Thoughts on what it means to accuse someone of “political correctness”

I saw a very odd comment on Facebook today. One of my sons mentioned that the term “politically correct” seems to him to be an insulting term associated with bad behavior when used specifically “by those who complain about it,” and one of his friends (who is definitely liberal but hopefully not politically correct) responded as follows:

Most of the time when people complain about political correctness, they’re complaining about why they can’t say the N word when black people say it all the time, or why people get angry when they call trans women “Trannies,” or that women today just can’t take a joke, and they meant their remark about that one’s boobs as a compliment.

I don’t know who you’re hanging out with, but their usage is askew from the common usage.

Now there are two explanations for this comment that come to mind. The first is that the young gentleman is committing the common error of confusing “common usage” with “the way the term is used by the people I hang out with.” However, my son was very explicit in stating that he was referring to the term “as used by those who complain about it,” meaning primarily moderates and conservatives – and the friend’s comment sounds very much like the kind of things that small-minded liberals tell each other conservatives mean when trying to reassure themselves that the conservatives are nasty-minded people who should be sneered at, rather than intellectual equals who might be in danger of having a valid point. I know several people who use the term “political correctness” primarily as an insult; and they all object strongly to the three examples my son’s friend listed, and yet do not consider themselves politically correct (and indeed would be insulted if you accused them of “political correctness”). Indeed, the class of people who use the term “political correctness” primarily as an insult includes pretty much everybody who does not self-identify as a liberal, and (though many liberals will go through whatever intellectual gymnastics are necessary to avoid admitting it to themselves) the vast majority of such people would object strongly to the kinds of behaviors my son’s friend mentioned. Now I grant you that my personal circle of acquaintances is not a great sample size, though it is I think quite a bit more intellectually diverse than is the personal circle of acquaintances for most journalists or university professors. But fortunately, thanks to the internet, it is possible these days (if one is intellectually curious enough to go to the trouble) to access a much wider sampling of American thought and linguistic usage than is found among personal acquaintances. And I feel comfortable in saying that my son’s friend needs, intellectually speaking, to get out more, and also to start listening to what the people who disagree with him actually say rather than to what he and his friends like to reassure each other those nasty people “really” mean.

In modern American usage, the term “political correctness” is overwhelmingly used, as a simple statistical matter, by people who consider what they call “political correctness” to be a blight on society. The number of people who have not clued into the fact that the average American’s natural association with “politically correct” is negative, must be more or less the same as the number of people who have yet to figure out that a very sizable number of Americans — including the majority of American women — have an extremely negative set of associations to the word “feminist.” This does not of course, in itself, mean that there is anything wrong with political correctness or feminism; but it does mean that in modern American society the term’s connotations are negative and its meaning in the national discourse is determined primarily by those who would be angered if they were themselves accused of being politically correct. (It should be noted – and this probably contributes to my son’s friend’s obtuseness on the point – that the usage of those two terms on university campuses and in media contexts such as CNN, diverges rather dramatically from its usage in society as a whole, as those are overwhelmingly homogeneously liberal enclaves with notoriously little comprehension of, or desire to comprehend, the viewpoints of non-liberals.)

When such persons refer to “political correctness” they are referring to a combination of several elements, only one of which really has to do with a set of political opinions. The term is predominantly used to denote a set of immature or intellectually contemptible or morally objectionable behaviors, as they appear when the person who thus behaves happens to hold conventionally liberal political and cultural views.

It is true that the term implies that the “politically correct” person holds liberal views. Nobody is likely ever to have accused Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, or Thomas Sowell or Milton Friedman or Charlton Heston or Chris Kyle, of being “politically correct.” Naturally liberals do not consider this an insult, but people who are not liberal do not exactly consider it a compliment – and the term is used primarily by persons who are not liberal. It is a disastrous mistake, however, to assume that “politically correct” is therefore simply a synonym for “liberal” and to use it as such. For “politically correct” is shorthand for the following deficiencies of character, intellect and social functionality:

