Why Everyone is Politically Correct and No One is Politically Correct: Why the Phrase *Politically Correct* is Unhelpful and Misleading

The phrase politically correct has been around for some time, but it became a dominant feature of cultural discourse this last election cycle.

Donald Trump made political correctness or rather ‘anti-political correctness’ the centerpiece of his political campaign. He portrayed himself as a maverick, bucking political jargon and certain political agendas. In one of the republican debates, Trump said:

“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I have been challenged by so many people, and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”

It is hard to know exactly what President Trump means by the phrase political correctness. To my knowledge, he has not given a clear definition of what he means by it. However, during his campaign, some folks seemed to have an idea of what he meant.

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In an interview, Clint Eastwood once said regarding political correctness: “Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.”[1] In the same interview, Eastwood added that candidate Trump was just “saying what’s on his mind”, and that is why he was appealing to so many people. To folks like Clint Eastwood, it seems that political correctness refers to the act of hindering free speech in some way.

In regards to political correctness, Frank Luntz, adviser to Republicans said, “Allegations of racism and sexism have turned into powerful silencing devices.” It seems like for folks like Luntz political correctness refers to using political clout to silence dissension or disagreement.

In a thoughtful article in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf examines the evolution of the phrase political correctness and what exactly this phrase might mean. Friedersdorf suggests, “Political correctness was a problem insofar as it elevated deference to political sensibilities over stating or acting on the truth…Ignoring nuanced situations and counter-arguments in order to act in a way comported with political sensibilities.” Friedersdorf rightly suggests that sometimes, or even often, there is a problem in politics with manipulating the facts to fit one’s political proclivities.

I can partially understand some of these concerns. I have certainly been in circles where people silenced (or shredded) someone who had a legitimate question simply because he or she did not use the right language or articulate the accepted view. People can certainly use language and group pressure to dominate and control others. I should also note that I have spent time in both conservative and liberal circles, and, at least in my experience, this problem occurs in both.

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It is important to note that if political correctness is manipulating facts to fit one’s political sensibilities, everyone does this and no one does this (or no one means to do this). We like to think that we are completely logical, objective, and clear-sighted when we observe the world around us, but that is not actually how human thinking works. To be human is to come to any set of facts with preconceived notions. We actually must form these preconceived notions in order to survive in the world and get anything done.

For example, from an early age, we form ideas about which situations and people are dangerous or safe. This is motivated by a very good instinct to preserve our life. We also develop preconceived notions about what is moral and immoral. This is motivated by the very good desire to satisfy our conscience. We develop notions about what actions are effective and which ones are not. This is motivated by the very good desire to get stuff done.

We develop all of these preconceived notions because of very good reasons: we want to be safe, good, effective people. Everyone does this, but here is the thing: Our preconceived notions affect and distort how we see the world, and they cause us to ignore some facts and focus on others. Our preconceived notions cause us to view some views (and facts) as illegitimate (safe, good, effective) and others as illegitimate (unsafe, bad, ineffective).[2]

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Here is the other thing: Some of our preconceived notions are right, and some of them are wrong. This is true about every single person. Sometimes we think certain things or people are dangerous or safe, and later we find out we are wrong. Sometimes we think a certain action is moral or immoral and later we find out we are wrong. Sometimes we think a certain action is effective, and later we find out we are wrong. In fact, we can believe something our whole entire life and find out at the end that we are wrong. Being wrong is not the solely the problem of the young or uneducated or liberal or conservative. It is a condition of being human, from which no person is immune.

All of the views we have—especially our political views—are influenced by preconceived notions about what is safe, good, and effective (or not). So, when people adopt a certain political view, they do not do it because it is politically correct. They do it because they believe, somehow, that the view contributes to safety, goodness, and effectiveness.

The real problem is that we all have different views of what contributes to safety, goodness, and effectiveness. These views lead all of us to discount certain views or facts and embrace others, and that is why everyone practices some sort of political correctness.

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If you hang around long enough in both conservative and liberal political circles, you will find that people in each circle consider certain topics illegitimate or taboo. For instance, in most conservative circles, if one tries to argue sincerely for human-induced global warming, socialism, or affirmative action, one will be considered intellectually inferior and potentially dangerous. The same is true in liberal circles if one tries to argue for laissez-faire economics, gun ownership/deregulation, or prayer in public schools.

