Posted by: George | August 1, 2016

Trump and Political Correctness

In one of the many street interviews televised during the Republican National Convention, one delegate spoke about how glad he was that Trump had been countering political correctness in both his comments and the content of his speeches. He went on to say that, while he was not against Gays, he didn’t feel like he could, because of political correctness, criticize Gay marriage. I think this is an accurate paraphrase.

 The comment won’t surprise anyone. We have often heard this kind of remark from Trump and his supporters.

 If I could paraphrase my paraphrase, the basic thought here seems to be that political correctness is bad because it is a dogma, a set of nonsensical and random prohibitions that infringe on our right to free speech.

 College professors like myself have been part of the driving force behind political correctness, and we must accept part of the responsibility for it being viewed as a dogma. When I talk with my students, I am sure that I help them shape their language so that it is more politically correct and I am sure that I often fail to explain why I am suggesting certain kinds of revision.

 What I should be saying to my students is that words have consequences. Words create and reinforce certain socially constructed beliefs that marginalize entire groups of people and even give tacit permission for violence. Violence does not come purely from the body. Violence always begins with language, and it always returns to language.

 When I taught a World Literature survey years ago, I told my students, at the beginning of the class, that we were going to witness the historical unfolding of the holocaust. In the literature we would be reading, we will see the holocaust emerge over centuries. We will see it in the words written by people we consider to be great authors and great thinkers. Political correctness should convey this kind of understanding, but that is not easy to achieve, even in an entire semester. So, we fall back on prohibitions, and simple prohibitions can do harm as well as good.

 What troubles me about political correctness is that it can make people reluctant to talk about their prejudices. We need to talk about all kinds of discrimination, and good people are afraid to speak because they do not want to offend. If we cannot speak, we will not come to an understanding.

 To come to an understanding of each other, we have to speak with honesty, as true to our experience as we can, and with respect for those of a different race, gender, religion, or culture, those whose experience can be so different.

 This is why President Obama doesn’t like to use the word Islamic Terrorism. The term makes it sound like all Muslims are terrorists or all terrorism comes from the Islamic faith. Trump relishes in using the term, and he criticizes Obama for not using it. Not surprisingly, it is Trump who wants to ban Muslims from entering our country. Words have consequences.

 I want to quote a couple of paragraphs from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a remarkable discussion about race. Fair warning, it’s going to get a little theoretical here:

 Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful. You can feel everyone lean in. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.

For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actual demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please.

 Saying please, sir, and madam are forms of political correctness that predate the actual term. Politeness can prevent us from saying what needs to be said. As Rankin says at the end of the same essay, “getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”

 Ideally, these terms and political correctness should not infringe on my ability to speak to—address—others, even on emotionally difficult topics. If we understand that respect for others is at the core of these terms as well as political correctness, then this reflective use of language, this awareness of the effects of language, should make an honest and open discussion more possible.

 We are all vulnerable to the effects of language, simply because we are with others and engage in dialogue with others. This is what Judith Butler is saying in a more philosophical language. This is, I believe, what Claudia Rankin understands. This is the message that was forcefully delivered by the Kahn family at the Democratic National Convention. 



  1. It occurs to Me that as hurtful as the word “nigger” is there is a danger in losing it. I heard people in public, on TV, on the radio and in print and they use the term, the “n” word. Looking at it now on the page” the n word” is so inconsequential that it should not even be in the same paragraph as “nigger”. The danger is that all the history of that word from mere impoliteness to lynchings, the death of Emmett Till and James Chaney, the work of Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman, the rise to the highest office in the country by Barrack Obama may be lost to some misconception that “the n word” is the noun. What I am saying is that there is a context for “nigger” that does not fit into political correctness. The emotions that the word elicits if it were a scar should never be allowed to fully heal, to disappear for to forget it makes room in we frail humans to come up with a new word and a new history allowing us to forget what we should never.


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