Trump’s Election Marks the End of “Political Correctness.” Good Riddance.
PC Culture and the “Safe Space”
During President Obama’s exit interview with Steve Inskeep of NPR last week, a rare point of agreement between President and President-elect occurred when Obama was asked if he believed Donald Trump was right in his assertion that political correctness has gone too far. Obama responded by qualifying his definition of political correctness:
“If what’s meant by political correctness is that there is some broad disapproval that’s expressed when somebody uses a racial epithet, or somebody makes a derogatory comment about women, or about the LGBT community, and people say, “Hey, you shouldn’t do that. That’s wrong, that’s cruel, that’s hurtful. Here’s the history of that word.” And when you use words like that, you’re reinforcing people feeling like they’re outsiders, and less than other Americans.
I don’t consider that political correctness. I consider that good manners, sound values and hard-fought gains in the nature of American society and American community. I think it’s a good thing that we don’t think that using the “n” word is socially acceptable. I think it’s a good thing that we don’t refer to women in derogatory ways — because I have a couple of daughters, and I don’t want them to feel that way.”
But he then went on to contrast this with another definition of the term:
“Now, if you’re narrowly defining political correctness as a hypersensitivity that ends up resulting in people not being able to express their opinions at all without somebody suggesting they’re a victim, you know, if sort of, our social discourse and our political discourse becomes like walking on eggshells so that if somebody says “You know what, I’m not sure affirmative action is the right way to solve racial problems in this country,” and somebody’s immediately accused of being racist, well, then I think you have a point.”
These may seem like a small, even obvious, distinction, but it has had some very deep repercussions to the American political landscape. The latter definition of political correctness has, over time, become the one most accepted and championed by many who support leftist causes. This has contributed greatly to the Democrats’ loss in 2016, and will continue to do so until those on the left begin to rethink the notion of PC.
Liberal attempts to combat bigotry and be more inclusive of minorities has evolved into outright attempts to block out any deviations from liberal orthodoxy in their midst. This has been done via passive and active actions. On the passive side has been the adoption of a “PC culture”, a de-facto lingua franca that seeks to deter any language or action that may potentially hurt anyone in any way. This culture has been ensconced into liberal thought, and any deviation from it is deemed backward, blocked on social media, and derided as contrary to progress.
PC culture has also been actively pursued, and has taken on a physical manifestation in the form of “safe spaces”. This term originally referred to places where the LGBTQI community can gather openly, but is now used much differently. At its best, it is a place where people who are marginalized can express themselves without reprisal. Too may times, however, it has been used to justify the outright censorship of ideas deemed uncomfortable or contrarian to the liberal thinking of a given community.
Nowhere has this played out more prominently than on college campuses. The past several years has seen a spate of protests by college students over life on campus. While some protests raised crucial issues, such as the treatment of black students on campus or campus rape, many others called on their universities to make them “safe” from views they deemed uncomfortable. The list of “grievances” that students rallied against included: a lack of “trigger warnings” on academic content covering sensitive topics; questioning the university’s role in dictating offensive Halloween costumes; screening a movie on gay rights deemed “too violent”; offensive rap lyrics; being Woodrow Wilson, Condoleezza Rice, or Bill Maher; and, most bizarrely, freedom of the press.
This same process of censorship and insulation has also occurred in many predominately liberal parts of the country. Dubbed the liberal “bubble”, it has been the source of much scorn and ridicule from the right (and sometimes the left):
Conservative pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Tomi Lahren have created entire careers deriding PC culture as a limit to free speech and something downright un-American. Such accusations are rather hypocritical. The right has its very own PC culture, one centered on American patriotism and exceptionalism. Just as in leftist circles, individuals on the right can also be derided, but instead for failing to appear “American”. A failure to be “patriotic” can result from various actions, such as: questioning US’ impact on the world (automatically labeled as “supporting communism or terrorism”; depending on the time period); not supporting the US’ wars (automatically labeled as “not supporting the troops”) supporting firearms control (“you can’t take my guns!”) etc. That is just the mild side of conservative PC culture; its alt-right (the PC word for White supremacist) counterpart needs no explanation.
The “Liberal Bubble” has Burst
The election of Donald Trump was what liberal PC culture was supposed to prevent. Instead, Trump put its destruction as the centerpiece of his campaign and won. He effectively broke every tenet of PC propriety- mocking and/or stereotyping women, minorities, immigrants, veterans, and people with disabilities alike- and was rewarded with the White House for his troubles. It was a shock to many on the left, but it shouldn’t have been.
