Thomas B. Edsall‘s essay, “Trump, Obama, and the Assault on Political Correctness“, wanders through the issue of political correctness and the literal changes occurring — some of them abruptly — in political discourse today. For the most part it is a thoughtful journey, but I think it raises a more important question: What is political correctness?
I would argue that both the meaning of the term and its intent have changed. “Political correctness” has become a shield on the one hand, used to defend one’s right to say what he or she pleases by condemning political correctness as a restraint on speech. While on the other hand, it has become a weapon to either restrict or dismiss an argument or to protect oneself against speech they do not like. In either case, “political correctness” has become mostly a derogatory term. You don’t describe something said as politically correct to compliment it.
Politically correct, in a more pragmatic sense, should mean something is literally politically correct; in other words, it reflects correct (or maybe preferred) status of political rights, for example. Talking about gender in ways that respect all genders equally to reflect our belief that all genders are equal, for example. Political correctness in this sense exists in idioms.
When people start using language to insult, demean, and hurt others that is expressing freedom prohibited by political correctness, that is using language to insult, demean and hurt others. This use of language isn’t some noble expression of free (i.e., anti-politically correct) speech, it is crass and mean. Politically correct or otherwise, that does not fit the context of decent political or public discourse.
Words shape reality. By paying attention to the ideology of our language, we help reach the ideals and goals we choose to protect and value. Speech, whether in politics, pop culture, or at the bus stop, says a lot about who we are what we value. Should it really surprise us that some Americans embrace a more crude, resentful expressions of speech?
A more interesting assessment of this trend would look into who says what and why. Just as all ideas are not equal, neither is all speech.