movement” on campuses has gotten worse, or even exists at all? We asked Chait how and why he determined that political correctness, once again, was an issue worthy of exploration. He didn’t offer any concrete examples. “The idea for the story came from my editors, who noticed it,” he replied. “When I started to research the issue that’s when I started to see something happening on campus that at the time wasn’t getting that much attention. Now, in the months since, people are starting to pay attention. But I think it’s happening much more often.”
Wilson offered a different take. “I don’t think there’s really a crisis of any kind like this. Things are not that much different than they have been in the past. You have professors who get fired for expressing controversial views on Twitter, you don’t have professors getting fired for microaggressions or for failing to give a trigger warning,” he said, referring to the Steven Salaita case — a professor at the University of Illinois who lost a promised tenured position over tweets that were critical of Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2014.
Creeley did say that FIRE has seen an increase in case submissions, but he noted that isn’t necessarily an accurate gauge of how much censorship is occurring on campus. He did point out that calls for speech limitations appear to be coming increasingly from students, a trend he described as “new and worrying.” He added that “there seem to be a worrying number of instances where students are asking the authorities to sanction or punish speech that they disagree with, or to implement some kind of training on folks to change viewpoints they disagree with.”
But if people who criticize these efforts are genuinely concerned about censorship, they should also worry when it comes from other sides of the political aisle — not just when it neatly fits into a caricature of campus liberalism run amok. Creeley said that FIRE was disappointed to find that the case of Hayden Barnes, an environmentalist who was expelled from college for posting a collage against a proposed parking garage online, didn’t take off in the media the way that other explicitly partisan cases did. “It did not capture the sense of where those kinds of efforts to censor those types of students came from,” he said. “It’s disappointing to me to see free speech be cast in partisan terms because I think that it turns the issue into a much more binary, much less nuanced, and much less thoughtful discussion.”
The Missouri state senator’s proposal to block a student’s dissertation on the impact of abortion restrictions, for example, would appear to be just the kind of case that raises the ire of free speech proponents. But it doesn’t appear to have gained much attention beyond coverage from a few predictably left-leaning sites. Furthermore, neither Chait’s nor Haidt and Lukianoff’s pieces mention the Salaita case, despite evidence suggesting punitive measures, including administrative sanctions and censorship, have been taken against Palestinian rights activists. A recent report from Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights detailed more than 150 incidents of censorship and suppression of Palestinian advocacy in 2014 alone; 89 percent of which targeted students and faculty — causing speculation about a “Palestine exception” to the free speech debate.
ThinkProgress asked Chait about how censorship driven from the right fits into his analysis of political correctness as the province of progressives. “I think that’s a separate issue than the phenomenon I’m describing,” he answered. “If you look at my original piece, very few of the examples are formal censorship. I think you’ve got something much deeper which is a bigger problem for people on the left, which is a broken way of arising at truth on race and gender issues. That can happen and does happen in non-censorship ways.”
The Science of P.C.
It doesn’t take a thorough examination of the media’s framing of political correctness to realize that the conversation is fraught and prone to exaggeration. That’s partially due to a lack of research on the topic. Because there’s not much data available, anecdotes are often elevated as evidence; people choose the sides that best confirm their preexisting political biases and worldviews. So how does political correctness actually impact creativity? A team of researchers decided to put this question to the test with hundreds of college students.
The researchers randomly divided students in groups of three and asked them to brainstorm ideas for new businesses that could go into a vacant restaurant space on campus. Groups were either all men, all women, or mixed. The control was allowed to start brainstorming ideas immediately, but the test group was asked to take ten minutes to think of examples of political correctness on the college campus. Cornell’s Jack Goncalo, one of the study’s researchers, told ThinkProgress that the primer was their way of making P.C. salient to students in the test group. The control group wasn’t asked to talk about P.C., so it wasn’t on their minds.
Researchers wanted to challenge the assumption that an “anarchy approach to creativity is sort of the only way to go or even the best way to go,” Goncalo said. “Our argument was that although P.C. is dismissed as being overly controlling and sort of the conservative view is that P.C. is a threat to free speech, we actually predicted that P.C. would provide a framework that would help people understand what the expectations are in a mixed-sex group and would reduce uncertainty. And by reducing uncertainty it would actually make people more comfortable to share a wide range of ideas.”
Indeed, the researchers found that the mixed-sex groups instructed to think about political correctness generated more ideas and were more creative than the diverse groups that hadn’t received the P.C. primer. But that didn’t hold true for the same-sex groups. Groups of all men or all women that were told to think about political correctness ended up being less creative than the control group.
