Thursday, October 27, 2016

Trump and Political Correctness

One of biggest sources of Donald Trump's popularity appears to be his defiance of liberal norms of "political correctness" that his supporters deeply resent.  This commentator remarks:
When I talk to Trump supporters, it’s not usually about doubting climate change, or thinking Trump will take the conservative movement in the right direction, or even immigration. It’s about the feeling that a group of arrogant, intolerant, sanctimonious elites have seized control of a lot of national culture and are using it mostly to spread falsehood and belittle anybody different than them. And Trump is both uniquely separate from these elites and uniquely repugnant to them – which makes him look pretty good to everyone else.
Likewise, this one attempts to make the case for Trump on the grounds that what we really need most now is offensiveness for the pure sake of being offensive:
The problem is this: Our society has sunk so far into sensitivity and guilt that it has relinquished the liberalism that both liberals and conservatives espouse. I mean the liberalism that gives people a bit of room to think what they want to think; that doesn’t automatically define one’s character by one’s politics or religion; that accepts human frailty and forgives people for brief lapses into racism, sexism, and any other prejudice. 
This liberalism demands of citizens a thicker skin. It accepts that an open society, religious liberty, and free speech cause individuals the occasional bump into annoying words and deeds. The bar of reaction and protest against them must remain high or else conflicts will get out of hand and we’ll regulate ourselves into a testy polity. A society filled with people easily offended ends up an illiberal one running on manners and norms of deference and guardedness. They make up an etiquette, not a doctrine. When someone violates it, we don’t argue with him. We deplore him.
Apparently we should ignore such minor matters as basic competence for the office, any idea of the public good apart from self-advancement, having an attention span long enough to listen to a briefing, basic self-control, and who should be entrusted with our nuclear codes.  The important thing is to have a President who runs around offending people.  A President who calls Mexicans criminals and rapists, who calls Muslims terrorists, and who brags about grabbing women by the pussy will really outrage the PC police and if he lets himself be baited into war with a tweet -- well, that will offend them too, so it can't be all bad.

When I read these fulminations against "political correctness," there tends to be a certain underlying assumption there.  The assumption is that the whole idea of social pressure to conform, or that there are some things one simply does not say in polite company were invented circa 1965 and are used exclusively by liberals as a way of shaming and silencing conservatives.  Before 1965, presumably everyone could let their freak flag fly.  Likewise, if conservatives ran the culture, then so long as you stopped short of threatening violence, you could say absolutely anything at all without incurring even mild social disapprobation.

A moment's though makes clear just how absurd that assumption is.  Social pressure to conform is uniform to the human condition and a major part of how any society enforces its norms.  Always and at all times, those norms have included some sort of sense of propriety -- there are some things one simply does not say in polite society.  To abandon all standards of propriety in favor of anything goes -- absolutely anything short of actual threats of bodily injury -- doesn't sound very conservative to me. Nor does it sound very attractive.

Now granted, that doesn't mean that all standards of propriety are equally good or reasonable.  If it possible for such a standard to be overly strict or fussy?  Yes, absolutely.  Victorian fussiness about sex, to the point of refusing to acknowledge that women had legs seems perfectly ridiculous to us. And beyond doubt our own society, particularly on college campuses, gets equally uptight about virtually any comment on race or gender identity even if innocently intended.  Furthermore, standards of propriety are not always the same for everyone.  It is assumed, for instance, that standards are stricter for children than adults, for women than men, or for white collar settings than blue collar.  Thus a gathering of entirely blue collar men is not considered entirely "polite" and can get away with saying things that might not fly in another context.  Or, as George Bernard Shaw said, "[I]t would be quite proper— say on a canal barge; but it would not be proper for her at a garden party."  Part of Trump's popularity, presumably, comes from men on a canal barge (or in a locker room, as Trump might say) fearing that they will be expected always to be on their best behavior, i.e., at a garden party.

But this is altogether different from saying that the PC police are the only people with standards at all.  Consider for instance, that the people who are most particular about any sort of racial, ethnic or gender identity slur are also often quite free with old-fashioned four-letter words that conservatives are more inclined to shrink from.  Or people defending Trump's general misogyny, but unwilling to actually use the word "pussy."  What is really, happening, then, is not so much that people are trying to impose a standard of propriety where non existed before, as that people are trying replace the old standard with a new standard.  And yes, the new standard really is often overly strict and fussy and can be downright silly.  But the same can often be said of the old standard as well.

Examples:  Is it ridiculous that people no longer dare say "niggardly," which has nothing whatever to do with the other N-word?  Indeed it is.  Any other avoidance of an innocent word that coincides with an ethnic slur ("a little nip in the air," etc) is silly as well.  But so is bashfulness about the other word for "rooster."  Or that men named Richard must now go by Rich or Rick rather than -- well, you know what.  Or consider trigger warnings.  When I first encountered them (reading Ana Mardoll), they seriously annoyed me.  But then I started to notice that I had used them in my ordinary life all the time.  When I want to tell a joke with four-letter words, I preface it with a warning and seeking permission.  When I showed some friends the Monty Python clip that showed the origin of the phrase My hovercraft is full of eels, I prefaced it with the warning that this was Monty Python, which meant that it was dirty.  So can we please drop the absurd assumption that mavens of political correctness are taking the outrageous and unprecedented step imposing standards of propriety and acknowledge that what they are actually doing is changing standards of propriety.  As this post puts it, "Not saying things that offend other people is “political correctness” — not saying things that offend people one knows is just “etiquette.”  Or this one:
[T]he problem with the term "political correctness" is that it does not mean anything — or rather, that it can be used to impugn whatever norms governing social discourse from which the speaker would like to be liberated. 
As it turns out, most of the norms around social discourse are good ones. 
For example, they include "don't call women 'fat pigs,'" and "don't categorize large chunks of nationalities as rapists and criminals," and "don't brag about how big your penis is on the stage at a presidential debate." But if you violate any of these norms and say you're just being "politically incorrect," tens of millions of boorish idiots will cheer you on.
There are many legitimate criticisms of the new standards they are seeking to impose, but nothing new or shocking about the bare fact of having standards.

Finally, just in case there is someone out there who thinks that there should be no standards of propriety, that absolutely anything short of threats of violence should be not only legal, but socially acceptable, consider -- seriously -- whether The Donald is the right person to achieve such a society. Granted, a Trump society would be extremely vulgar.  It would be open to all manner of open expressions of racism and misogyny.  It would probably also give considerable scope to profanity, obscenity, lewdness, gratuitous insults and maybe even threats.  But one type of speech would not be tolerated.  Anything critical of Donald Trump.  He had made clear that he wants to change libel laws to make it easier for public figures to sue, and talked about using anti-trust laws to break up media companies that criticize him.  Most recently, he has threatened to sue all the women accusing him of unwanted groping and the outlets the publish their stories.  Or consider the response of Trump's cyber bullies to people who criticize him.

So let's drop the talk about Trump as a brave rebel against political correctness and acknowledge that his supporters just want their standards of social etiquette to prevail, rather than someone else's.  And some are willing to resort to stronger measures than mere social pressure to achieve them.

No comments:

Post a Comment