  1. The term implies that the “politically correct” persons have not derived their opinions by rational thought, careful examination of evidence, and honest and sympathetic attention to conflicting viewpoints, but are instead mere slavish intellectual conformists. They are among those (so goes the implication) who, having no ideas of their own, have chosen to borrow them, in this case from the orthodox Left. To be accused of being “politically correct” is to be accused of having no capacity of independent thought, a mere sheep in the liberal flock. Of course the accusation may be entirely unjust; but that is what the term implies. Note that a common (and unethical) conservative rhetorical move is to identify a number of ideas that the targeted individual has as being orthodox in their liberalism, and then to call the individual (rather than the views) “politically correct,” thus sneaking in by emotional implication the accusation that the individual has arrived at his views uncritically, with a desire to be thought of well by fellow liberals, rather than by rational analysis of the evidence at hand. This is cheating, and is in itself enough reason, I think, to avoid the use of the term in most cases. It is not hard, however, to understand how this has come to be part of the implication of the term given the other behaviors that are usually present when a non-liberal comes to believe he is dealing with political correctness.
  2. The “politically correct” person privileges his own opinions and prejudices morally – that is, when he encounters someone who disagrees with him, he instantly assumes – or at least behaves as if he assumes – that the other person is morally contemptible. He treats disagreements, in other words, not as differences in OPINION, but as differences in CHARACTER. Those who disagree with him are not mistaken, nor do they need to be reasoned with. They are Evil, and they need to be ostracized or socially intimidated into silence (though naturally, since liberals do not generally like the word “evil,” the term the politically correct person uses will be “racist” or “sexist” or “fascist” or “homophobe” or some other openly abusive term whose intent is to terminate dialogue and intimidate dissent). To call a person “politically correct” is to accuse him of having a deep and chronic attitude of intolerance toward anyone who declines, for any reason, to at least pretend to share his opinions. Clearly many liberals are not so nasty; therefore it is wrong to use “politically correct,” with all its negative associations, as a synonym for “liberal.” On the other hand, when you find yourself dealing with a person whose response to a conservative opinion is instantly to resort to abusive and accusatory language, and in particular to the wielding of the Big Four accusatory terms (racist/sexist/fascist/homophobic), then this is pretty good evidence that you are in fact dealing with someone whose behavior warrants the term.
  3. Closely tied to the previous characteristic is the politically correct person’s reaction when another person states an opinion which with the politically correct person disagrees. The politically correct person’s instinctive response is not to attempt to prove that the opinion is false, but instead to announce that the opinion is “offensive.” The politically correct person gives every appearance of being ass enough to believe that the statement “That is offensive,” is a statement about the other person’s belief rather than being (as it plainly is) a statement about the politically correct person’s own psychological profile – that is to say, he seems not to realize that all it really means is, “I and other like-minded persons feel hostility and anger toward people who utter that opinion.” And he appears ass enough to believe that “I and those like me feel hostility and anger toward persons who utter that opinion,” is the same thing as “That opinion is false” – or perhaps he is narcissistic enough to think that “I and those like me feel hostility and anger toward persons who utter that opinion”, rather than, “That opinion is false,” is what ought to matter to the world at large rather than mattering merely to the narcissist, to those friends and family who care about him personally, and to his therapist.
  4. The politically correct person is morally stunted in a very specific way, which also happens to be the most important way in which a person can be morally stunted. The fundamental characteristic of a healthy conscience is that one applies the same standards to one’s own conduct that one applies to the conduct of those whom one dislikes. But an accusation of “political correctness” is in part an accusation that the politically correct person does unto others what he screams bloody murder about when others do it unto him. Thus the following is an example of stereotypically “politically correct” behavior. One of the most common words used by the politically correct as an accusation is “offensive,” which can only be used as an accusation if one accepts the premise, “It is wrong to say things that hurt other people’s feelings.” And the politically correct are adamant that your intention does not matter – it does not matter that you had no intention to offend, or that you feel no malice, because what you said was “offensive.” The politically correct just love Louis C. K.’s line about how “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t,” and they consistently interpret that line to MEAN, “And therefore you have done them wrong” (which, by the way, I don’t think was the point he was actually trying to make). Now absolutely none of this constitutes any sort of grounds for condemnation UNLESS it is wrong to hurt people’s feelings, even if not on purpose. The politically correct, therefore, are of all people in the world the ones who make the most noise about the importance of not hurting other people’s feelings – and yet nobody is quicker to resort to language whose sole purpose is to wound and abuse than are the politically correct, whose natural and instinctive and usually first reaction to hearing someone express an opinion with which they disagree, is to start hurling around the terms “racism,” “sexism,” “fascism,” and “homophobia.” If a gay-marriage activist calls you a homophobe, and you say, “You know, that’s a pretty harsh thing to call a person and you have really hurt my feelings,” you would be most unwise to hold your breath waiting for an apology, as you are far more likely to get f-bombed than apologized to. What the politically correct person is really putting forward, of course, is simply the standard demand of the conscienceless narcissist to be allowed to treat others in ways they are not allowed to treat him. It is evil for you to hurt his feelings, or the feelings of those whom he (in his benevolence of character) has taken under his protection – even if you have no malice and no ill intent. But those whom he hates, and for no reason other than that they differ with his opinions, he can deliberately and with open hostility insult and abuse unrestrainedly…and somehow that is okay.

