Let us treat being “politically correct” not just as a rhetorical term thrown out by Donald Trump as a way to malign those who object to his racism and misogyny, or as a term used to describe those on the political left or members of minority groups who wish people to be ashamed of their opinions and who take offense at the expression of opinions with which they do not agree. Rather, let us use it as a serious term of moral and political philosophy which refers to how people negotiate to get heard what they want to say. That way, the term has some perennial rather than purely faddish reference and explains something about political dynamics as those are and always have been.
Think of advocates of Palestinian rights. Such people have more of an advocacy in Congress than they previously did and that is a good thing. And what is it that they say? They ask who speaks for my relatives in Ramallah who have to undergo life in occupied territory, what with its humiliations, constant police checks, and limitations on commerce. Who will speak out against Israeli oppression? The question to ask, of course, is what the spokesperson for the Palestinians would want as a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Consider possible answers. One answer might be a two state solution. Another answer might be a single state where a democratically elected majority would rule. A third possible solution would be the expulsion of the Israelis and Palestinian rule in the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river. None of these are likely, but put that aside for the moment. The Palestinian spokesperson is unlikely to voice the third proposal because that would likely alienate any interlocutor, any “fair-minded” person, and so leave the Palestinian even more isolated than he or she was when he or she did not give voice to a belief. So the Palestinian, rather than gain favor for being forthright and true to principles, however unlikely those are to prevail in any short or medium time, will be, strictly speaking, “politically correct” by holding only to a position which is likely not to alienate the interlocutor to the point that it may seem useless to go on with the conversation. By this definition, “political correctness” does not mean censoring the speech of others as it means censoring one’s own speech to the extent that it allows for one to be considered a well meaning participant in a dialogue, and without that sense of “well meaning” it is difficult to proceed with any dialogue if one means by that a give and take whereby points of view can be modified, and that has been true of dialogue at least since Plato engaged in the examination of what constitutes dialogue.
And so being politically correct is not about the person who is accusing someone else of violating some norm about the boundaries of free speech. It is about how the person who is accused of violating political correctness has failed to negotiate how much of what they say can be readily displayed or at least expressed early on in a relationship before people know one another well enough so that they can presume that each of them means to say something in “the right way” and so not to offer offense but be in the realm of dialogue. That is why I call myself a “secularist” to people rather than call myself an “atheist”. The latter title seems too harsh, too argumentative, too dismissive of the spiritual concerns of others, as if I too did not also have spiritual concerns but answered them with a resounding “no” rather than have to find some way to dip back and forth between regarding religion as a metaphor for spiritual concerns, on the one hand, or a full bodied embrace of creationism and other superstitions on the other. I am being politically correct in formulating my point of view so that it refers merely to an acceptance of all the trends that make up the modern world, like science and critical inquiry into texts, those including the Bible, and an understanding of the social, political and economic forces that shape the world we see, rather than taking on, head on, whether there is any meaning to the spiritual at all.
Now let’s apply this concept of politically correct, which I believe to be objective in that it can be applied to any time and place and to any political point of view, to some contemporary controversies. Democrats and Republicans, both in Congress and around the proverbial Thanksgiving Day meal, have to negotiate or presume what they can say to one another so that what people of either persuasion can make some degree of sense to one another. Republicans can admit (though not in Congress) that Trump is not personally appealing but that his policies on immigration and foreign policy and health care are. Democrats can admit that there may be some need for border security but that it is not all that crucial and does not necessitate the cruelty of separating mothers from toddlers. Notice that reaching out means making concessions. Give a little so as to make yourself plausible to the other side without conceding any central point. Out of such concessions compromises can be forged if the sides are willing to do that, which by and large they are not because the passion of keeping to one’s own side overrides the need for dialogue.
