Another friend–smart, educated, well-read—announced one day that he was sick and tired of political correctness. Someone else at the lunch table asked what he meant by that term. He did not define it but instead gave as an example Michelle Obama’s speech in which she noted that she then lived in the White House, an edifice that had been built by slaves. Asked by another at the table why this bothered him, he indicated that he was tired of those who feel slighted, abused, or oppressed by what had happened to other people centuries ago. Someone said to the friend, “I watched that speech, and she was saying something else.” He explained that Obama’s statement was not a lament but was instead lauding how far the country had come in racial relations. It turned out that the friend who had denounced political correctness had, in fact, not watched the speech. He had only seen the excerpt on TV news. He was urged to watch or read the whole speech to better understand the context of the objected-to phrase. I am reasonably confident he never did that, for several months later I heard him repeat Michelle Obama’s comment as something that bothered him for its political correctness.
His use of “political correctness” was different from my use of the term. For me, it was a statement by someone who was trying to cut off a topic’s discussion. For him, it meant something that others might discuss, but once he labeled the view “politically correct,” he did not have to, indeed would not, listen to the discussion. Other uses of the term in this fashion can easily be found. For example, not too long ago President Trump labeled the diversity visa program as being “politically correct.” That label meant that others could discuss the strengths and weakness of that program, but he was not going to be part of any such debate. Because the program was “politically correct,” the President would not listen to any debate about it.
“Political correctness” is used in yet another way—not just to denigrate a viewpoint or an individual but to simultaneously self-aggrandize the labeler. Assume that I support allowing transgender people equal opportunities in the military. Someone might respond, “You are just being politically correct.” That response is, of course, dismissive of my position; it is not a prelude for reasoned debate. But it does more than that. It challenges my integrity by implying that I have adopted my opinion not by reasoned consideration but by simply accepting a herd position. In addition, the labeler is also saying that he has the courage, unlike me, not to follow the crowd but to think for himself which has led him to the courageous, anti-politically correct position. His label is an ad hominem attack on me and also a glorification of himself and, of course, is meant to terminate any discussion.
It is almost always non-conservative positions that get the PC tag, but if political correctness is really an attempt to remove topics from discussion, conservatives, too, can be very politically correct. We can see it when states and federal agencies prohibit or restrict of the term “man-made climate change” because they don’t want that topic to be discussed.
We can see it with gun control. The frequent response to those who wish to restrict sales of guns or their accessories is, “That would violate the Second Amendment.” The responders are really announcing that they will not discuss the wisdom of the proposed rules or even discuss any attempt to collect data about the proposals. The Second-Amendment cry is meant to end the discussion.
Playing that Second Amendment card is also meant to eliminate any discussion of the Second Amendment’s reach. Early in 2017 Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill that made it easier for mentally ill people to buy guns. When Paul Ryan was asked after the Las Vegas shootings whether this was a “mistake,” Ryan insisted that people’s rights were being infringed and protecting their rights was “very important.” End of discussion. There will not only be no discussion of whether expanding the ability of mentally ill people to buy guns is wise, there will be no discussion of whether the Second Amendment bars all restrictions on the mentally ill from buying and possessing guns.
When restrictions are proposed on semi-automatic weapons, the number of guns a person may buy, the kind of ammunition that can be sold, and so on, conservatives will not debate the wisdom of the proposals and will cry “Second Amendment” as a justification for the refusal to consider the proposals. They will not, however, debate the reach of the Constitutional provision. They act as if the Second Amendment was crystal clear and therefore need not be debated, when, in fact, its language is murky, and the Supreme Court has not authoritatively addressed many gun control issues but has implied that many gun restrictions would be constitutional.
This use of the Second Amendment to prevent debate on gun control is political correctness on the right. Conservatives in Congress passed a law a generation ago that restricts federal funding for studies about gun violence. What could be better evidence of political correctness that is meant to shut out reasoned debate than to prevent more information about the issue? To paraphrase the bandits in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “We don’t need no stinkin’ data.”