 

To call someone “politically correct,” then, in ordinary speech, is to insult them, just as the term “feminist” is, in the mouth of the majority of Americans, an insult. And the reason that “politically correct” is an insult is very much the same as the reason most American women – including a sizable percentage of those whose political views largely coincide with classical feminist political views – do not wish to be called “feminists.” That is, the term does NOT, at this point, denote in the ordinary mind a set of opinions, but instead denotes a set of behaviors and attitudes. “Feminist” no longer means, to the ordinary non-feminist American, “person desirous of political and social equality for women.” It means “shrill, humorless, man-hating bitch.” In the same way, “politically correct” absolutely does not mean “liberal,” even though one by definition must be liberal in order to be politically correct. “Politically correct” means intolerant, self-righteous, immature, morally stunted, and incapable of dealing in a rational or socially functional way with political disagreement.

If you want a good example of what non-liberals see as political correctness, look at the brouhaha over the name of the Washington Redskins. You have a group of people who are politically liberal insisting that the name “Redskins” is “racist” and “insensitive.” They, in general, think very badly of other persons who decline to be as offended as they are. Yet they have so far failed to swing the general public opinion over to their side, and the single biggest reason is that the anti-“Redskin” movement is exactly the sort of thing that non-liberals are annoyed by and describe as “politically correct.”

  • It is very clearly implied by every word the anti-Redskin movement utters that if you are not yourself offended by the name “Redskins” – as literally millions of Americans, including literally millions of indigenous Americans, are not – then they consider you to be morally inferior to the (mostly white) liberals who choose to be offended.
  • The term “redskins” was originally coined by indigenous Americans and is not considered offensive by most indigenous Americans, including, for example, the Navajo residents of Red Mesa and the majority-indigenous-American residents of Kingston, Oklahoma – whose football teams are proudly called “Redskins,” and whose residents overwhelmingly have a lower opinion of the native American activists who lead the protests than they do of Daniel Snyder.
  • The most visible anti-“Redskin” noise-makers, all three of whom ooze self-righteousness whenever they write or talk about the issue, are the sportswriters Bob Costas, Peter King and Gregg Easterbrook, all notable for being, among other things, rich, middle-aged, white, and very clearly of the opinion that the fact that they find the name “Redskins” offensive on behalf of indigenous Americans is proof of their own moral virtue vis-à-vis the unwashed masses who see no problem with the term.
  • Insofar as the protest has highly visible indigenous American involvement, those visibly involved not only are not supported by most indigenous Americans, but indeed are actively disliked by a great many indigenous Americans. (I can remember reading W. P. Kinsella’s The Moccasin Telegraph, which can hardly be accused of being unsympathetic to concerns of bigotry and discrimination against indigenous Americans, and noting with some surprise that of all the characters in all the short stories therein, the individual and organization painted with the most contempt, were Russell Means and the American Indian Movement. At the time I was still living in Oklahoma, and therefore knew pretty much infinitely many more native Americans than Bob Costas is likely to have met in his entire life. So I asked around…and, um, not a single one of my qualifying-for-tribe-membership friends had anything good to say about the American Indian Movement, and a couple of them were much less tactful about Russell Means than Al Begay and Deswood Tome were about Amanda Blackhorse amidst the Red Mesa brouhaha.)
  • “It’s terrible for you non-liberals to hurt people’s feelings even unintentionally, but it’s fine if I hurt yours deliberately” attitude on display: check again the Red Mesa story, and the quote deliberately and publicly provided by Amanda Blackhorse (posted on her own Facebook page, no less): “The adults [all Navajo, I might add] in that school should know better [meaning, they have no business disagreeing with me], and they are not informed of this issue [meaning, they disagree with me] – and shame on them for that.” (I presume that Ms. Blackhorse is aware that in English “shame on you” is an accusation that one has done something shameful.) Or, more contemptibly, consider the protestors who hurled abuse at the teenaged kids who were there to enjoy a football game, calling them among other things “sellouts.” Blackhorse had warned that if the students accepted the free NFL tickets, they would “be mocked and treated as tokens and pawns.” And they were indeed mocked – by Blackhorse’s supporters. Who else, after all, was ever likely to mock them in the first place?
  • Also on blatant display is the politically correct narcissism that cannot comprehend the difference between “I and the people who share my cultural allegiances, prejudices, and preconceptions react to this name by being offended” and “This name is intrinsically offensive” – because to the politically correct, everybody else’s reality must be defined by the politically correct person’s psychological idiosyncracies.

