Ever since Rush Limbaugh pioneered the art of a 300-lb man bullying people for their weight, the idea of “political incorrectness” has been one of the most reliable and effective dog whistles in the Right’s proud Toolbox Of Cliches. It serves its underlying purpose of signalling to your audience that you’re about to be a dick to people whose lives you can’t relate to while reinforcing the tragicomic delusions of the speaker’s Alpha Male Thinker status, a no-nonsense straight-shooter that may not have read as many fancy blogs as you, but has an unearned, innate intelligence called “common sense” that’s under assault from nerds and minorities.
Being a euphemism, you’re not going to find any comprehensive definition of what exactly political correctness is, least of all from the people who use it. Ambiguity is a feature, not a bug. The fact that you’re deploying it transmits the meaning, not the word itself. In conservative identity politics, this usually decodes into “honest, hardworking white man with Real World Problems thinks prejudice is some minor, abstract irritation for minorities that don’t have Real World Problems.”
That’s the text. The political subtext underlying the narrative generally involves a sort of widespread, unspoken sentiment shared by the vast and silent majority that can never be said aloud because small but vocal political groups that traffic in exaggerated offense and manufactured outrage will silence their harsh truths. The unhealthy fear of social and professional repercussions for simple honesty are unfair and stifle the freedom of speech upon which our nation is founded.
I couldn’t agree more.
There are things we’re all thinking but can’t say out loud because the corporate media doesn’t want to make waves. There are relatively small groups that wield disproportionate influence over our politics and whose identity revolves around endless victimhood over petty, abstract grievances. There are truths being silenced. The media is biased.
They just have the narrative completely backwards.
Donald Trump is the symptom. His supporters are the disease.
One of the most prevalent forms of moral cowardice in the 21st century is to decry something in the abstract while overlooking it in the specific. It’s easy to direct all our hatred and anger at an intangible concept or a figurehead we’ll never meet, but when we encounter it in person, suddenly our demeanor softens. It’s okay to unload on stupid people or racists, but the moment we actually encounter one, suddenly our language becomes more deferential, more even-handed. We all know that the vast majority of people are idiots, yet common courtesy forces us to pretend it’s never the person we’re talking to.
A 30-second Youtube video about how Exxon-Mobil is Pro-Togetherness is one thing, but you’ll never see “SLAVERY WAS THE BLACK HOLOCAUST” on a Coke can. Specificity implies a degree of commitment that vagaries don’t, and commitments create risk. For the risk-averse corporate media, why alienate potential customers, transparently shitty as they may be, when inoffensive banalities accomplish the same goal?
That’s why, for the past four years, the biased PC snowflake liberal media has tortured itself trying to explain, define, and report on Trumpism using every word in the English language besides “stupid assholes.”
Instead, the unspoken but accepted gameplan has been to focus all their open contempt on Trump himself while treating the millions of Americans that worship him as a god as innocent bystanders, naive yet blameless victims of a “charismatic, ” “smooth talking” salesman. Any form of personal moral or intellectual culpability — you know, what we typically expect from humans — on their part is hand-waved away by excusing their blatantly awful worldviews as a cluster of sociological abstractions that absolve them of any guilt whatsoever. It’s like they’re all on safari and Trump supporters are, depending on the outlet, majestic silverback gorillas that are only racist because of tariffs, or some sort of Tolkienesque dwarf (“The West Virginian Trump supporters are a hearty folk, sharp of ax and sharper of tongue, steadfastly loyal to their kind and fierce toward their foes, and woe betide those who tell them that One America News counts as part of ‘The Media’ after their nightly tankard of grog!”)
It’s far more palatable, both to your advertisers and your sanity, to soften the existential terror of just how stupid, selfish, and cruel people can be by swaddling it in comforting sociological theories that explain away their ugliness as a passing madness caused by an external force.
