13 February 2017

The Guardian: “Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy”

Trump’s incessant repetition of the phrase has led many writers since the election to argue that the secret to his victory was a backlash against excessive “political correctness”. Some have argued that Hillary Clinton failed because she was too invested in that close relative of political correctness, “identity politics”. But upon closer examination, “political correctness” becomes an impossibly slippery concept. The term is what Ancient Greek rhetoricians would have called an “exonym”: a term for another group, which signals that the speaker does not belong to it. Nobody ever describes themselves as “politically correct”. The phrase is only ever an accusation.

If you say that something is technically correct, you are suggesting that it is wrong – the adverb before “correct” implies a “but”. However, to say that a statement is politically correct hints at something more insidious. Namely, that the speaker is acting in bad faith. He or she has ulterior motives, and is hiding the truth in order to advance an agenda or to signal moral superiority. To say that someone is being “politically correct” discredits them twice. First, they are wrong. Second, and more damningly, they know it.

Moira Weigel

One might say Donald Trump is ‘politically correct’ only to himself – i.e. proclaiming he’s a good leader for America and calling everybody disagreeing wrong and ‘sad’. Although on second thought I’m not sure it applies, because he sure seems to believe all the crazy, untrue things he constantly spouts.

PC was a useful invention for the Republican right because it helped the movement to drive a wedge between working-class people and the Democrats who claimed to speak for them. “Political correctness” became a term used to drum into the public imagination the idea that there was a deep divide between the “ordinary people” and the “liberal elite”, who sought to control the speech and thoughts of regular folk. Opposition to political correctness also became a way to rebrand racism in ways that were politically acceptable in the post-civil-rights era.

The Mainstream Translator
The Mainstream Translator | Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller for Feb 17, 2017

Unfortunately, this ‘scorched-earth’ strategy has broader consequences for the American public: distrust of the political ‘elites’ naturally translates into general distrust of authority and elites in other areas: scientists warning about the dangers of climate change, doctors warning about the perils of refusing vaccination. Economists have already been thoroughly discredited by their failure to foresee the economic crisis and act decisively against its consequences. I fully expect Trump to wield this weapon against the American justice system as it stands in the way of his rash orders.

First, by talking incessantly about political correctness, Trump established the myth that he had dishonest and powerful enemies who wanted to prevent him from taking on the difficult challenges facing the nation. By claiming that he was being silenced, he created a drama in which he could play the hero. The notion that Trump was both persecuted and heroic was crucial to his emotional appeal. It allowed people who were struggling economically or angry about the way society was changing to see themselves in him, battling against a rigged system that made them feel powerless and devalued. At the same time, Trump’s swagger promised that they were strong and entitled to glory. They were great and would be great again.

Political correctness Donald Trump
Main illustration: Nathalie Lees

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