Attacks on Political Correctness: A Solution Looking for a Problem

"Political correctness is destroying our country and we need a leader like Trump to make America great again." -- An observation from a Huffington Post commenter.

All the GOP frontrunners are aiming to make America great again by wiping out the scourge of political correctness. In a recent Huffington Post piece, Associate Politics Editor Igor Bobic noted that Dr. Ben Carson had "the guts to speak out against political correctness." The article was not flattering overall, but the author was evidently moved to find a sparkle in Carson's otherwise dim candidacy.

If it takes guts to speak out against political correctness, Donald Trump is really "gutsy." He calls a spade a spade, calls Mexicans "rapists," calls Rosie O'Donnell a "fat pig" and calls other women "dogs," "slobs," and "disgusting animals." His courage is remarkable.

Political correctness (PC) has become a universal, smirking dismissal. Some years ago, it was a card played primarily by conservatives, but these days it is offered up by progressives as well. In the online Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, PC is a frequent taunt. Like Carson and Trump, a lot of people seem to be finding their guts.

This week, the "gutsy" ones took aim on the doings at the University of Missouri. As the world knows, a series of racist incidents led to campus protests, a one-man hunger strike and a threatened boycott by Missouri's Division I football team. The University of Missouri system President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resigned.

The reaction to Missouri events has been sharply divided. Many have praised the protesters and football team for standing up for racial justice. Others ranted and raged about the pitiful capitulation of the University leaders, wondering aloud whether the football program runs the school. But underlying all of the heat is the sometimes tacit, often explicit accusations of political correctness.

Black students are accused of being overly sensitive when reporting micro- (or not so micro) aggressions. A significant number of commenters in the New York Times think the football team members' scholarships should be revoked and they should go back to the lives they had before pigskin noblesse oblige saved their miserable souls.

Women who object to demeaning images and language are also dismissed as being politically correct. "Can't take a joke." "Overly sensitive." The words and phrases of gender identity -- cis, bi, fluid, trans, intersex, pansexual and others -- are called political correctness. Feminism is de facto political correctness in the minds of the "gutsy" ones like Carson and Trump.

When a person of color who has no ancestral connection to Africa points out that "African American" is incorrect, she is accused of being politically correct. When Native Americans object to the term "Indian," they are being hypersensitive. Freedom of speech in America has always entitled us white folks to call anyone anything we wish.

Universities are under fire these days for sheltering students from the slings and arrows of "real" life. A few professors give trigger warnings, alerting students to potentially offensive or frightening material. But to the "gutsy" guardians of free speech, protecting young women from graphic descriptions of sexual assault is political correctness run amok. Ridicule is aimed at students who seek "safe spaces" on or off campus. "Gutsy" folks call them coddled and bemoan the loss of unfettered free expression that should characterize higher education.

We're looking at this issue upside down. Anti-PC rhetoric addresses a non-existent problem. There is ample bigotry, free expression and crude insult on campuses, streets and television screens. Americans don't suffer from a lack of opportunity to be gratuitously offensive.

A dispassionate look at what has happened in America suggests a very different dynamic. After decades of considerable social progress, the pendulum has swung the other way. Every step toward social justice has been countered by backlash. A great and growing number of Americans are sick and tired of civil rights, women's rights, voters' rights, gay rights and abortion rights. The only rights they recognize are the right to carry a concealed weapon and the right to say or do any offensive thing they wish.

For example, a thoughtful dialogue resulted in removing a few Confederate flags from government buildings. This reasonable nod to civility produced a rash of irrational, entitled yahoos exercising their rights to free expression by doing things like driving Confederate-flag-festooned pickup trucks through a birthday party in a black neighborhood. I suppose the frightened children of color were cowards because they had hoped their party was a "safe space."

Every example of so-called "political correctness" is a case where a small, usually disenfranchised, minority seeks temporary refuge from the dominance of the majority. They seek refuge in the dignity of the names they'd like to be called. They seek refuge from the campus cultures that have excluded or marginalized them for several centuries. They seek refuge from the bigoted mainstream that honors primarily straight, white culture. They seek protection from the police culture that leaves unarmed black boys dead in the park or street.

Here's a suggestion: Instead of bitching about "political correctness," why don't we pursue "political correction" and ameliorate the social conditions that drive women, people of color and gay folks to seek "safe spaces."