Political Correctness and Bigotry

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Pittsburgh, PA June 11, 2016.   REUTERS/Aaron Josefc
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Pittsburgh, PA June 11, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

Donald Trump has brought the topic of "political correctness" to the forefront of presidential politics. As he put it, "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."

His first refusal to be "politically correct," came the day he launched his campaign, with the statement that "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems to us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." He soon followed with the claim that Senator John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war, was not a hero because ""I like the war heroes that don't get captured." Subsequent comments about groups as diverse as women, Muslims, and federal judges have created an image, beloved by Trump supporters, of someone who "tells it like it is." They see an authenticity they find lacking in public life today. Left unexamined, of course, are questions about the accuracy of his perceptions and whether authenticity is to be valued irrespective of what one is authentic about.

Political correctness emerged as a reaction to speech and actions judged by some as offensive for their denigration of a person's sex, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual preference or some other group identity. Its goal is to prevent psychological and/or social damage. In helping us be mindful of the ways we can harm each other and human dignity, even if inadvertently, the focus on political correctness can serve a useful purpose.

While most often a desire of the political left, there is pressure for political correctness on the right as well, where it aims to quash unwelcome views. Among conservatives, it is often politically incorrect to acknowledge that humans contribute to climate change, abortion is permissible, evolution is the sole acceptable theory for the creation of modern humans, and that there is a need for more gun laws.

Whether exercised by the right or left, the insistence on political correctness can create wrongs. It can go too far. In stifling speech, it can make important topics off limits to reasonable study and discussion. It can encourage harassment of those who are viewed as not politically correct, in short using one form of intolerance to try to prevent another. Political correctness can excuse and thus prevent people from fully developing the ability to defend their views, to defeat weak thinking with sound argument. And, in extreme cases, especially in less democratic societies than our own, political correctness can be used by leaders to suppress freedom on the false justification that they are "protecting" others.

But the antidote to excessive political correctness is not bigotry, and that is the danger in the current political climate. Hate is not the solution to political correctness but its polar opposite. What we lose with political correctness, we do not gain back by inciting anger, racism, misogyny, religious intolerance, or other forms of discrimination. If we desire to reduce the downside of political correctness, that does not give us moral license to attack others solely for who they are or what they believe.

The free speech that opponents of political correctness support is a right, but with rights come obligations. One such obligation is to use speech respectfully, and to respect it in others. There is a mid-point between political correctness that is overbearing, and bigotry that assumes as its moral justification that "I don't have to be politically correct." It is this mid-point that Donald Trump ignores. In relieving himself (and by proxy his followers) of the need to be politically correct, without responsible restraint on what takes its place, he is sanctioning something far worse.

Where "political correctness" goes too far, the solution is "correct politics" -- civic engagement that is ethical, respectful and honorable. That is what anyone running for president should demonstrate and demand. That is what we, the voters, should expect and exemplify as well.