You will never get a clearer example of this than the gob-smackingly asinine and self-revealing Monday Night Football rant by Bob Costas. Costas’s ludicrous and ignorant rant is a perfect example of what makes it so difficult for the non-politically-correct to resist the temptation to hold the politically correct in contempt. (I remind you again that “politically correct” is NOT a synonym for “liberal” and that it concerns primarily behaviors, not opinions.)

Costas begins by openly acknowledging that there is no reason to think the people who like the name “Redskins” are motivated by racism or malice, and furthermore admits that most indigenous Americans do not find it offensive. In other words, he admits that (a) the overwhelming number of people who use the term do not mean it as an insult, and (b) the majority of the only people who would have any sort of right to feel insulted by the term, do not think the term is insulting. In a sane society, this would be tantamount to admitting that the people who were screaming about how offensive it was should recognize that they were being unreasonable, and that they should drop their protests and stop worrying about it (or, if they found themselves unable to stop obsessing over it, to seek appropriate professional psychological help). But Costas is not just a liberal. He is a politically correct liberal – that is to say, he is unable to cope psychologically with the possibility that it is his own behavior, rather than that of others, that deserves criticism and requires amendment. He is a politically correct liberal – that is to say, he is unable to muster the relatively tiny amount of intellectual firepower necessary to distinguish between, “I and all the other rich middle-aged white liberals I go to cocktail parties with find this term offensive,” and, “This term is inherently offensive.”

Note in particularly how ignorant a person has to be to say that a particular word is INHERENTLY offensive. There is literally nothing in the world that is more absolutely subjective than human language. Words change their meanings all the time because their meaning is determined by how people use them and by nothing else (which is why when somebody tells a man, “You’re looking very gay today” the instant first assumption is that he appears to be homosexual, it being utterly irrelevant that in 1850 the word had no such meaning). When Costas says that practically none of the people who use the term mean it as an insult, and most of the people who would be the topic of the hypothetical “insult” do not find it insulting, what he is saying is, quite literally, that in modern America the term is not an insult. And yet you find him, towards the end of the rant, allowing genuine passion to enter his voice as he says, “’Redskins’ can’t possibly honor a heritage, or a noble character trait [even though the Navajo of Red Mesa consider that their heritage is thereby honored; and even though you would think that it would be an honor to…well, you know, to have a National Football League franchise named after you; and even though the Red Mesa Navajo is football team is named “Redskins” literally because the Navajo dude who suggested the name in the first place, did so because he was a fan of the Washington Redskins]. Nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.” Um, no, Bob, it is possible (though you have given no actual reason to think so) that it used to be a slur; but what you have yourself admitted is that it no longer is.

And then Bob finishes, with what he clearly considers to be a rhetorical coup de grâce: “Isn’t it possible to understand how some people might be offended by it?” Why, yes, Bob. Yes it is. It is possible because we all know human nature and we know that there are people whose feelings get hurt very easily, and because we know furthermore that there is a good living to be made by the professionally outraged. We know that liberal culture actively and deliberately incentivizes anybody who is not a white male to be hypersensitive to any excuse to declare themselves the victims of racism or sexism. Indeed, we know that some liberals are so eager to train members of racial minorities to perceive themselves to be victims of racism, even where none is intended, that they will actually stand around and scream “Sellout!” at children who have committed the unforgivable thought-crime of having failed to have their feelings adequately hurt by a term that they have no reason whatsoever to believe was intended to hurt their feelings.

