I often wonder what people really mean when they long for the days of not having to be politically correct. “I’m about to say some things that are not PC,” they might warn. Or, “Whoops, better be careful; someone might call the PC police.” Sometimes we hear it following the discrimination of marginalized groups who speak up when their people are dehumanized. In response to their concerns, we often hear, “Oh, they’re just trying to be politically correct.” Or, “I’m so sick of all this PC nonsense. It’s ruining our country.”
I’m beginning to realize that part of the problem in our country right now is a whole lot of people are mistakenly confusing “political correctness” with “basic human decency.”
The anti-PC people seem nostalgic for days gone by when they didn’t have to think so much before speaking; a time when they didn’t have to tiptoe on eggshells, or worry about offending others. Indeed, political correctness even made its way to the heart of the 2016 elections. The term itself was brandished like a weapon to rally a subgroup of the conservatives, and even some of the liberals. But it feels like somewhere along the way, we lost our understanding of what it actually means in the first place.
What are people really longing for when they lament, “political correctness has been the downfall of our country?” Are they pining for a period – not too long ago – when it was universally acceptable to use language that was racist, sexist, homophobic, or prejudiced against someone or a group of people, without any repercussion? What was so great about being offensive to people?
Further, I wonder, do the people who claim to hate political correctness actually like it when it benefits them? I mean, the interesting thing is that the anti-PC people seem to get mightily offended whenever something is said that offends them. It seemed this anomaly was even more amplified during election season whenever Donald Trump spoke. He would begin a speech or add to it with something outright rude or threatening, which he would then get called out for. To that end he would blame political correctness for being the downfall of America, and then when people dissented, he would respond with a tweet about how “unfair” the backlash to his rhetoric was.
Sure, political correctness may have earned its name as a scourge of society. Sure, it may have been the brunt of jokes and satire for a long while, but it’s no less valid because of those things. Social mores change and evolve over time, and as such, people change, too. Politics do not get to determine social culture. It’s the other way around, because social culture is actually not about politics at all. In our country, typically, politics follow social culture changes. And here is where we tend to confuse political correctness with basic human decency.
How did this happen? This is an issue that has been brewing for years, and I’m certainly not the first person to make this connection. But I don’t think anyone can effectively argue with the fact that Donald Trump has lowered the level of discourse in general. This tactic resonated with a lot of people, for varying reasons. In his branding of other politicians, such as “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” or “Little Marco,” he consciously chose simplistic terms that were reminiscent of the playground bully, and easy for people to remember and repeat, over and over, until it became their words, too – whether they believed it or not.
In his rhetoric, Trump made the idea of political correctness a direct target, regarding it with absolute disgust. This appealed to many of his supporters across the country, who were also tired of what they perceived as political correctness taking over the country. This was generally the disenfranchised, middle class population of Americans who were tired of the political enterprise, but it was not always them. Trump also appealed to the subsets of people who are typically not marginalized, but believe that they are.
Many people voted for Trump because they could not cast a vote for Hillary. I get it. I was a Bernie fan, originally. I still couldn’t vote for Trump, though. Not while raising a child on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and dozens upon dozens of friends in that community. Not with very close friends who are people of color, or people in marginalized religious communities, all of whose stories I have heard loud and clear.
Other people were able to compartmentalize the “public” Trump, or the “role he was playing” from the promise of change that they thought a non-politician could bring to Washington. But the people who voted for Trump because of his rhetoric are the ones who are truly frightening. They’re like The Westboro Baptist Church, given a national executive promotion. Despite the calls for unity, this is one group of people we must continue to fight against.
The word “politically correct” is one I became familiar with in the early ‘90s, though history has shown the phrase to have been around for hundreds of years with varying meanings. During the time I was growing up, it was a derogatory phrase that was widespread in America, mostly laughed about among conservatives. For them, it seemed to capture the essence of leftist language and behavior.
Most dictionaries agree with the basic definition that political correctness, as we see it today, is the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people. But what it mostly comes down to is not being a jerk to others. In other words, political correctness could almost be interchanged with the word respect, or kindness, or with the act of being non-judgmental. Of course, being PC also means not calling someone a racial slur, not making judgments based on gender stereotypes, or making assumptions about someone’s perceived sexual orientation. It’s about not oppressing a group of marginalized people. But it’s mostly about not being a jerk.
Political correctness, while it may be thought of as a controversial topic for many, is actually an incredibly enlightening and educational idea that sheds light on the truly marginalized populations living on the fringe of society – and not by choice. It raises topics that are well-worthy of discussion. Trump is almost too easy a target to blame for being politically incorrect, a reason why some people like him in the first place. “He’s bucking the system,” they think. Or, “It’s so great to hear somebody not concerned with PC talk.”
Except that he’s not what they think. Trump was not being politically incorrect during election season. He wasn’t representing marginalized populations, or presenting unpopular truths with unbridled passion. He wasn’t standing up for raw analysis of deeply antagonistic subject material. Trump was simply being a jerk, with no apologies to anyone.
Now, I don’t claim to know what the man behind the curtain is really like, or what side he may reveal to those closest to him. But in public, especially in the pre-election phase, the one thing he did a lot of was failure to show basic human decency, and most of us seem to understand what basic human decency is. Where we are misguided is in what we believe about political correctness.
In that light, here are two things that political correctness is not:
- It’s not censorship.
- It’s not an infringement on anyone’s First Amendment rights.
Trump has finally said he will be a President for all American people. That includes marginalized groups of people. At this point, we have no choice anymore; it’s time to move forward. But now is the time to determine how we will both individually and collectively support our new President to ensure that marginalized groups are still heard. The moving forward of society is up to us, the people – not the President. If the President were to gain power by disparaging minority groups, and vowing to take away their basic human rights, that would not only be rude and hurtful, it would be a complete bankruptcy of leadership.