Child's Play

MESA, AZ - DECEMBER 16:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump peers out into the crowd during a campaign event at t
MESA, AZ - DECEMBER 16: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump peers out into the crowd during a campaign event at the International Air Response facility on December 16, 2015 in Mesa, Arizona. Trump is in Arizona the day after the Republican Presidential Debate hosted by CNN in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

He's just "speaking the truth, "telling it like it is," "saying out loud what everyone else is afraid to." These are the stock phrases commonly deployed to explain and defend those who are "politically incorrect," including the current king of anti-PC avowals, Donald Trump.

If the underlying premise of such assertions were that we all carry within us fear and discomfort with the unknown, to which we respond, at least some times, in a knee-jerk fashion, that's true, of course. And also banal. Under stress and duress, in uncertain circumstances, all creatures, including Homo Sapiens, have both defensive and aggressive instincts. Flight or fight.

It's not true, however, that everyone reacts exactly equally in all times and places to people and customs that are new or unfamiliar. Just because some people find abhorrent two men getting married, for example, it doesn't follow that everyone *really* thinks that way, but is just *afraid* to admit it. Those who find gay marriage uncomfortable may well be sincere in their feelings, just as those that have no problem with it may be. But insisting that only the former position is the "honest" one is, often, just a rationalization for narrow-mindedness and ignorance.

There's a deeper problem in the bigotry-as-truth-telling frame, however. Even if it were true that everyone's initial impulse really were always toward fear of difference, defensiveness and a desire to stamp out the source of that fear using the bluntest instrument possible, it would not follow that such an impulse should always dictate a course of action, let alone merit praise and celebration. Two and three year-olds have strong initial impulses, largely unchecked by reason or a capacity to take a step back from their instinctive, emotional responses. But adults are sometimes required to do precisely that - to re-assess their primal reactions, to reconsider and even, believe it or not, to acknowledge that their first take might be wrong. The adult capacity for such re-evaluation is a condition of living in society.

It's clear enough that Donald Trump, most notably, is giving expression to some widely shared - if not universal - id. That's neither admirable nor an expression of "strength" in any meaningful sense. Indeed, assuming all of Trump's bluster isn't just for political show, one could just as easily see in his rantings an embarrassing childishness (and who, but children, describe as "disgusting" the simple act of going to the bathroom). Maybe Trump sounds the way he does because he's never learned to control his impulses, or think twice before he acts. Perhaps that's because he's never had to. This doesn't make him "manly" or a truth-teller. It makes him small. It's not brave to condemn whole groups of people because of the actions of a few, nor to threaten them with banishment, deportation or worse. Nor is it bold to demonize the already marginal and vulnerable in order to indulge and stoke people's fear, prejudice and hatred, all for the sake of short-term political gain.

When people grow up, they can't always automatically act on their first urges. They have to make choices and compromises, unless they've lived such a sheltered and sequestered existence that the limits that define the life of ordinary adults don't apply to them. In either case, the operative character trait here isn't "toughness." Maybe it's just a weak capitulation to compulsion by an overgrown boy. Even if you don't like someone, you learn not to automatically spit in their face. That's not cowardice, or PC. That's adulthood.