Goncalo said those results suggested that talking about political correctness actually “reduced uncertainty” among mixed-sex groups, making it easier for men and women to speak up and share their ideas. For diverse groups, P.C. can be a creativity booster.
“Until the uncertainty caused by demographic differences can be overcome within diverse groups, the effort to be P.C. can be justified not merely on moral grounds, but also by the practical and potentially profitable consequences of facilitating the exchange of creative ideas,” the study concludes.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many scientific papers on the topic of political correctness. The researchers’ study appears to be the only one that looks specifically at political correctness, creativity, and group activity. And even then, it wasn’t easy to get their research published.
“It was an uphill battle,” Goncalo said. “A lot of academics see the whole term political correctness as a colloquial non-scientific, non-academic thing. We had to push really hard to say this is a legitimate thing.” It took the team nine years to publish the report — and when it eventually came out, there was push-back. “I got emails from angry people who were really pissed off and actually hadn’t read the paper or understood what we did or what found,” Goncalo remarked. “Just knee-jerk reactions to the whole thing. So it was polarizing as you might expect.”
To be sure, their paper is just one study on a topic with limited scientific research. But its conclusions shouldn’t be ignored; it raises worthwhile points about the impact of speech constraints and communication among diverse groups. After all, the ongoing conversation about P.C. often relies on anecdotal evidence rather than data. This is part of the reason it’s subject to such vigorous debate — people like to tailor the evidence to their worldview, not vice versa.
Goncalo also came to an interesting conclusion about the value assigned to political correctness throughout the course of the study, which took nine years to publish. “We’re exactly where we were in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he noted. “And I think what that says is that the word is still meaningful and people are still using it in the same way.”
The View From The Ground
For all of the commentary about campus activism and political correctness, there’s one group we rarely hear from: actual college students. ThinkProgress visited students at American University to learn about their impressions of the political correctness conversation taking place. Although the responses were from just a sampling of college students, they were telling.
Students at American University overwhelmingly told ThinkProgress they didn’t find political correctness to be a pressing campus problem. Only one student we spoke to equated P.C. with censorship, while the rest of the students we spoke with seemed more concerned about hate speech and racist comments posted in online forums. The students quoted below preferred to be identified by their first names.
Azza, a senior at American University, said that much of the commentary aimed at critiquing political correctness fails to understand the experience of being a minority student on campus. “Students of minority backgrounds deal with certain issues, they face certain issues, there are things that affect them differently, and when you enter a learning environment that is hostile towards you, you can’t learn,” she explained. “People who are saying that this is suppressing free speech or that people want to be coddled are actually not at all concerned about free speech. The vast majority of people are concerned with a particular type of discourse being fostered on American universities that reflects their particular understanding of American life and society and values.”
Azza used the suppression of Palestinian activism on campuses as an example: “No one in these groups who are so supposedly concerned with free speech has said anything about that, because they don’t actually care about free speech,” she remarked. “If they did, they’d be speaking on behalf of Palestinian students. What they care about is just not letting minority voices dominate the discourse by trying to get university administrators to create an environment that’s safer.”
Mackenzie, a senior at AU who was sitting near Azza in a student cafe, added: “Just because [the conversation] is different from when [critics] were in college doesn’t mean it’s wrong and that we’re being babied. We don’t want to be babied, it’s not that. We’re fighting for something that is right.”
Other students told ThinkProgress they were unsatisfied with the administration’s response to offensive messages posted on Yik Yak, an online platform where students have been known to anonymously post racist content. “One of the biggest things that’s been going around is the racist speech on Yik Yak, and how as an anonymous platform to spread information about other people it’s been used to threaten and scare students and make certain students feel unsafe,” another student, who did not share her name, explained. “Hate speech is not free speech. Once that the language that you use infringes on another student’s ability to feel safe on campus and to feel that they’re allowed to come to class without feeling threatened, that isn’t free speech because you’re taking someone else’s rights away.”
Marlise, a junior at AU, said she has encountered students who abuse the system. “They use the trigger warnings if they don’t want to hear the other side of things, or if they don’t agree with something. I think that people on the outside appear to stand in solidarity with Mizzou but there’s always going to be those people that say ‘I don’t want to hear the other side.’” Still, she agreed that the content posted on Yik Yak is a “big issue.”
