What is Political Correctness?

Published: September 6, 2016

By Jim Lichtman
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“Vulgarity? Mr Carson wouldn’t be vulgar if they put him on a seaside postcard.”   – Mrs. Patmore to Mrs. Hughes regarding the propriety of Downton Abbey’s head butler


Donald Trump has consistently reminded us all that we are too politically correct. During the first Republican Debate, FOX News anchor Megyn Kelly called Trump out for his consistently degrading language.

Kelly: You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.

Trump: Only Rosie O’Donnell.

Kelly: For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O’Donnell.

Trump: I’m sure it was.

Kelly: Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant that it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.

Does that sound like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?

Trump: The big problem this country has is being politically correct. …

In an interview for Esquire magazine (Aug. 3), Clint Eastwood summed up Trump’s manner this way:

“…he’s onto something, because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.”

Maybe they weren’t expressed out loud where you were growing up, Clint, but there were plenty of racial slurs and racist actions taking place throughout the country. The Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s wasn’t just an idle pastime; it was a real and viable protest that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Georgia Southern University Assistant Professor Jared Yates Sexton writes (July 1), “Depending on whom you ask, political correctness is either an effort to expunge offensive expression from our culture, or it’s a weapon fashioned by the left to brainwash the next generation.”

If you google-search the term “political correctness,” here’s what comes up first:

“The avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

In 1872, women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony was arrested for having the temerity to vote.

In a speech arguing her point, Anthony said:

“Friends and fellow citizens: I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove to you that in thus voting, I not only committed no crime, but, instead, simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the National Constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny.

“The preamble of the Federal Constitution says:

‘We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.’

“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. …”

On April 1, 1947, The League of Women Voters wrote about the need for legislation that “…would declare it to be a policy of the U.S. that in law and its administration no distinctions on the basis of sex shall be made except such as are reasonably justified by difference in physical structure, biological, or social function.”

As more women entered the work force, job titles changed to reflect a gender-neutral title: “lineman” is now “lineworker”; “postman” is now “letter carrier” and “chairperson” or “chair” is a commonly accepted replacement for “chairman.”

Growing up in the 60s, individuals of African heritage were often called Negroes, and use of the divisive “n” word was far too prevalent. Today, the term “Black” has become more widely accepted, (although many still prefer African-American).

In 50s slang, men who were suspected as being homosexual were referred to as a being “light in the loafers,” clearly an insulting term by any standard.

Recently, the term LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and those Questioning their gender identity) has entered the lexicon because individuals in those communities have faced ridicule and, in some cases, ostracism.

From an ethical perspective, all of this comes down to one simple notion: Respect.

Ethicist and teacher, Michael Josephson considers respect a fundamental ethical value that “imposes a moral duty to treat all persons with respect. This means that we recognize and honor each person’s right to autonomy and self-determination, privacy and dignity.”

So, why do titles and descriptions change?

Again, it’s right there, in the preamble to the constitution:

“… in Order to form a more perfect Union…

As a country, we are constantly changing, evolving, striving to become a more perfect Union. In doing so, we all wish to be treated with greater respect. Civility is the glue that binds us – all of us – together.

However, as Yale law professor Stephen Carter points out in his 1998 book on the subject, “we seem to have trouble agreeing on exactly what civility is.

“Some people, when they think of civility think of manners. Others think of proper standards of moral conduct, or a set of standards for conducting public argument. Still others think of willing participation in the institutions that enable our democracy to thrive, what has come to be known as the movement for civic renewal. … all of these views are partly correct: like the blind men and the elephant, the many observers of civility are talking about different parts of the same animal.

“Civility,” Carter argues, “is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together. …

“Yielding to [the] very human instinct for self-seeking, I shall argue, is often immoral, and certainly should not be done without forethought. We should make sacrifices for others not simply because doing so makes social life easier (although it does), but as a signal of respect for our fellow citizens, marking them as full equals, both before the law and before God.”

Does civility matter, or is it just a dressed-up version of political correctness?

In 2010, Indiana governor and current Republican vice-presidential candidate, Mike Pence said, “We cannot do democracy without a heavy dose of civility.”

So, how can we foster more civility?

That answer in tomorrow’s commentary.


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