All those who don't themselves support Trump pointing fingers at each other and blaming each other for Donald Trump’s runaway candidacy is the new spectator sport. Normally I wouldn’t find a new column blaming me (or, rather, people like me) for Donald Trump’s existence as a political figure to be remarkable, but Tom Nichols is a fellow “Jeopardy!” champion and that was apparently enough for people to fill my inbox with links to his most recent column.
The idea that the left-wing “p.c. police” are somehow responsible for the monstrousness of Trump and his supporters was annoying enough, before Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum jumped in with the remarkable chutzpah to say, as a white male liberal, that he agreed liberals “yell racism a little more than we should” and the “privilege thing gets tiresome.”
Follow that up with Jonathan Last in the Weekly Standard claiming that Trump is indeed somehow Obama’s fault for being a high-handed imperial president and that Obama’s most recent speech about gun control is an example of bullying p.c. policing and I, as we p.c. millennials say, can’t even.
I find arguments like Nichols’ wearisome because whatever else they pretend to be, at the end of the day they are arguments about tone, and thus end up being self-defeating and hypocritical. Nichols doesn’t like that his opponents condescend to gun owners or bring up Jesus when talking about refugees; in response, he calls his opponents Maoists and Cultural Revolutionaries and says their overly harsh words are basically like being beaten, imprisoned or killed. He mysteriously retains the moral high ground in all this because his own hyperbolic language, of course, does not count.
I could point out how laughable it is to blame the left for bringing Jesus into politics — especially when Jesus speaks many times and at length about hospitality in the New Testament and doesn’t mention homosexuality or abortion at all. I could point out the “educated elite vs. rube” condescension occurs on all sides of the political spectrum, and that “rube” describes very well the attitude of fiscal conservatives sneering at those stupid ignorant workers who think their poverty could be solved by anything so simplistic as paying them higher wages.
But that’s not what particularly frustrated me; that much I find familiar enough from hypocritical right-wing polemic to roll off my back. What frustrated me was self-identified liberal Kevin Drum taking up the Jonathan Chait banner and arguing that, yes, both sides are guilty of hyperbolic rhetoric but it’s the liberals who’ve driven moderates out of the warm embrace of the left by criminalizing “ordinary language.”
He gives as an example of overweening “p.c. gone mad” the idea that you aren’t “allowed” to call a particular behavior “black behavior” and that the correct circumlocution, “behavior stereotypically coded as black,” would never occur to someone outside of the academy.
This is nonsense. It is nonsense that “black behavior” means the same thing as “behavior stereotypically coded as black.” It is nonsense that the academy or the activist-y left is the only place where you’d “get in trouble” for treating the two as the same.
While I wouldn’t expect everyone to reach for the phrase “stereotypically coded as,” I would expect people who casually say “black behavior” to get corrected, and to replace it with something like “the kind of thing people expect black people to do” or “the kind of thing people think of as black behavior.” I’ve been called on my choice of words casually calling things people do “black” or “white” without using qualifiers — by people with more education and by people with less.
It’s worth calling people out on because mistaking “behavior people think of as black” with straight-up “black behavior” is the definition of racial prejudice.
It matters, in other words, because words mean things and the way we use words reflects the way we think. That’s not some esoteric concept invented by modern academics, that’s a basic rule of being a human being, which is why you don’t need a Ph.D. to get why it matters that “politically correct” Southerners call black men “sir” and not “boy” nowadays.
Donald Trump certainly isn’t fighting for the right to use “ordinary language” instead of academese to express otherwise innocuous concepts. When Donald Trump calls Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, it’s not the tone that’s the problem. The sentiment would not somehow be improved by replacing “rapists” with “sexual offenders” or “people who violate the principle of consent.” It’s the content.
Just like Trump calling for a “complete shutdown of Muslims” wasn’t “problematic” because of how bluntly he said it, it was problematic because of what he was saying. Despite Trump getting in the news for his tendency to use blunt, colorful language, it’s the fact that he says terrible things and not the way he says them that’s getting him coverage--which is why his close rival in the polls has been Ben Carson, who in tone is far more soft-spoken and polite but in beliefs is equally if not more deranged.
I don’t buy the civility argument based on tone that Nichols lays out. I don’t think anyone really cares about tone; I think it’s always a cheap excuse to use tone to avoid having arguments based on content. The laziest resort of anyone who’s losing an argument--or a culture war--is to resort to the golden mean fallacy, that simply because a position is held by roughly half the population and currently considered “respectable” we are obligated to respect it.
I won’t defend the example Nichols brings up about George Takei invoking blackface to describe Clarence Thomas--I am, in fact, a p.c. leftist who thinks words like “blackface” shouldn’t be used lightly about anyone.
But I will point out that Takei was reacting to a tendentious argument by Thomas in his dissent in Obergefell v. Hedges arguing that the government had no compelling interest in legalizing same-sex marriage based on “dignity” because government discrimination cannot take dignity away. He used the enslavement of African-Americans and the internment of Japanese-Americans as his two examples.
I have little to no respect for any argument that there was “dignity” in slavery, or the related argument that because slavery was explicitly permitted in the Constitution it would’ve been immoral for the courts to overturn it (the argument we now remember as underpinning the Dred Scott decision).