Students also said that criticisms of political correctness are often underpinned by racial insensitivities on campus. Jendelly, a sophomore at AU of Dominican descent, said she feels as though there is a racially divided hierarchy on campus. “My dad works for the county and he works alongside the mayor,” she said. “And a lot of people who hold those high positions in our town are white. But they’ve never made us feel like we’re second to them or we’re three-quarters of a person. Coming here, in this school, I do feel like we’re placed in a hierarchy. And I feel like when I see a white person it’s like, oh I have to step up my game to reach their level. And I shouldn’t have to feel like that.”
The Politicization Of Political Correctness
It’s unclear what the multi-decade debate over political correctness has accomplished in aggregate. But there is one group of people who find it incredibly useful: Republican politicians.
The use of the term “political correctness,” particularly in the Republican presidential primary, does not have a specific definition. Rather it functions like a swiss army knife — it is the answer to every kind of issue that a candidate might confront. It’s a “get out of jail free card” for bigotry, sexism and lying.
When Fox News’ Megyn Kelly confronted Donald Trump in an August GOP debate with a litany of sexist attacks he made against women, he had a ready answer. “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,” Trump said. The audience applauded.
Trump loves to rail against political correctness on Twitter. He argues that “our country has become so politically correct that it has lost all sense of direction or purpose.” For example, he is not able to use the word “thug” without criticism.
Cruz also finds political correctness useful for collecting email addresses.
Ben Carson tweeted that we should “#StoPP funding political correctness and PlannedParenthood.” What does funding for Planned Parenthood have to do with political correctness? He doesn’t really explain, except to say that “political correctness” is making us amoral.
.@RealBenCarson: “We’re gradually giving away… the morals & values that made us into a great nation for the sake of political correctness.”
— Fox News (@FoxNews) July 29, 2015
Confronted with criticism for saying that a Muslim should not be president — a religious test that would violate the constitution — Carson replied that “political correctness is ruining our country.”
Why are these candidates so quick to point out instances of political correctness? Like a lot of things politicians talk about, it polls very well. A recent poll found that 68 percent of Americans, and 81 percent of Republicans agreed that “A big problem this country has is being politically correct.” Even among Democrats, 62 percent agreed.
Poll numbers like these have a snowball effect. The more popular the message, the more politicians will talk about it or use it as a way to divert the conversation away from more troublesome topics. The more politicians talk about political correctness, the more Americans will believe it’s a big problem. Rinse and repeat.
Is Chait, a liberal who regularly blasts Republican candidates as extreme and incompetent, concerned that political correctness has been co-opted to justify the ugliest aspects of American political life? Not really.
“I think it’s always been misused by conservatives… [liberals should] ignore the way that conservatives talk about this phenomenon, completely. And let’s just have a debate among people who are left of center… Conservatives are trying to interject themselves into it,” Chait said.
This might be what Chait prefers but, on a practical level, the far-right has captured the bulk of the conversation about political correctness. Articles by Chait, while purportedly for the left, are promoted voraciously by the right to bolster the argument about political correctness on their terms, not his.
While the exploitation of the term “political correctness” by Republicans is, on the surface, problematic for liberals, it also serves an important function. Many people on the left prefer to think of themselves as open-minded and not captured by a particular political party or ideology. But over the past several years, the Republican party has tacked hard right. The policies embraced by Republicans — including a harsh crackdown on immigrants, massive tax cuts for the wealthy and the destruction of critical environmental protections — have left little substantive common ground with liberals.
By embracing criticisms of “political correctness,” liberal commentators are able to do something that is somewhat ideologically unexpected, while avoiding embracing substantive policies they might find intensely destructive. It’s a painless way to demonstrate intellectual independence.
Bill Maher, a self-described liberal firebrand with his own show on HBO, has touted himself as “politically incorrect” for years. It makes his show more appealing to a broader audience and allows him an easy way to respond to charges of racism, sexism and other controversies that have plagued his career.
A Cure For Exhaustion
Concluding his piece in New York Magazine, Chait claims that the “P.C. style of politics has one serious, fatal drawback: It is exhausting.” There is certainly some truth to this. But the debate about political correctness is just as exhausting: Thirty years later, we’ve broken no new ground.
At its core, the P.C. debate is about something meaningful. It is a discussion about how people should treat each other. The language we use to define it may change, but the conversation will keep going. Still, after more than three decades of repeating the same arguments, perhaps it’s time to recognize that the current iteration of this discussion has run its course.
A new debate could rely less on anecdote and more on actual data. It could be less about protecting rhetorical preferences and more about prohibiting actual censorship. It could dispense with political grandstanding and become more grounded in reality, without the apocalyptic and shallow narratives.
The end of the phony debate about political correctness will not be the end of the debate about political correctness. But it could be the beginning of something better.