What Politicians Mean When They Complain About Political Correctness - Pacific Standard

What Politicians Mean When They Complain About Political Correctness

This new strain of complaint about political correctness is really just a warmed over version of the old complaints about politicians hamstringing national security matters.
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Republican presidential candidates Donald  Trump and Jeb Bush respond to each other as Ted Cruz listens during the CNN Republican presidential debate on December  15, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Jeb Bush respond to each other as Ted Cruz listens during the CNN Republican presidential debate on December 15, 2015, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The next Republican presidential candidates' debate will be held on January 14. Here's a suggestion for a question to ask of the candidates: Please define "political correctness," and provide at least one example of a person who has been killed by it.

I offer this suggestion because political correctness has become one of the more used, and abused, terms of this campaign cycle. According to Ted Cruz, "political correctness is killing people." Donald Trump agrees that it is "just absolutely killing us as a country." Ben Carson says it's "destroying our nation." That sounds pretty bad! Obviously, anything doing this kind of damage warrants our attention and substantial discussion, at the very least. But we don't often get much of a definition of just what political correctness is and how it kills people or countries.

The concept of political correctness dates back at least to debates about hate speech on college campuses in the 1980s and '90s. The term was used to describe the preferred language and activities of the left and, by implication, to criticize those who had not changed their tone or ways. If you referred to African Americans, women, Latinos, or the disabled as, respectively, blacks, girls, Hispanics, or cripples, for example, you could be criticized for being not politically correct. It was politically incorrect to throw out newspapers instead of recycling them, to buy clothing made by child labor, to drive gas-guzzling vehicles, and so forth.

This, of course, was nothing new, nor was it peculiar to the left. Communities have always sought to define themselves by deeming certain behavior and language as appropriate and shaming those who do not adopt it. And in this case, the penalties weren't particularly severe. As far as I know, no one was shunned or beaten or lynched for violating the norms of the campus left, although such things have happened to those who deviated from standard behavior in other American communities.

Nonetheless, this culture became somewhat of a boogeyman over time, and not just among conservatives. The term "political correctness" was adopted ironically by the left and the right to mock the excesses of this culture, such as the banning of "hate words" on campus. But in the end, it was never much of a threat. It was mainly an effort to get people to call groups by the names they wished to be called and to engage in activities seen as less harmful to society and the planet.

Is this what the Republican presidential candidates are complaining about today? To be sure, trends that squelch legitimate debate and undermine free speech warrant criticism, but it's hard to see how asking people to say Native American instead of Indian is killing anyone, no less the country.

The boogeyman, it seems, has evolved. It is no longer an annoyance, but a threat. Trump is characteristically vague when asked for specifics about political correctness—he seems mainly to want to drop some old school insults and not get criticized for doing so. But Cruz isn't complaining about anything like that; rather, he describes political correctness as a resistance to protecting the country for fear of offending a minority group:

It’s not a lack of competence that is preventing the Obama administration from stopping [terror] attacks. It is political correctness. We didn’t monitor the Facebook posting of the female San Bernardino terrorist because the Obama DHS thought it would be inappropriate she made a public call to Jihad and they didn’t target it. The Tsarnaev brothers, the elder brother made a public call to Jihad and the Obama administration didn’t target it. Nidal Hasan communicated with Anwar al-Awlaki a known, radical cleric asked about waging Jihad against his fellow soldiers. The problem is because of political correctness, the Obama administration, like a lot of folks here, want to search every one’s cell phones and emails and not focus on the bad guys and political correctness is killing people.

This is a much more invidious complaint about political correctness. The concept here seems to be that the president and his advisors know whom to track and investigate, but they are refusing to do so because they are concerned about angering or alienating Muslim Americans. This is absurd on its face—Muslims are neither a particularly large nor influential political presence in the United States, and the political risks of allowing terror attacks are surely greater than those of alienating Muslim voters. It also doesn't point the way to a particularly effective policy of deterring terrorism. Investigating all Muslims all the time, in addition to being morally repugnant and logistically impossible, creates a great deal of noise for law enforcement to sift through. Perusing the activities of millions of innocents doesn't really help you find a handful of wrongdoers, and actually works against it. What's more, it tells those millions that they are not full citizens by virtue of their faith, doing ISIS's propaganda work for it.

More generally, though, this new strain of complaint about political correctness is really just a warmed over version of the old complaints about politicians hamstringing national security matters. This is what Carson is talking about when he says, "You cannot win a politically correct war [because] political correctness dictates we cannot kill innocent women and children in the process of destroying the enemy." It's the idea that we're not being ruthless enough in our efforts to protect Americans, and that spineless politicians are holding back America's military might out of concerns for re-election and popularity.

Democracies, we know, tend not to fight wars against each other. The main reason for that is that democratic leaders know that wars tend to be bad for them politically. That's a great source of strength for democracies, and the spread of democracy in recent decades is a large part of the reason that large-scale wars are increasingly rare. Those complaining about political correctness today in this context are largely hostile to the idea of civilian control of national security. Their complaint is not about curtailed speech, it's about democracy.

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What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

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