The fact that being in favor of slavery was once a widely held, fiercely defended opinion in the United States does not make it “respectable” and does not obligate someone who opposes it to be civil and respectful to slavery apologists. The fact that abolitionists were once considered a scary fringe sect of radical zealots within American politics and electable moderates like Abraham Lincoln had to argue about slavery as a “50-50 issue” doesn’t make slavery any less of a moral atrocity or abolitionism any less the only acceptable position.
We don’t chastise the abolitionists for their revolutionary zeal and their willingness to be ugly “bullies” who said nasty things about respectable people that got them caned on the Senate floor. We praise them for it, because they were the ones who moved the Overton window, who took an abominable institution and made it abominated, who took a commonplace atrocity and made it unthinkable.
While I’m linking to Louis C.K. bits--Nichols lightly dances over the original “political correctness” of the 1970s, claiming that that political correctness is totally different in character from today’s mean, bullying, aggressive political correctness. He treats yesterday’s political correctness as no big deal, as though everyone simply agreed to be “nice” one day and start saying “he or she” and not saying the N-word and not publicly speculating that black people were the result of “genetic deterioration” out of simple civility.
I respect that, although I did win six more games of “Jeopardy!” than he did, Nichols lived through the 1970s and I did not. However, what little I do know of the history of the 1960s and 1970s--i.e., the “New Left” with its panoply of Yippies, hippies, Weathermen and genuine no-kidding Maoists--makes his gloss of 1970s history out to be self-serving nonsense.
The culture war was, if anything, more fervent and zealous then than it is now. For better or for worse, the “extreme” left of today is far less extreme; Occupy Wall Street was no Symbionese Liberation Army, and #BlackLivesMatter--which Nichols talks about as some terrifying threat going around silencing people-- is no Black Panther Party. It’s understandable that people my age talk about some unprecedented age of political correctness gone mad because one student strike got one campus president to step down; for a baby boomer it’s ridiculous.
But the real kicker is that Nichols can’t delve too deeply into what caused the post-1970s “political correctness” because he’d have to admit that it worked, and was justified. Across the spectrum of people labeled “extremists” and “dangerous radicals” in the 1960s were modern secular saints like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. The man who called the “white moderate” the truest enemy of progress is now genuflected to by white moderates nationwide on his national holiday in January.
People in the 1970s who were “attacked” and “bullied” by those activists telling them everything they grew up believing in was wrong were mad, too. They didn’t see why they should be shouted at or made to feel like bad people for believing that black people were naturally inferior, that women’s place was in the home, and that Christianity was the one true religion Americans should be allowed to practice.
Norman Lear created the character Archie Bunker in “All in the Family” to satirize the “well-meaning ordinary American” who, with no particular malice in his heart, blithely and casually “speaks his mind” about beliefs that, when put in practice by his elected leaders, caused grievous harm to millions of people.
I would hope that Nichols caught the message in “All in the Family” that many of Archie Bunker’s fans missed: that Archie may not feel himself to be a bad person, that he may have good intentions, that it may be possible to empathize with how he feels put upon and attacked by a changing world, but that his beliefs are wrong, and dangerous, and harm innocent people, and need to be stopped.
It is, in the end, about content, not tone. There are different ways you can say the same thing--you can be a hectoring bully or you can be piously sanctimonious or you can be drily academic or you can be vulnerably emotional.
President Obama, who is not one for launching vitriolic attacks, did that last one with his speech on Tuesday. He did the opposite of a shouting, hectoring, vicious attack on gun owners in order to call them ignorant rubes. He didn’t talk much about gun owners at all. Instead he talked about the victims of gun violence, and he wept.
Which “anti-p.c.” gun defenders went ahead and took as an attack anyway, letting fly the barbs exactly as though he had literally looked into the camera and said, “I hate gun owners.”
Because, after all, it’s the content that matters. People mad about “p.c.” aren’t mad about the tone in which they’re being told their vile beliefs aren’t acceptable, they’re mad at the simple fact that their vile beliefs aren’t acceptable. They’re using tone as a distraction to argue that the simple fact that they hold an opinion means that opinion ought to be treated with respect--that the simple fact that Brendan Eich’s opinion was commonplace not that long ago means it isn’t offensive, even though William Shockley made the same argument about his belief in degenerate Africans in the 1970s, even though former slaveowners made the same argument during Reconstruction.
So they’ll continue to see President Obama expressing what, to the rest of us, is an obvious shocked and aggrieved reaction to the senseless and preventable murder of 20 children as an aggressive “bullying” tactic. They’ll continue responding to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” as though those two ideas are in conflict.
They’ll continue talking about the meta ideas of freedom of speech, of civility, of tone, and of the golden mean fallacy that says because their ideas are or were culturally popular we have to be nice about it.
But the issue isn’t “p.c.” It’s simply that harmful and wrong beliefs have victims who won’t shut up and be silent about how they’ve been harmed by them, no matter how “respectable” those beliefs are. That’s how cultural change happens--when the silenced start speaking, the formerly acceptable becomes unacceptable.
And to every Martin Luther King you’ll get a George Wallace riding the wave of reactionary resentment to notoriety, and you’ll get genteel moderates blaming the revolutionaries for “causing” the reactionaries.
Well, if the choice is between things getting hairy and ugly in politics or sitting back and waiting for a more convenient season, I’m with Dr. King. And if the choice is between giving a voice to the marginalized or acceding to the complaints of those who find that voice “tiresome”--even if the individuals who use that voice are sometimes intemperate, or unreasonable, or crude--I know whose side I’m on.