Senator Bernie Sanders ignited a minor controversy at an MSNBC town hall with Chris Hayes when he attributed Donald Trump’s victory in part to his assault on “political correctness”:
“What political correctness means is you have a set of talking points which have been poll-tested and focus-group-tested and that’s what you say rather than what’s really going on,” Sanders explained, “and often, what you are not allowed to say are things which offend very powerful people.”
Sanders is right. In certain environments, it is politically risky or worse to voice opinions that offend the sensibilities or values of a prevailing elite. This is not to say Trump is a good example of someone who mounted a principled challenge to political correctness. On the contrary, as Noah Berlatsky of Quartz aptly put it: “political correctness, for Trump, is a way to frame bigotry as anti-establishment boldness.”
The alt-right (and, to some extent, the Republican Party as a whole) has undeniably used “political correctness” as a cover for bigotry. But this doesn’t mean political correctness doesn’t exist or is not problematic in its own right. Furthermore, it is unfair to tie progressives like Sanders, who offer respectful, substantive critiques of political correctness, to Trump, Steve Bannon and the hate groups they relied upon for support and refused to disavow.
If anything, liberals should thank Bernie for his characteristic boldness, regardless of whether they supported him in the Democratic primaries. The fact of the matter is that Trump successfully conned many Americans (not all of whom are irredeemable racists) uncomfortable with political correctness by means of his own form of white identity politics. While it is impossible to quantify the role political correctness played in generating the cultural backlash that helped enable Trump’s victory, Democrats and progressives would be foolish not to explore how some of their attitudes may have set the stage for Trump’s disastrous rise.
Merriam-Webster defines politically correct as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” There are no easy answers when it comes to addressing political correctness, which is no doubt responsible for motivating individuals to undertake some noble causes. There are, however, a number of compelling questions we should ask ourselves about the controversial and divisive phenomenon, not just to improve our future electoral prospects, but quite possibly to save the soul of American liberalism.
Are free speech and open debate compatible with safe spaces and trigger warnings? Should one be judged solely based on the merit of one’s ideas? Or does one’s membership in a historically privileged or oppressed group determine the validity of one’s opinions on certain matters? Is political correctness compatible with a broad economic populist message designed to apply across cultures, each with their own unique sets of norms and expectations? Can political correctness co-exist with civil libertarianism and classical liberalism? These are questions that cannot be dismissed by impugning the motives or launching ad hominem attacks on those who pose them.
Political correctness, taken to the extreme, runs counter to the kind of open society that liberals have traditionally championed, not least on college campuses. In the 1960s, student activists protested for the right to exercise free speech in accordance with the First Amendment. Now, millennials protest for the right to be protected from free speech that makes them uncomfortable or clashes with their values, sometimes on the dubious grounds that words are weapons (as are Halloween costumes, apparently). Social justice activists on college campuses even enlist the administration to intervene on their behalf, something that would have been anathema to 1960s student protestors highly skeptical of authority.
Freedom from being offended (or “triggered,” a psychiatric term that has migrated from psych wards to culturally liberal enclaves) is not in the Constitution nor is it a historically liberal value. It is, however, a guiding principle of some contemporary social justice activists. The results: safe spaces, protesting campus speakers, and the holding of “dialogues” not to promote an exchange of ideas but to shame and stigmatize those who dissent from cultural and political norms. It is not for no reasons that comedians, even purveyors of patently inoffensive humor like Jerry Seinfeld, refuse to perform on college campuses and fear that political correctness is killing comedy.
Like Sanders and Jerry Seinfeld, President Obama frequently criticizes the illiberal tendencies of political correctness. This, from his commencement address at Rutgers University earlier this year:
“If you disagree with somebody, bring them in and ask them tough questions. Hold their feet to the fire; make them defend their positions. If somebody’s got a bad or offensive idea, prove it wrong. Engage it, debate it, stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be scared to take somebody on. Don’t feel like you got to shut your ears because you’re too fragile and somebody might offend your sensibilities. Go after them if they’re not making any sense. Use your logic and reason and words, and by doing so you’ll strengthen your own position. And you’ll hone your arguments and maybe you’ll learn something and realize maybe you don’t know everything. You may have a new understanding, not only of what your opponents believe but what of you belie. Either way, you win.”