It is also the case that Democrats are more likely to pull their punches than are Republicans when they avoid a central impasse so as to garner some acknowledgement for their own point of view. Republicans, of late, are quick to call out Democrats as Socialists even though the overwhelming majority of Democrats aren’t and Bernie Sanders was able in 2016 to dismiss the charge by saying that no one would confuse him with the quilted pajama wearing North Koreans. He was a Socialist in the same sense that the Scandinavians were, and even the President likes immigrants from those countries,l presumably because they are white, but if an overwhelmingly white country is socialist, then how bad would socialism be? But it may be that it won’t be as easy this time around to make fun of the accusation because it does refer to something real about the Republican sense of the world, which is that liberty is at stake and that Socialists want to take away the protections that keep people free of government attacks on their liberties. The opposition of Republicans to the Affordable Care Act is not as mysterious as Paul Krugman makes it out to be. This is a government program that intrudes on your right to have your burst appendix go untreated if you do not want to buy health insurance, which should be a free choice, even if you are assigned policy coverage through your employer in that you chose to go to work there. Democrats, for their part, do not think that liberty has to do with health or with income for the elderly except in the sense of giving people more freedom to pursue other goals than health and food and shelter, but are concerned with those more central matters having to do with the vote or due process of law. So Republicans decrying “socialism” are simply being true to their point of view, however few of them will say that for fear of being labelled as not in tune with the modern world, just as those who favor Palestinian rights are reluctant to be too forthright about what that might entail.
Democrats, for their part, are much more circumspect in that they are reluctant to identify at all the issues they see as the central ones that separate them from the Republicans, and so can claim to respect those with whom they disagree even if they differ from them on, let us say, tax policy, nowaday economic theory being treated as a technical matter and so not testimony one way or another to your good will, which is what political correctness tries to determine whether you are to be awarded or not. But the core criticism of the Democrats, however much not put that way, is that we are all now what used to be called vulgar marxists: that the rich are only interested in getting richer and do so by impoverishing the poor to an ever greater extent. What Republicans believe in is a policy of wealth transfer from the poor to the already very wealthy, but it would be considered bad taste to say that too overtly because it questions the good will of those who passed the recent tax legislation and allows them the excuse that economic mumbo jumbo provides, which is that they think this tax windfall for the rich improves the overall economy. So both sides, more or less, pull their punches so as to keep up at least the appearance of dialogue. They do so by trimming their views, which is another way of saying both sides are somewhat politically correct. In general, political correctness points out that the rhetorical victory doesn’t go to the side that has the best argument but the side that has the best argument that the other side will listen to. That is political wisdom.
Political correctness has evolved in that the parameters of what is an acceptable argument are themselves subject to negotiation, which means what both sides are willing to accede to. The women’s movement has been particularly adroit at this although they would claim that the changes have come about as the result of righteous rage rather than calculated maneuvering, and that may well be so.
What the women’s movement has done is to take a radical step in renegotiating the boundaries of what an interlocutor can day and so isn’t only introducing a new trope into the discussion, which is that the traditional connection between sex and romance is replaced by the idea that in some significant number of cases, sex is obtained by men because of their ability to exploit the power dynamics of a situation so that women are in some sense forced to comply. What Feminists are also saying is that the opposition to their point of view will not be able to fashion an argument that retains to the opposition the idea of being people of good will, which is what both Republicans and Democrats both agree to do. Rather, an appeal to due process for those accused of sexual harassment is not greeted with an opposing argument, such as that it is difficult to have that in he versus she disputes over sex, but by a refusal to even recognize that due process is a relevant category, one that should readily spring to mind under such circumstances. Corey Booker comes close to enunciating that now forbidden concept when he says vaguely that we need some way of getting to the bottom of accusations, but will go no further than that, while female candidates do not even go that far.
It is a good question how Joe Biden will face up to such questions when he declares his candidacy because he is taken to be an example of the unreconstructed male because of how he handled the Anita Hill hearings twenty years ago. He can say he did the best he could under the circumstances set by others; he can say he just did wrong in those unenlightened times; he can say he has been otherwise on the forefront of protecting women from harassment, as he has. Or deploying his rhetorical skills, of which he has many, he can craft a way of saying that in any given case there can be two sides of the story and that we have to find ways to bring both of them out. How Biden deals with political correctness now that a woman has come out and accused him of inappropriate touching because he grabbed her shoulders and kissed the back of her head. Will he have a press conference or turn mute or reveal that the woman received money from the Russians or from Republicans? Or maybe the story will fade because it is too trivial even for the cable networks ever ready to feed on a new scandal. Maybe triviality is the final curb on political correctness. Politics is exciting. It not only is an arena for clashing personalities and policies; it is also an arena that can reframe intellectual concepts.