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Trump the Hot Potato

The other day a blogger from a liberal journal gave a conservative article a fair hearing – possibly even too much of a fair hearing. And this raised my brow a little, because any time someone from a well-known media outlet extends this kind of decency to their ideological opponent, it seems like grounds for a small spontaneous holiday.

Mother Jones's Kevin Drum notes that Tom Nichols wrote a piece in the Daily Beast blaming the Trump phenomenon on the political correctness of the Left. In fact, Nichols's headline is How the P.C. Police Propelled Donald Trump. And while this particular headline seems to deserve an immediate dismissal – after all, what isn't the fault of political correctness nowadays to a conservative blogger (or candidate for president)? - Drum actually seems to have read the article and takes it seriously for about as long as it is decent to do.

This from Nichols's own article sums up his position:

“The extremist adherents of this new political correctness have essentially taken a flamethrower to the public space and annihilated its center. Topics in American life that once were the legitimate subjects of debate between liberals and conservative are now off-limits and lead to immediate attack by the cultural establishment if raised at all. Any incorrect position, any expression of the constitutional right to a different opinion, or even just a slip of the tongue can lead to public ostracism and the loss of a job. (Just ask Brendan Eich.) There is a huge vacuum left by this leftist attack on speech, and Trump is filling it.”

And Kevin Drum finds some common ground in the following way:

“This is hardly a new critique. Conservatives have been complaining about "being silenced" forever. The only difference between Trump and the rest of the GOP field is that Trump's complaints are a little earthier than Rubio's or Bush's.

Still, even if I think Nichols is overstating things, it's not as if he doesn't have a point. Even those of us on the left feel the wrath of the leftier-than-thou brigade from time to time. I don't generally have a hard time avoiding objectionable language myself because (a) I'm liberal, (b) I'm good with words, and (c) I write rather than talk, which gives me time to get my act together. But even at that, sometimes I cross an invisible line and get trounced for it.

But for someone without my advantages, I can easily see how it might feel almost impossible to express an unpopular opinion without tying yourself in knots. And let's be honest: We liberals do tend to yell racism a little more often than we should. And we do tend to suggest that anyone who likes guns or Jesus is a rube. And the whole "privilege" thing sure does get tiresome sometimes. And we do get a little pedantic in our insistence that no conversation about anything is complete unless it specifically acknowledges the special problems of marginalized groups. It can be pretty suffocating at times.”

Putting aside the somewhat self-regarding tone of that excerpt – having to state explicitly that you're good with words is not the most effective way of conveying it – the question I asked myself is how much of this common ground is really based on something true? Is the Left too focused on political correctness, or is it that just a conservative excuse for hanging on to offensive opinions? And if the modern left is too politically correct, does that mean it is pushing more level-headed Americans away from the center and against the billowing motherly skirts of one Donald J Trump?

Before going further, I should say that I think it's ludicrous for conservatives to blame the left for Trump. There is a reason why Trump, who over the years seems to have used a dartboard to choose his political positions, decided that he would run as a Republican candidate for president. The reason is that the state of that party – and to some extent conservatism – is in a state of disarray, aimlessness, and possibly collapse. He could not have run as a Democrat because that party, whatever you think of it, is not in such a chaotic unfocused state. Nichols, for his part, identifies as an independent conservative. Maybe he thinks this absolves him from any relation to Trump. But however Trump came to his positions, as they currently stand, they are not really so different from those of more traditional conservative candidates. Sure, Bush doesn't want to keep out all Muslims, but he did want a religious test for refugees. Ted Cruz has very slightly distanced himself from Trump's more incoherent lines but he did say he wanted to so bomb ISIS controlled areas that the sand would glow. The big weird darkness of Trump helps the other candidates in that it masks their own grim faces.

So is there nothing meaningful in the right's incessant cries over political correctness? I think that if we can separate the cries from the whines, then we will have to admit that there is indeed a point here. Examples of Political Correctness Gone Mad can be dismissed individually as anomalies, but they do keep piling up. From the hysteria over an unpleasant joke from a noted scientist to the clownish indignation over inauthentic food at Oberlin, I do sometimes wonder how much outrage a person or group can rain down on a single, minor example of perceived injustice before they feel embarrassed for themselves and everyone involved. And I don't have to try hard to imagine how a casual observer of politics could look at these kinds of stories and decide forever that leftist causes are not worth their time.

But I think the real problem with the so-called 'P.C. Police' is not so much their politics, which in general are more sensible than those who loudly crow about “telling it like it is”, but their capacity for nastiness and rage. I agree with progressives that it isn't good to tell sexist jokes at a workplace. That's a fine general position. But – might as well make a cliché of it – if two blue-collar men are laughing about a blonde joke on a job site, they aren't the 'epitome of a fascist patriarchy.' Nor is asking if a distant male family member has a girlfriend yet an 'egregious example of hetero-normative ignorance.' It's not that I think these two examples are proud moments in life, or even find them charming, it's just that the the reactions to these kinds of biases should be proportional. Frequently progressive reactions to real or perceived biases are very violent and angry, and there is a kind of inbred, preaching-to-your-own-choir character to them. One is perfectly free to go on in this way, but no one should wonder why an average person might be turned off by it. Although these kinds of encounters – mostly taking place on the safety of the Internet – are full of moralizing, given the predictable outcomes of them, they have very little moral value.

There is a sense today that the only duty of an enlightened, modern citizen is to have mentally checked off a list of progressive political and social positions which we have come to believe are true. And if it happens that others around us haven't reached that level of rightness, not only does that have nothing to do with us, but it is a nice measuring stick which will help us determine just how good – and how much better than them – we are.

But it is a pretty limited kind of enlightenment that doesn't ever engage with people who have other views. And one sure way to disengage is to be primarily concerned with politically correct language. There is a critical difference between personally avoiding rude and offensive language, for obvious reasons of decency, and willfully interpreting someone's questionable comment in the worst possibly way. Too often people who fancy themselves as progressives end up using the most appalling language to reject people they believe are ignorant. I suspect this comes from a kind of combination of things - an exhaustion and anxiety over conflict, a self pity over having to deal with ignorance, and an insecurity over the possibility of not being able to properly defend one's position.

If that sounds like I am being too hard on liberals and too easy on reactionary conservatives, I can only say that it may well be the case. In the year 2016, on issues of income inequality, gender, international issues, and global warming – basically the things that matter most – the left, for all its faults, is taking things seriously. The conservatives ideologically are a mess and have almost no real solutions. I don't think that's a law of nature, just a fact of our landscape right now. But it is out of this sense I have of the necessity towards progress that I expect serious people to refrain from screaming at those with a different (and often uncertain or un-formed) point of view, and willfully interpreting someone's plain speech in the worst possible way. The left, which has such a heightened sensitivity now for detecting privilege, ought to be aware that knowing the politically correct terminology and using it in an acceptable way is in itself a sign of privilege. Nobody should be using a slur against a gay person, or espousing misogynist language without being challenged, but the way that something is challenged matters as much as knowing when when ought to do it. If it's the duty of a person to not needlessly offend, it is as important a duty to try to understand what a person means when they say something questionable. If one doesn't see the obvious moral reason for this, they should at least pay attention to the observable outcomes. Conservatives primarily own the responsibility for the emergence of Trump, but it would be just like the American Left to miss a chance to expand its appeal to the majority of Americans.


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