In an interview with NPR last week, President Obama, a man who has suffered racism throughout his life, much of it from Republicans (Carl Paladino is only the latest offender), nevertheless expanded on his critique of political correctness:
“[Political correctness] is a hypersensitivity that ends up resulting in people not being able to express their opinions at all, without somebody suggesting they’re a victim. You know, if our social discourse and our political discourse becomes like walking on eggshells, so that if somebody says ‘You know what, I’m not sure affirmative action is the right way to solve racial problems in this country,’ and somebody’s immediately accused of being racist, well, then I think you have a point.”
President Obama concluded:
“My advice to progressives like myself, and this is advice I give my own daughters… is don’t go around just looking for insults. You’re tough. If somebody says something you don’t agree with, just engage them on their ideas.”
Social science has generated convincing, if inconclusive, evidence that certain manifestations of political correctness come at a cost. In their 2015 essay for The Atlantic aptly titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt suggested that political correctness, in the form of trigger warnings for potentially traumatizing content in college coursework, harms the academic and psychological development of students. The subhead summarizes their argument well: “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.”
It is only natural to assume that those exposed to trigger warnings and related phenomena in school will find it more difficult to grapple with opposing viewpoints later in life. Plant the seeds of political correctness in young people and they will flower throughout their lives, with vast psychological and political implications for an increasingly polarized, easily “triggered” society.
Political correctness may affect mass psychology, but it will not win hearts and minds. As Lukianoff and Haidt imply, political correctness is not primarily an ideological phenomenon. Contrary to a common misconception, political correctness exists on the right as well as the left and draws criticism from progressives and conservatives alike (see: Jonathan Chait and George Will). Therefore, a critique of political correctness need not serve as an indictment of the positive values liberals and progressives associate with it: tolerance, pluralism, diversity, respect, social justice, etc. It is possible to expunge or curb the excesses of political correctness while encouraging all of the above.
Applying a rigid set of rules to communication – ostensibly designed to “protect” the marginalized – inevitably constricts the parameters of acceptable speech and constricts the range of opinions deemed acceptable. The resultant chilling effect on the discourse freezes out those with valid points of view that run counter to the standards set by the powers that be in a given community. While the arbiters of political correctness may be acting with the best of intentions – to protect members of their community from trauma – and may seek to avoid what they consider to be censorship, they are seeking to carry out an impossible task.
The diversity of human experience and the subjectivity of trauma render it impossible to codify a set of universal standards that protect the feelings of all without compromising the liberal imperative of an open society, with the tolerance for opposing viewpoints and free exchange of ideas that it entails. Free speech cannot exist in a “safe space,” even when no speech is explicitly prohibited (the threat of stigmatization alone is enough to discourage dissent from the prevailing norms). Connor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic explains how an excessive reliance on stigma as a strategy for stifling dissent only strengthens truly abhorrent views by forcing them into the shadows where they fester and gain strength.
It may seem ridiculous to focus on political correctness given the more obvious threats, internal and external, facing the country. But in fact, confronted with a thoroughly illiberal president-elect, now is the perfect time for liberals to question some of their own illiberal tendencies. Trump, based on his campaign rhetoric and appointments, is a censorious demagogue with strong authoritarian impulses. As president, he will seek to crack down on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and a slew of civil liberties. He will have all the tools of the executive branch, the legislature (unless Congressional invertebrates Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell miraculously grow spines), the surveillance state and Twitter at his disposal. He will likely staff the CIA, the FBI and the NSA with his cronies. Let us present a strong contrast to Trump by defending the liberal principles upon which our free, democratic society is predicated. It may be the only way to defeat him.