But anybody not stupid enough to participate in a societal suicide pact knows that either of the two following behaviors cause unnecessary conflict and pain in society, and therefore that any sane society will discourage both of them and will make learning not to engage in either of them an essential part of growing into adulthood:

  • Saying things that would (either because of context, or tone, or the ordinary usage of the tone) reasonably be interpreted as offensive, to people whom one does not intend to offend. An American who says to a fellow American, “That’s a bloody nuisance,” is not behaving offensively. An American who says to a random crowd member in front of Buckingham Palace, “That’s a bloody nuisance,” needs to be taken aside by somebody and constructively informed that, in London, he is rather more likely to offend those present by saying “bloody” than he is by dropping an f-bomb. And the reason he needs this explained, is that if he is a decent person he would WANT to know the cultural difference, so that he can comply with cultural expectations of what is offensive and what is not, and thereby avoid causing unintentional offense.
  • Taking offense to things that one knows were not spoken with offensive intent, or to things that reasonable persons would not find offensive in themselves. Now of course, in a society that has a history of discriminating against a particular ethnic community, reasonable people will defer to that ethnic community’s judgment as to what is offensive and what is not with regard to things of significance to that community; but where that community as a whole finds a particular term or phrase inoffensive, any decent person will presume an absence of malicious intent unless there is some independent reason to suspect otherwise. And if you see somebody who is constantly getting unreasonably offended, that person needs to be taken aside and given constructive criticism about growing up and keeping his panties unwadded.

Now the politically correct liberal demands that the most generous possible interpretation must always be put on his own utterances, and indeed very often demands that he be allowed to be deliberately insulting whenever he wants. Thus the very clear implication of every column that King or Easterbrooke have written on the subject, and of Costas’s own rant, is that even though the literally millions of Washington Redskins fans who want to keep the team name unchanged have no ill intent, they still deserve criticism for being insensitive and implicitly racist (unlike their moral superiors, such as, just to take three examples at random, Easterbrooke, King and Costas). Now this is something that any reasonable person who liked the name “Redskins,” would quite properly find offensive. But Costas would clearly think it unjust if someone else were to accuse HIM of behaving “insensitively and offensively.”

But he openly confesses that he knows that the term “Redskins” is not used by NFL fans or indeed by ordinary modern Americans with any malice or intent to offend; and furthermore that most of the people in the very community that has the right to be determine what is offensive or not, by and large do not think the term is offensive. That means that any person who is offended by it anyway, needs to be taken aside and told that he has no business being offended. Can we see how some people might be offended by the name “Redskins”? Indeed we can; and we can also (unless our personal bulbs are as dim as Costas’s) see how some people might be offended by having a middle-aged rich white guy lecture them on what racists they are for using a term that most members of the actual “targeted” group themselves don’t have a problem with. And if we are sensible (and think it would do any good), we will go to the people who are being unreasonably offended and tell them, “These people mean no harm and you are being unreasonable; cut it out.” We will also go to the white liberals who are running around needlessly accusing millions of their fellow Americans of being racist, and who are doing so without cause, and will tell them, “You are being unfair and offensive, even though we’re sure you at least tell yourself that you mean well; cut it out.”

But that would mean that Costas and King and Easterbrooke would have to admit that they are wrong, and to the politically correct liberal, admitting that one is wrong is always the duty of somebody else. So you get the incredibly fatuous Costas solemnly pronouncing that he has it right, and the majority of indigenous Americans have it wrong, and that since Costas and his intellectual kind find the term offensive the Navajo who are Redskins fans are to be ignored. Where do these Navajo persons get off, after all, declining to be offended by something that rich middle-aged white guys have informed them are Insulting To Native Americans? Who do they think they are, forming their own opinions rather than the ones decreed for them by Bob Costas and his cocktail-party set? To the politically correct liberal, after all, the primary moral obligation of other people is to live their lives the way the politically correct liberal wants them to. And why should they meekly defer to his conscience rather than to their own? Why, because…because…because people who think the Catholic Church has too high an opinion of its own infallibility, have never had to deal with a politically correct liberal.

That is what most people mean when they use the term “politically correct.” That is why the term is genuinely insulting, in pretty much precisely the way that the term “Redskins” is not. And that is why you should in general feel no qualms about cheering for a sport team named the “Redskins,” but you should be very reluctant indeed to use the term “politically correct” when all you really mean is “liberal.” The term “politically correct,” in modern American usage, is predominantly used as an insult, in pretty much precisely the way the term “Redskins” is not. But most liberals are decent people, and they do not deserve to be called “politically correct,” any more than 99% of conservatives or Tea Party members deserve to be called “fascists.”

So don’t ever use it unless your intent is to be insulting; and if you decide to bring out that particular rhetorical gun, make sure you’re aiming it very precisely rather than just spray-shooting the whole liberal crowd. After all…do you know what you are if you run around talking as though all liberals were politically correct?

You’re as bad as any politically correct liberal, that’s what you are. So just, you know…don’t.

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