Something needs to be done about the much-abused concept of political correctness.
The term was once as solid as a hot potato. Now the phrase has been mashed to a froth by too much unrestrained whipping. It has become a tasteless glop to be thrown at critics, often in defense of the indefensible.
We saw this clearly in the Republican presidential candidates’ recent debate in Cleveland. Here was resistance to PC served up as the lamest excuse for bad behavior. Not surprisingly, Donald Trump was the main offender.
Still, the debate was highly entertaining. Usually, these events are about as much fun as meetings of the old Supreme Soviet. But thanks to excellent questioning by the Fox News hosts – and, yes, that’s a sentence I never thought to write – the debate was illuminating.
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By now, what the candidates said is fast receding into memory, but the little tutorial on the current understanding of PC should not be quickly forgotten.
What does political correctness mean today? You can find various definitions on the Internet, such as this one from Merriam-Webster: “Conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.”
That conforms to the original understanding of political correctness. Unfortunately, a lot of that appears to go on at college campuses, which are often the haunt of illiberal liberals inclined to make silly assaults on the cause of free speech.
Conservatives who rage against this forget that campuses are populated by immature people with rudimentary common sense and high opinions of themselves – but enough about administrators in higher education. The kids also play beer pong way too much, but that doesn’t pose much of a threat to the republic, either.
The idea that political correctness is silencing Americans who want to express themselves is only true for the sort of person who can’t say a word that is not personally insulting. In fact, this is arguably the golden age of free speech, with trolls having a hell of a time on the Internet, with emphasis on the hell.
What we basically have here is the grievance that people just can’t call anybody anything anymore without a big fuss being made. Oh, for the halcyon days when men were men and women were chicks, sluts or hormonally challenged, and so on (insert here your own slandered group). In fits of debased nostalgia, some people want to go back to those sorry times, and they think only political correctness is stopping them.
What bunk. As most of us learned in kindergarten as our first practical experience of free speech, when you say something mean, some kid is likely to whack you with a wooden block. In the real world, then as now, reacting to negative language is not necessarily political. Oftentimes, it is just insensitivity and bad manners inviting a reaction.
The idea of political correctness has become so debauched that it has come to denote something that is often neither correct nor political. Consider the Urban Dictionary’s “top definition” of political correctness found in my recent search: “A way we speak in America so we don’t offend whining (bad word sometimes used to describe weak, soft people).”
Yeah, that’s the spirit. The description pretty much tracks Trump’s view of political correctness.
Debate moderator Megyn Kelly had asked him about calling women he doesn’t like vile names, and he quickly reached for the old PC crutch to gain sympathy.
“I think the big problem that this country has is being politically correct,” the Republican front-runner said. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I frankly don’t have time for total political correctness, and to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”
The jubilant crowd seemed to agree. This is what PC alarm has degenerated into, a meaningless mash of prejudices posing as a legitimate grievance. In their longing for the old days of insult, just don’t forget to wish these folks “Merry Christmas.”
Trump wasn’t the only one playing the PC card. Fellow candidate Ben Carson refused to condemn the torture known as waterboarding, declaring that “there’s no such thing as a politically correct war.” Well, yes, but nobody said there was. The question was not about politically correct behavior but about the nation’s honor and decency.
The PC bugbear trivialized the issue and the crowd applauded. It has come to this.
Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org