Critical Questions: Political correctness

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 - 1:42pm

A protestor interrupts Charles Murray's talk at Palmer Commons on October 11, 2017.

A protestor interrupts Charles Murray's talk at Palmer Commons on October 11, 2017. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily


President Donald Trump unexpectedly set off a political firestorm when he allegedly used a vulgar term to describe places like Haiti and Africa during a debate on immigration. The response was swift, with the president’s critics lambasting him for racism while his allies, like White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tried to frame it as something else.

“Look, no one here is going to pretend like the president is always politically correct. He isn’t. I think that’s one of the reasons the American people love him,” Sanders said. “One of the reasons that he won and is sitting in the Oval Office today is he isn’t a scripted robot. He tells things like they are sometimes, and sometimes he does use tough language.”

I would find it regretful if the President of the United States actually used the term; anyone with a conscience would call it racist. However, when vulgar language becomes an issue of political correctness rather than an issue of racism, it enters a muddy field.

It reminded me of a quote that I’ve kept near and dear to my heart from my days as a rookie reporter. At a panel hosted by a student feminist organization I covered freshman year, the host asked the panelists to define “political correctness.” What came out, I believe, was something that is often overlooked; that political correctness, at its core, is about respecting the other person and not protecting one’s own image.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people are more concentrated about being called racist, being called sexist or giving off a bad image than they are about really hurting somebody,” the panelist said.

In this “shithole” controversy, the debate is whether Trump’s view could be discredited on the basis of his racist remarks (he did say he wanted more immigrants from Norway, after all), or whether liberals are overreacting to a president who slipped up while trying to tackle a thorny and complex issue that not even Democrats want to take head on. In the wider world, we must ask whether political correctness really stifles free speech and how we can discern between controversial ideas and outright bigotry.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines political correctness as “language that seems intended to give the least amount of offense, especially when describing groups identified by external markers such as race, gender, culture, or sexual orientation.”

The word has its roots in Marxist-Leninist vocabulary, but its modern sense originates from philosopher Allan Bloom’s 1987 book “The Closing of the American Mind.” In it, Bloom criticized universities for what he perceived as sacrificing open debate and discussion to not offend certain groups. Political correctness joined the lexicon of the greater Culture Wars throughout the 90s, wherein conservatives attacked liberals and higher education for what they saw the other side’s growing intolerance toward controversial ideas.

There have been numerous instances Bloom would point to as proof of his argument. A speaker was disinvited at Syracuse University for the outrage they may spark, or a class at Reed College became dysfunctional over claims that the content was racist. At the University of Michigan, controversial social scientist Charles Murray was interrupted by protesters who found his theory on the correlation between race and I.Q. repugnant.

Pundits from the left and right have argued against actions performed by college students like these essentially exclude those who are deemed as offensive from campus discourse. The direct and confrontational attitude of these protesters, as well as their refusal to compromise, have made them a favorite target of conservative pundits, who point to them as proof that liberal student protesters are wielding political correctness as a weapon against opposing ideas.

But this isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Political correctness is meant to enable civil discourse in an increasingly multicultural society. Even the right benefits from their own form of political correctness think “religious freedom,” “freedom fries,” “blue lives matter” and the like. If political correctness seems like something that stifles free speech, that means there are people abusing the word to their own advantage.

Nitpicking apart what your ideological enemies say and calling it oppression is not a way to start a conversation; it’s a bad way to persuade anyone except those who are already on your side. We must also learn to accept honest mistakes; I can tell you it’s not only white people who ask me where I’m “actually” from. As the philosopher Karl Popper said about accepting extreme arguments for political correctness:

“If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them,” Popper wrote in his book “The Open Society and its Enemies.”

So yes, there are legitimate ways to debate immigration in this country, and being tough is certainly an option. But Trump must recognize the humanity in the people he is going to affect, and calling entire countries “shitholes” is not a great start.

Ultimately, political correctness is about recognizing the weight your words carry in regard to history and institutions. But if our leaders can’t find the issue in the racist, colonialist and paternalistic attitudes inherent in “shithole” and defend it on live television, maybe there’s a problem.