Donald Trump Is an Asterisk

It was a sultry day in 1980, give or take a year. My wife, our two children and I were east of Cleveland on I90 in the family car, returning from a day at the beach. We had no air conditioning - or it didn't work. Lots of things in the family car didn't work in those lean years.

The kids were restless and silly in the back seat. They were, shall we say, using some politically incorrect language. They were beyond the "poop is funny" stage that all kids go through - but not much beyond. We got fed up.

My wife, being a therapist, had a brilliant idea: "Why don't you kids get all the dirty words out of your system. You each have 30 seconds to say whatever you want. Then you can stop all the nonsense."

Our 10 year-old daughter went first. She was, and still is, a fairly modest soul with little inclination to be gratuitously offensive or inappropriate. She struggled mightily to fill her 30 seconds. I think she managed "poop," "fart," and "hell," then stopped and blushed.

Then our seven year-old son's turn . . . He was Cinderella invited to the ball. 30 seconds of cursing with total, parental-awarded impunity! Unlike our daughter, he used the full allotment. "F***," "F**** you," "S***'" "Co**'" "Cu**'" "Co**su****'" "motherf*****'" - you get the idea. After 30 seconds he was gasping for breath. He used several words we didn't even know, although later research confirmed that they were indeed filthy.

This memory was rekindled by Donald Trump's candidacy.

Trump seems inclined to seven year-old boy behavior. Women are "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals." People are "stupid," or "idiots," or "ugly." When Fox moderator Megyn Kelly confronted him during the recent debate, he retorted that he doesn't have time for "political correctness." I suppose the search for other, less offensive, characterizations of women or others he disdains is too time-consuming. That "political correctness" stuff can be exhausting!

Trump's flippant dismissal of criticism as "political correctness" has fanned the flames of PC police activity everywhere. On Bill Maher's most recent Real Time episode he and a guest had a field day making fun of the "politically correct" language encouraged in diversity work and on college campuses. I like Maher's program and the often-crude humor he employs, but I think Maher, like Trump, can be an insensitive pig. Both of them conflate two very different issues.

I agree that priggishness is a bore. Being too careful with words limits expressive possibilities. For example, when describing Trump and Maher I used "pig" intentionally. "Pig" is an apt characterization when paired with "male chauvinist" or used alone to describe insensitive boors. Employing strong, even crude, language is not politically incorrect. Sometimes it's funny. Sometimes strong or profane words are the only words up to the descriptive task. I don't mean to be offensive, but I have never found a useful, polite euphemism for "as*****." That word is irreplaceable.

But thoughtful people consider context when choosing words. There is a world of difference between calling a rich, white, entitled, aggressive, arrogant man a "pig" and calling Rosie O'Donnell a "fat pig." Rosie is a woman and, in our culture, body image for women is a sensitive emotional and practical issue. Calling a woman a "fat pig" is not merely descriptive. It is intentionally cruel, demeaning and evokes accurate realities for women, particularly large women: being subjected to bullying and depression in childhood; being paid less; being under-represented in positions of power and much more.

I could cite many examples, but the general point is that "political correctness" is actually civility and sensitivity. Political incorrectness - the kind Trump displays - is a flagrant, entitled abuse of power.

Similarly, people of color, gay folks, and non-conforming people of various types should be called what they prefer, both as a matter of simple civility and as a matter of recognizing the heavy freight carried by other terms. It is selfish and gratuitous to force your language on someone else's identity, just because you don't think they should be offended. This is true in matters of race, body type, gender, sexual identity, ethnicity, religion and others. In all of these ways, "political correctness" is a small antidote to the systemic and systematic biases that powerless people deal with every day. Dismissing sensitive language as "political correctness" is just another way to shove privilege in other peoples' faces.

My son got the dirty words out of his system. He's a lovely adult. Perhaps Trump could use a bit of 30-second therapy to get all of the crude, cruel, flippant words out of his system. But he's not seven. He's 69. It's probably too late. He's just an as*****.