I am not arguing here about the rightness or wrongness of any of these positions right now, and I am also not implying that all of these issues are morally equivalent. Rather, I am pointing out that both conservative and liberals (and everyone in between) have points of view that they consider stupid, illegitimate or even dangerous. They just differ on which views they consider stupid, illegitimate, and dangerous. In addition, most people—conservative and liberal—try to silence other people, indirectly or directly, who speak about topics deemed taboo. They may do this by censure, guilt, condescension, manipulation, or violence. Both conservatives and liberals practice political correctness, but they just do it on different issues and in different ways.

That political correctness is not solely the problem of liberals is evident by the fact that President Trump may go down in history as one of the most politically correct presidents of all time. Certainly he says what is on his mind, offends sensibilities, and thumbs his nose at pretty much every establishment imaginable. But, if political correctness is marked by controlling free speech, using language to silence and dominate, and distorting facts to fit our sensibilities, President Trump has not defeated political correctness: he has created a whole new breed of it.

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President Trump regularly attacks speech in media, merely because it is critical of him and does not reflect his view of the matter. Throughout his campaign and even now, he silences or dominates other people’s attempts to speak. He does this through insults and name-calling, and he also does it by shutting down or walking out of press conferences when they are not going his way or physically shoving people out of the way, when things are not quite as he wants them to be.

He listens to news sources that accord with his own views and refers to opposing news sources as “fake news”. The President practices political correctness every day. It is just his own brand of it. The thing that is particularly egregious about the President’s political correctness is that he seems completely oblivious to it. This is ironic, given how much he railed against political correctness in his campaign. Perhaps, however, it is not so surprising when we consider that the faults we rail against the most in others are often our own greatest shortcomings.

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If we are going to move past our contentious politics and the political quagmire we now seem stuck in, I believe that one of the things we must do is get past this idea of political correctness so that we can move towards compassion. One way to do this is to realize that everyone is politically correct (insofar as we all have preconceived notions of the world), and no one is politically correct (insofar as we hold beliefs that we sincerely think make us safe, good, and effective).

When we think that political correctness is the problem of one particular party, it causes us to “Other” people who hold political views different from ours. When we “Other” people, we turn them into strange, alien beings with whom we have nothing in common and who are inferior to us in some way. For instance, if we think that political correctness is their problem and not our problem, we will likely think that we are logical, fair-minded, and good people, while those politically correct people are deluded, close-minded, and immoral.

When we do this, we turn people in other political parties to flat, clichéd stock characters in a B movie (and not the cool kind of B movie like Sharknado), rather than seeing them as complex, nuanced, layered people who hold the beliefs they do for a variety of reasons—some good and some bad. It is easy to treat clichés as sub-human, which we often do to one another in politics.

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If we can realize that everyone—including us—is politically correct and no one is politically correct, we can start focusing on what we have in common: the desire to be safe, good, and effective. This allows us to develop compassion for one another. We can also realize that all of us come to the table with blinders on because we all have preconceived notions about the world, some of which are wrong. If we remember this, it will cultivate humility, openness, and a greater ability to listen to one another. It will also help us forgive one another for our short-sightedness, even if we profoundly disagree with one another. If we practice compassion, humility, openness, listening, and forgiveness, we will realize that we have much in common with people very different from us, and we may be able to have a peaceful and productive political conversation.

A few months ago, I ran across a friend whom I had not seen for many years, and we decided to get coffee together. Over coffee, our conversation veered into politics, and I suddenly realized that my friend and I had extremely different political views. I am more on the liberal end of the spectrum, and he was definitely more on the conservative end. At first, I was unsure that I wanted to continue discussing politics with him. In the past, I had engaged in political conversations like this, and they were extremely unproductive, largely because the people involved practiced their own brand of political correctness without realizing it, and this shut down meaningful dialogue.

However, as I continued my discussion with my friend, I could tell that although he did not understand my views, he really wanted to understand. I appreciated this. We continued our discussion for about an hour, and he peppered me with questions, which I tried to answer as sincerely as I could. At the end of the conversation he said, “I really appreciate you talking with me. To be honest, most of the time when I try to ask these questions, I’m shut down. It helped me to hear your opinion on things.” When we left coffee that day, I realized that I was still on the more liberal end of the political spectrum, and he was still on the more conservative end of the spectrum, but we had listened with compassion and openness, and we understood each other better. I also like to think that through our discussion, we made the world a little bit better place to live in.

(If you liked this blog post, you might enjoy this other one: Peaceful Political Discussions: How Not to Be an Idiot in Five Easy Steps.)

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[1] Of course, just because people were not called racist for saying certain things, does not imply either that they were or were not saying racist things.

[2] Certainly humans are motivated by other goals than safeness, goodness, and effectiveness, but these are three of our most important goals.

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