In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion reads the paper
In the summer of 2015, the party that brought us Lincoln gave us Donald Trump–the horrible straight-to-DVD sequel of something that was once worth our time. This piece of reality-TV-catchphrase bait, purveyor of the world-revered Jersey Shore style, and late-night-talk-show-monolog punchline, got on an escalator and rode it right to the forefront of the 2016 presidential race.
While science and reason cannot explain this phenomenon, your neighbor who owns lots of clothing emblazoned with the Ford or Chevy logo or your creepy uncle on Facebook can tell you why Trump pumps while others slump. Finally, they extol, someone who is not afraid to thwart political correctness! It’s a characteristic Trump himself wallows in, when he elocuted, “I’m so tired of this politically correct crap.”
But here’s the thing about political correctness: It has become a completely meaningless pejorative that people use to assail anything they find personally disagreeable, from the diabolical and deliberate suppression of truth to acts of basic human decency they don’t care to adopt.
To better understand the problem, let’s go back to the sunny 1990s when the human race was just beginning to feel its potential. Information from across the world could travel to your Juno account at speeds of up to 56k (unless your mom needed to use the phone), anyone with a web address could manage a successful IPO, and Thursday nights were littered with “Must See TV.” It seems this was also the time when cable news networks figured out that smoldering rage could work on a 24-hour cycle. Back then you couldn’t go thirty seconds without some talking head trying to inflate a garden-variety misdeed by adding “gate” to the end of a word, and, to make us all feel constantly disrespected and lied to, they would sneer about “spin.” And if you had basic cable in the nineties, you probably heard the term “political correctness” about 400 million times, or a little more than once every second.
Now, admittedly, 1990 was a quarter century ago and I have trouble remembering how I began this sentence, but it seems to me back then the phrase “politically correct” meant someone was doing something they knew was phony, obfuscating the truth, or otherwise harming society for the sake of political expediency.
For example in 1999 the mayor of Washington D.C. “hastily” accepted the resignation of a high-level staffer who used the word “niggardly” to describe how he would have administered a tight budget. (For those feeling uncomfortable, the word means stingy or parsimonious, and has nothing to do with the offensive term it sounds so much like.) The mayor’s actions were certainly “politically correct” in the pejorative sense. He allowed the complicated truth of the situation–that although people are justifiable very sensitive about race, this particular incident didn’t seem to be an act of racism, no matter how upset some people might have been–to be obscured to gain favor. It might not have been the correct thing to do, but it was the politically correct thing to do.
That kind of behavior is suspect and can outright kill important conversations we should be having. But when it comes to political correctness in 2015, it seems somewhere along the way society made a big, fat false contrapositive. (Brace yourself. Unless you studied logic or prepared for the LSAT, you are probably about to learn what a “false contrapositive” is. This will take more focus than the internet usually requires, but when you’re done you will be better for it, and you can use your betterment to make others feel inferior.)
For those not familiar, a contrapositive is a cool thing (for nerds). It lets you flip a simple if/then relationship, to create a new way to understand the world around us. For instance, you could say:
If it’s raining, then the sidewalk is wet.
And if you said this, you’d be right. Now the cool thing (for nerds) is that if we flip the order and negate each condition, we will also end up with a true statement. Like so:
If the sidewalk is NOT wet, then it’s NOT raining.
See how that’s also true? At the beginning you only knew “If X then Y,” but by knowing that one simple thing, you can also know twice as much because it’s safe to assume, “If not Y, then not X.” The trouble is, lazy thinkers will often also think it’s safe to assume the false contrapositives, where you either fail to switch or properly negate the premises.
If it’s NOT raining, then the sidewalk is NOT wet.
If the sidewalk is wet, then it’s raining.
Do you see how those premises can’t reasonably be assumed? The sprinklers could be on, or it could’ve rained earlier, or an incontinent neighbor might be walking by. All of those things would make the sidewalk wet sans rain.
With such a simple example and such low stakes, this probably seems pretty basic and hardly worth noting, but people screw this up ALL THE TIME. And, I fear we have screwed this up when it comes to political correctness.
Allow me to make political correctness into a rule.
If being polite and non-offensive is obscuring the truth and harming the greater good, then I’m being politically correct.
If so, then the contrapositive should be:
If I’m not being politically correct, then being polite and non-offensive is not obscuring the truth or harming the greater good.
Unfortunately, I think we’ve subconsciously mixed it all up and assumed that being polite in public life will, in and of itself, obscure the truth and harm the greater good, or that being impolite and offensive, per se, will reveal the truth and advance the greater good. Like Trump himself, both of these premises are unsupported by reason.
Simply put, there is a huge difference between real political correctness and civility we happen to find inconvenient. When a public figure uses euphemisms that refuse acknowledge reality because it might make her unpopular, that is 90s-style political correctness and it should despised. When someone is encouraged to stop using a racial slur because it makes others feel uncomfortable, that’s merely an application of the golden rule or a manifestation of decency. Often the changes we feel pressured to make to accommodate others and their peace of mind won’t destroy society or cost us our cherished way of life; they will merely make us admit that we aren’t always as thoughtful as we could be.
But such thoughtfulness is hard to achieve at all, let alone when we are feeling attacked for something we didn’t intend to do, or when we suppose we can say whatever we want with immunity because other people’s feelings are their own problems. And this conflict reveals a great irony: unless we can learn to make these kind of thoughtful distinctions, the very term “political correctness” will begin to espouse what it was intended to despise. It will become a term that will immediately kill the discussion, gloss over reality, conceal the truth, and harm the public welfare all for the sake of ease.Spread: by