The phrase “politically correct” is about as combustible as any. Bring up those words and you know you’re treading into ideological war territory. So, gulp. Here I go.
For many, I think the term “politically correct” represents a type of stifling of honesty. People feel hemmed in by a societal pressure to conform to a belief system that they don’t accept — an “elitist” message, which restricts language and actions. I feel that’s why there’s such a fierce rejection of “political correctness.” It’s received as a type of pat of the head, a sort of “let me tell you how to think, cause you’re an idiot and not intellectually or morally on my level.”
Does anyone ever respond well to that sort of feeling? I’ve always felt bitter when I’ve thought someone is looking down on me. I think our partisan politics have been reduced to this disrespect battle. One side is bitter at the perception of intense disrespect. The other side feels exactly the same thing. And because we all feel so angry and disrespected, we’re ready to lash out with a hostile dismissal of strangers’ humanity, which is a circular problem, a tornado gathering velocity.
I think Donald Trump has so much power because he is the big societal voice of a common individual rage against a perceived collective pat on the head. He is absolutely a finger in the eye of that idea of liberal condescension. Because of this, his questionable behavior and statements seem to pale in comparison — for many, at least — to his aggressive fight against liberal condescension, which he rails against without apology. I think that’s why he gets a pass on things that would surely doom other politicians and why there is such huge passion at his back. Let me add, I don’t claim to know what you think. This is just my perception of bigger political trends. And I may be wrong.
Of course, when we talk of “political correctness,” we inevitably turn to college campuses. And I think colleges have erred in a really big way — acting out of fear, not bravery when it come to ideas. What I mean is, I don’t think colleges should have “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings” regarding ideas. A college should be a place where ideas aren’t muzzled but are expressed with passion, whether they’re left or right, nice or mean. Then, such speech should be opposed with whatever passion and eloquence another speaker can muster. College is not a place to restrict thought but to realize that the world is big and that your own worldview is contradicted, no matter how right you think you are. And how are you going to deal with that? Well, that inner conflict is actually critical to education and critical thinking. Hateful speech calls for forceful rejection, but it doesn’t call for a muzzle. It calls for more speech, delivered, hopefully, without mirrored hate.
But I also think “political correctness” is used in lazy ways these days. Any action, any language that angers someone can be dismissed as “politically correct.” But I think actual “political correctness” can apply to left and right. I see it simply as the pressure of a societal norm on an individual, which can be good or bad, depending on the pressure. For instance, it’s good for someone to feel pressure not to call someone the “N” word in public, right? That form of political correctness was once not there. But, for the good of civilized society, it needs to be. However, shutting down conservative dissent on a college campus would be an example of such political correctness gone too far. So, there’s a sort of balance worth seeking.
We should recognize that there is always societal pressure on you to be a certain way depending on where you are. And what is that pressure anyway? Well, it’s the battle over common decency. We feel there’s a type of common sense that we understand and that others should see too. And we’re horribly frustrated — furious, actually — when they can’t see things the way we do. If they can’t agree with my decency, well, then they’re indecent, right? Who hasn’t felt this? And sometimes, maybe we’re right. But it’s worth being skeptical of our own passionate judgment about strangers, because people are usually more complicated than we understand. Many people don’t seem to have any hesitation to judge strangers with extreme passion based on very little information. I don’t find this admirable in a Democrat or a Republican or in myself — which I certainly do at times. Who doesn’t? But I can at least recognize that what is admirable is the effort to learn more about others and to resist simple judgments in my head.
When we throw out our labels, such as “knuckle-dragging conservatives” or “libtards,” we seem to ignore the fact that our manner of addressing each other is just as important as whatever point we want to make — maybe more important. Because our manner of speech toward others establishes an attitude of respect or disrespect. And we react completely differently to one versus the other. All of us do, no matter our political persuasion. We’re all human.
What I say may or may not ring true to you. But this is an effort at honest speech. And this isn’t necessarily politically correct. But it’s not elitist either. It’s just a guy trying to make sense of a complicated world with the limited tools he has.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.