For starters, many liberals assumed that the propagation of PC culture they saw around them meant that most people felt the same way as they did (except for those dreadful few in the southern and “flyover” states). In fact, the majority of the US seems to not care much for being PC. A study by Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of Americans thought people were too easily offended over language. Predictably, 78 percent of those who identified as Republican thought so, but so did 37 percent of Democrats and, crucially, 68 percent of Independents.
The comforts to liberals’ preconceived notions of America that their bubble provided lulled them to sleep; many never saw the Trump train coming. They also thought they were doing enough to prevent its rise, believing that upholding PC culture was the same as pushing for social change. This was again most apparent among college students. Masses of them protested, signed petitions, and demanded firings over Halloween costumes, commencement speakers, and dorm names. However, voting against a president who espoused nearly every form of bigotry seemed to be less of a draw; only half of those of college age even bothered to vote in November.
Trump and the far right were further able to capitalize on this complacency by building up PC culture as a straw man. They effectively castigated PC culture as simply the language of the Washington elites that have ruined the country, the noise of the swamp that needed to be drained. Trump even blamed terrorism on it. In doing all of this, Trump was able to pass off his bigoted remarks as a straight talking, “shoot from the hip” defense of freedom of speech. The more the left spent decrying his remarks, the more they looked like enforcers of the status quo, rather than a party that might care about those outside the liberal coasts. And the rest is history…
Living in a post-PC World
The modern notion of a safe space no longer really exists given that its very antithesis controls the executive, legislative, and possibly judicial branch of government. Instead, liberals must begin to really understand the America they live in, the good and the bad. This necessarily entails moving past the PC bubble and back to what such efforts were meant to do: uphold and protect civil rights for all. To do this, progressives must do two things:
Engage: Liberal circles have too often given the cold shoulder to people who didn’t fit perfectly into their PC mold. This caused enough people to reject the left and vote for Trump to put him over the top. Regaining political power starts with banishing the assumption that all Trump supporters are bigots who will never listen to liberals, and taking individuals for the complex beings that they are. It requires reaching out and communicating to those at the margins of Trump’s base of support. There, liberals stand to find individuals who may not agree with all liberal ideals (the factory worker whose job was automated, the person who questions affirmative action but not the rights of minorities, the pro-lifer who wants equal pay for women etc.), but may come around to the left side if given the opportunity to do so in their own way.
Act: Liberals must also move past symbolic actions and rhetoric. In adopting a “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” approach to social injustice, many liberals believed that society can rid itself of issues like racism, homophobia, and xenophobia simply by ostracizing their proponents away from their social media feeds and university quads. This is not the same as activism. Much like sweeping a mess under one’s bed, a problem does not go away simply when it is not visible. Activism entails marching on the streets for victims of injustice, rather than wearing safety pins; exposing and addressing underlying socioeconomic injustice in our communities, rather than just “buying local”; showing up to vote at every level, instead of at protests after the election.
It bears mentioning that this article was not meant to disparage some of the actions of college students for its own sake, but rather to make the point that such actions are misplaced. Students have historically played an important part in furthering progressive social change in the US, and can do so again if they focus their efforts away from offensive events on campus and onto the larger issues those events represent. After all, dorm names and spring concert performers pale in comparison to issues that truly affect student life such as campus rape, racial disparities in educational attainment, rising tuition costs, and the declining value of the degrees that pay for them.
Not All Is Lost…
Conservatives who believe Trump’s victory is a referendum on their own PC culture are sorely mistaken. After all, 2.8 million more people voted against Trump than for him. And even those that voted for him did not necessarily agree with his conduct, or stance on social issues. According to exit polls, 20 percent of those who thought Trump did not have the right temperament voted for him, as did 23 percent of those who said they wanted the next president to be more liberal. Nearly half of Trump voters did not favor his treatment of women or his support for deportations of illegal migrants.
Trump may have won, but this does not mean the US is getting more bigoted, or even conservative. The majority of Americans still support issues like gay marriage, citizenship for illegal immigrants, abortion rights, and stricter gun laws. If the Trump administration rests its laurels on bashing such issues, they will not meet much support, especially if liberals can step out of their bubble and confront them.