You’re a smart person. This sounds like a smart answer. Sure, it’s really condescending, but for all the polite lies you’ve told, you never pretended these were critical thinkers. Referring to Trump supporters in terms of polling data or tidy ‘just-so’ stories about How Those Pennsylvanians Think absolves both parties of their basic moral duties as human beings in the name of mutual convenience. This devil’s bargain allowed journalists, ever sensitive to charges of being patronizing liberal elitists, to tell themselves they’re doing their part, both professionally and personally, by continuing to cover the ceaseless winter pageant of Trump making an ass of himself, while his supporters get to be as racist, ignorant, selfish, and cruel as they want with no social repercussions whatsoever.
Trump supporters can lock children in cages, laugh at Coronavirus deaths, call Mexicans rapists, support police brutality towards peaceful protesters exercising their basic rights of free speech and assembly, drink bleach, spread lies, praise tyrants, and use “cuck” as their go-to insult despite the fact that there’s no fucking way Melania hasn’t cheated on Donald 800,000 times. No one will call them stupid, because that’s mean; they’re “low-information rural voters of European ancestry with no college degree that exhibit strong ingroup solidarity.”
And this political correctness, this compulsion to silence obvious truths in order to maintain a rotten status quo by eliminating any form of moral or intellectual judgment, promoted the normalization of everything we promised not to normalize. The poll-driven horse race reporting of previous election cycles, until now the target of minor criticism for over-emphasizing the fact that elections are more a popularity contest than serious policy discussion, now allowed us to depersonalize the ugliness that formed the bedrock of Trumpism. The story becomes Side A versus Side B instead of Chaos versus Normality, Corruption versus Professionalism, Cruelty versus Compassion, Self versus Community, Superstition versus Science, Lies versus Reality, Ignorance versus Knowledge.
All of the most basic human virtues, the values so deeply ingrained in our culture, whose truth is so self-evident we rarely felt the need to even be said aloud, are suddenly not only open for debate, but can now be freely cast aside at will. Moral relativism, once a vital tool for learning how to live in an increasingly diverse nation peopled with a vast spectrum of worldviews and philosophies, has warped and mutated into the complete abnegation of the good.
The truth is now just one option of many; if you don’t like it, just make up a new conspiracy. (Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be good. Just saying a conspiracy exists with no followup whatsoever is good enough.)
Basic empathy, compassion, and decency are for triggered snowflake cucks.
Knowledgeable professionals with decades of hard-earned experience in their fields are clueless morons that are easily outsmarted by a half-hour of “research” in the form of Facebook macros.
The quiet reserve and inner strength seen in people who earned their self-confidence the hard way, by grappling with complicated questions and hard choices, through learning from struggles and defeats and setbacks, is for losers; a true Alpha Male is someone who never shuts up about himself, reeks of desperation, and goes out of his way to throw as many public tantrums as possible.
Don’t be smart. Don’t be good. Don’t be strong. Don’t be kind.
This is the message Trump ran on, and it resonated with millions of Americans. He didn’t brainwash them with cosmic radiation from outer space. He spoke to their “values”. They’re okay with being born into privilege through luck instead of earning it through hard work. (Not that this will stop them from calling minorities lazy.) They’re okay with throwing others under the bus for personal gain. They’re okay with using violence, fear, and illegal authoritarian crackdowns with literal jackbooted thugs in stormtrooper gear to suppress free speech, so long as it’s not theirs. They’re okay with the President and his party openly abusing their power to suppress your right to vote. They’re okay with rich, powerful politicians assailing the free press as the “enemy of the people” while positioning themselves as the sole arbiter of reality. They’re okay with attacking veterans and war heroes that dare question their leader. And they’re extremely okay with every form of prejudice because they are white supremacists.
In the conventional conservative narrative, “political correctness” is, like the vast majority of things conservatives consider important, at worst a mild annoyance being treated as an Avengers-level threat. Apparently, disinterest in virtually all social problems that don’t have an immediate, noticeable impact on you and you alone clears up a lot of space in the brain for trivial bullshit.
But in this form, political correctness is anything but trivial, because it’s caused many of us to misdiagnose the problem by framing it as a fever brought on by a handful of men that will subside once they’re removed from power, which isn’t just irresponsible and wrong, it’s insulting to the people who have been victimized by these poor, confused Diet Klansmen. Every time we aggressively attack ideas like racism and cruelty from a distance but are silent when they’re in front of our nose, we contribute, in our tiny way, towards mainstreaming it into our social discourse.
