During the second US presidential debate last week, when a Muslim-American woman in the audience asked how she should deal with being labelled a “threat to the country,” Republican candidate Donald Trump said, “We could be very politically correct, but whether we like it or not, there is a problem and we have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on.” He was referring to the terror attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando and New York 9/11, saying Muslims didn’t do enough to stop the attacks.
With that, Trump made the most of his chance to once again hit out at “political correctness”, his favourite punching bag. He has used every opportunity possible to tell his voters that with him, they get a straight-talking guy, someone who doesn’t get hemmed in by the political correctness of his rival Hillary Clinton and the other ‘liberals’.
The Trump campaign has pitched in too. His former campaign manager spoke of “political correctness running amok”.
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But has it really? And does this beast that runs “amok” need reining in?
According to Time’s Mark Hannah, political correctness is “an absolute must”. Because the opposite of it is “political expression that is careless toward the beliefs and attitudes different than one’s own. In its more extreme fashion, it is incivility, indecency or vulgarity. These are the true alternatives to political correctness”.
Hannah adds that political correctness “has been a whipping boy of the right wing for decades, and lately Trump is cracking the whip with abandon”.
In an op-ed for the St. Louis Jewish Delight, Eric Mink also dismisses Trump’s view. “Trump wasn’t championing free speech when he made fun of a reporter who was born with a muscular disorder that distorts his joints and arm movements… Rebellion against political correctness had nothing to do with Trump promoting for years the false, racist claim that Barack Obama was born outside the United States and could not be a legitimate president, or saying ‘laziness is a trait in blacks’.”
Mink explains that political correctness is a threat for white Americans whose families have been in the US for generations, who “feel themselves slipping backward and becoming invisible, watching as American culture is appropriated by people of different ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds… Political correctness, as they see it, means they’re not allowed to complain about any of this.”
However, the fear is not unique to the US. In Europe, populist movements have been increasingly attacking what they consider a “threat to free speech”.
In Germany, the right-wing Euro-sceptic party, Alternative for Germany, routinely writes articles slamming “gender lunacy” and “political correctness”. In its manifesto, the party claims that political correctness “harms society” and leads to “dictatorship of ideas in public discourse”. Others, such as the German website Politically Incorrect (pi-news.net), flog political correctness to rail against refugees and minorities.
However, it’s not just the Right that has a problem with political correctness; Left-wing scholars have also been critical about political correctness, but with a difference. They believe that not touching upon prickly issues such as race and sexuality is also a form of political correctness.
In an op-ed piece for the Australian TV station, SBS, Alex McKinnon, an activist of the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual and Intersexed) community, writes: “Political correctness is eating Australia alive… We have a… nationwide addiction to browbeating, shouting down or otherwise stifling any political debate or topic which makes certain sections of society feel uncomfortable.” He then goes on talk about Indigenous rugby player Paul Gorrie, who refused to sing the national anthem at the finals of a major rugby league in the first week of October in protest against black deaths in custody and the “disproportionately high Indigenous incarceration rates”. The Aboriginal sportsman’s call was met “with furious denunciation” from the public, including conservative politicians, just because he had dared to mention “that race is a force that defines our history and continues to shape our present”.
McKinnon writes, “In the scared, brittle worldview, racism has been magically solved by virtue of trying very hard not to think about it, and the only way anyone can be racist anymore is by mentioning the existence of race and racism.”
Slovenian philosopher Slajov Žižek makes a similar point when he argues that political correctness is “a form of self-discipline which doesn’t really allow you to overcome racism. It’s just oppressed controlled racism”. In a 2015 interview for Bigthink.com, he even described it as “a more dangerous form of totalitarianism”.
Žižek, a Hegelian Marxist, had said that when the Civil War broke out in Yugoslavia, the first things to go were the dirty jokes. “These were obscene, racist jokes, but their effect was a wonderful sense of shared obscene solidarity.”
When clichés, even positive ones, are being eradicated with top-down policies, this can be destructive, writes Martin Engelberg in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse. He cites US university guidelines that advise freshmen not to ask unknown Asian students whether they can help with your math homework, and not to ask an African-American student whether he plays basketball. Why? Because both questions are based on clichés that could be considered “micro-aggressions”.
Engelberg says this extreme political correctness could be behind the rise of right-wing anger and consolidation. Even in his own country. Three weeks ago, Austria made it to the cover of Time magazine with ‘The New Faces of the Right’. The homeland of Adolf Hitler could become the first west European country since the fall of the Nazi regime to vote in an extreme right-wing candidate as president. Norbert Hofer, the FPÖ candidate, is constantly challenging political correctness, wearing cornflowers on his jacket, the sign of underground Anti-Semites and Nazis in the early 1930s before they rose to power.
In Die Presse, Martin Engelberg, the editor of the Jewish magazine NU, writes: “Presumably, the party wants to provoke and thwart the ‘politically correct’ handling of Austria’s past. And presumably, this explains part of the political success of the (right-wing party). The lesson of this: Exaggerated political correctness will, at a certain point, have the exact opposite effect.”
That’s also the point Obama made at a September 2015 speech in Iowa. “I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that… Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn either,” he said.