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National Issues

The comeback of political correctness

The phrase “politically correct” first gained traction in the late 1980s, but over the last several months, it has gained a new momentum as a unifying conservative rallying cry.

GOP presidential candidates have connected political correctness to issues ranging from ISIS to climate change to our national debt to trans fats. Ted Cruz said it is killing people, and Dr. Ben Carson asserts that it is destroying the country. A recent poll found that 81 percent of Republicans believe political correctness is a “big problem.”

Some, such as conservative columnist S.E. Cupp, say liberals are to blame for this backlash.  The addition of “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” to the American lexicon, along with the reflexive use of rhetorical descriptors such as “privileged” and “marginalized,” have stifled honest conversation to the point that right-wing voters feel drawn to the extreme rhetoric of politicians like Donald Trump.

Others believe that GOP lamentations about the “PC police” are simply further evidence that the median Republican voter is falling further behind the times. Insults and subtle assertions of supremacy based on race, religion or gender that might’ve been ignored a generation ago are now viewed as expressions of bigotry.

Regardless of who’s to blame, it’s impossible to ignore the comeback that the PC wars have made in American political dialogue. The “PC Police” have become the most convenient and ubiquitous strawman on the Republican debate stage, and politicians who would’ve once been labeled as eccentric and off-putting are held up as courageous martyrs for unpopular opinion. As Cupp puts it, “if everything is offensive in Liberalville, then nothing will be offensive in Trumpland.”

The true usefulness of “political correctness” is likely more nuanced. It’s almost undeniable that a good deal of GOP primary rhetoric is aimed at people who are unused to recognizing the sensitivities of traditionally voiceless groups, or their own unearned positions of privilege. On the other hand, liberals who insist on taking every opportunity to call out perceived bigotry and assertions of power can come across as self-righteous, petulant and over-eager. As a friend asked over lunch recently, “Is there a word for the privilege it takes to call out someone else’s privilege?”

Reflexively shutting down, disinviting or discrediting anyone whose viewpoint might be construed as offensive is just as intellectually lazy as blaming complex social problems on grossly inaccurate stereotypes, or equating crassness with courage. The politics of political correctness are unproductive and should be replaced with a new paradigm for debate — and one promising option is civility.

The American Institute for Civility in Politics defines “civility” as claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. Adopting a more civil approach to political discourse would require those on the left to make space for opinions that might be based on hurtful stereotypes, and to recognize that these opinions are often rooted in ignorance rather than hatred. For those on the right, it would require taking ownership of the effect their views might have on others, and recognizing the true history of the vantage point from which they might be voicing their opinions.

It might even be possible that both sides of the “PC War” have essentially honorable and human motivations. On the right, the defense of one’s ability to say true but unpopular things; on the left, the desire to call out the subtext of unconscious bigotry that informs so many beliefs and assumptions. Yet, until we can move toward a more honest, measured and civil political dialogue, the reflexive and empty allegations of political correctness will continue to stifle the usefulness of real debate.

Tyler Gamble, from Ashe County, N.C., is a master’s in public policy candidate at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. He just started tweeting and can be found @tylerlgamble.

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