Think back to all those hundreds of sad essays penned by naive, starry-eyed journalists about how Trump’s base is about to abandon him because he Finally Crossed The Line. Every one of those pieces rested on the same faulty assumption: That these people are inherently good, and their devotion to Trump is somehow unrelated to anything he says or does. Over the past four years, how many writers embarrassed themselves over and over again by assuming Trump supporters are good people deep down? Hell, how many times during the election did journalists say Trump had Finally Crossed The Line? Yet virtually nothing moved the needle. It was a fundamentally broken premise that was disproven with humiliating regularity, yet for the entire Trump administration, it was the de facto underlying premise.
Of course, there are a lot of totally fair concerns as to what exactly a true politically incorrect discourse would look like, and even whether it could do more harm than good. Even I’ll admit that what I’m proposing could be potentially problematic if applied incorrectly. Outright bullying Trump supporters by calling them “stupid assholes”, tempting and accurate as it may be, would only reinforce their sense of victimhood. (And yes, it is hilarious how quickly these people whine about ad hominems the microsecond you push back.) But calling out their specific moral and intellectual failings as they happen, rather than softening and obfuscating them by reframing the narrative as “Evil Trump brainwashes an innocent redneck of peace”, both creates an opening for a new and important debate while intensifying the social pressure to not do….any of that.
Take impeachment. For a few weeks, the GOP helplessly flopped about from one half-assed excuse to another to justify the President leveraging American foreign policy to drum up a phony narrative of nonexistent corruption for his re-election campaign. At one point they got really ballsy and made “read the transcript that shows how guilty I am” their talking point, because why not? But eventually, it sunk in that Republicans didn’t need any excuse or justification for election tampering because fuck you, we have enough votes to acquit him. The final narrative they landed on was “Sure, he cheated in a way that directly benefits us, but we decided that’s okay.”
And what was the centrist media narrative? That Democrats and Republicans have strong feelings on both sides. Democrats don’t like it when you try to illegally rig an election against them, whereas Republicans do.
Largely ignored by the press was the glaring reality that every single Republican defending Trump — yes, including that loveable, salt of the earth base — was also supporting their right to attack the right to free and fair elections. We actually let the criminals put themselves on trial, serve as their own jury, and allowed them to feed us this bullshit narrative of two equally principled sides having a good faith debate about a complex, multifaceted philosophical debate over executive authority. But did the media shine a light on the millions of Americans openly condoning election fraud as long as it benefited them? Or ever bring this up when these same people do everything in their power to deny people of color their right to vote because they’re afraid of imaginary voter fraud that only exists in their head?
I realize the world is done with cynicism. It’s exhausting. I get it. These are miserable times, and it’s comforting to tell ourselves that no matter how bad things get, the basic goodness in people is a faint pilot light that can be dimmed, but never extinguished. It feels good to be able to focus all of our hate and frustration on a target that constantly invites it, especially with the ever-present hope that once he’s gone, we can begin the road to recovery. In times like these, nobody wants to dwell on the ugliness of human nature longer than we have to.
But if we look back and ask ourselves what we gained from politically correct discourse over these past few years, what do we have to show for it? Did ignoring the problem improve it in any way? Did focusing exclusively on one clearly unstable, sheltered, confused idiot provide us with more useful insight than if that same critical focus had been directed at the social forces leading to his election? Did Trump’s base at any point treat The Media as anything beyond an omnipotent bully that exists solely to besmirch this lovely man? Of course not. We wasted these four years.
That said, let’s end on a bright note: The same social forces that brainwashed these people into supporting Trump, if used properly, could be refocused into something productive. There’s no universal law that states these propaganda techniques can only be used for evil. If we’re honest with ourselves and just admit that most people are dumb, gullible, and easily manipulated, we could use this idea to better influence our discourse for the better. If these people really are sheep, let’s be their shepherd.