In Defense of Political Correctness

I’ve thought about writing this for the past few months, but have held back because drawing any comparison between Trump and Hitler is obviously incendiary. I don’t think Trump is Hitler. I don’t think he’s even really a racist, in that I don’t think he has any deeply held beliefs. Rather, he is a man in the throes of an intractable mental illness, narcissism, which is widely misunderstood and underestimated and which leads him to say whatever he thinks will get him an advantage in that exact moment. But that’s a subject for another time. For the moment, let’s just take him at his word.

In June, my family and I visited Dachau, a former concentration camp in southern Germany. The site has an extensive exhibit that details the lead-up to the election of Hitler and the eventual start of the war and the holocaust. One of the things that struck me the most was the gradual progression, through words and pictures (in the form of political cartoons and posters, like the one below), of the demonization of the Jews. They were depicted as sneaky, selfish, greedy, not-German, secretly in cahoots with the communists, plotting against the country. We all know what happened next.

A poster featured in Dachau’s exhibit on the run up to the election of Hitler

I’m not suggesting that we’re headed down that same path. But I am suggesting that words matter.

There is a lot of derision these days about “political correctness.” As if it’s this terrible, dishonorable thing.

Until quite recently it was perfectly acceptable in many parts of this country to make racist comments about African Americans or other racial, ethnic, or religious groups of people. Now, thanks to the idea of political correctness, this is no longer considered widely acceptable. Certainly public figures, especially elected officials, are careful about what they say, because we as a society have evolved to a point where most of us no longer think it’s ok to say that African Americans are a little less than human, that women are naturally inferior to men, or to give voice to any other of the myriad racist beliefs that were widely held and openly expressed mere decades ago.

And this is a good thing. Can it be taken too far? Sure. We’ve seen some of that on college campuses over the past few years. But let me say it again: political correctness is a good thing.

Why? Because part of not being a racist is not saying racist things. Even if you think them, rarely or frequently. Everybody has racist thoughts from time to time, or sexist thoughts, or negative thoughts about some perceived group of people. Not saying them aloud is step one in how to not be a racist. It’s step one in how to not make racism normal and acceptable again. It’s step one in not teaching your children to hate others based solely on their race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. It’s step one in not actively discriminating against people in your daily life. Examining your racist thoughts, and working to eliminate them, is step two. But you can’t get there without step one.

Now we have a presidential candidate who says racist things, out loud, using the very public platform of a Presidential election to spread these ideas. Some people are thrilled. Elated. He is daring to give voice to the thoughts they’ve felt compelled to hide. In fact, they’ve turned it into a virtue. Trump “says what he thinks.” Maybe they can say what they think now, too. Maybe unbridled “honesty” is the virtuous thing.

But if we abandon “political correctness,” if we give a national platform to someone who spouts racist thoughts, then the line between who we are as a country and who Germany was in the run-up to the war begins to blur. When we make it acceptable to say these things, we start turning entire groups of people into something to be suspicious of, to be feared. If we fear them enough, it’s a slippery slope towards taking action based on this fear. It will seem justified. It will seem prudent.

My (white) mom would tell me stories about growing up in the segregated south, where there were separate schools and separate water fountains for black people, and white people thought this was perfectly right and ok. She’d tell me about how she’d sit in the back of the bus as a protest against these laws. This is not ancient history. The idea that certain groups of people are naturally inferior or dangerous or flawed in some way was widely accepted not very long ago. It’s not inconceivable to think that if we decide that it’s now ok for a Presidential candidate of a major political party to say things like illegal immigrants are rapists and criminals that we’re headed right back there.

This man is running for President of the United States. He’s not some wing-nut posting rants online. He’s not some guy muttering to himself on the subway. Trump is free to say whatever he wants to say. But do we really want someone who says such outrageously racist things to lead our country? To legitimize these beliefs by handing him the presidency?

Let me make it more clear: The politically incorrect term for “politically incorrect” is “racist.” If being racist is not a virtue, then being “politically incorrect” is not a virtue. I’m not sure what twisted logic has made it into one.

So do me a favor, Trump supporters. The next time you say “I like Trump because he’s not politically correct,” stop being politically correct yourself. Instead, say what you really mean.

Which is: “I like Trump because he’s a racist.”

If you recoil at this, think long and hard about what your support for a candidate who says these things really means. If you say racist things, you support racism. If you cheer when someone else says racist things, you also support racism. And if you condemn the racist things someone says, or dismiss them because you “don’t think he really means it,” but still support him with your vote, potentially giving him 4 years on the world stage to say such things, you support racism. (I’m talking to you, Paul Ryan. I’m talking to you, John McCain.)

I don’t care if you’re not a racist in your heart. I don’t care if your group of friends resembles a rainbow. I don’t care if you’re a minority yourself. Please refer to step one, above. If you legitimize someone who spouts racist ideology by voting for him, you support racism.

I’m sorry if you hate the other candidate. I’m sorry we’re all in this situation. Enough people voted for this man to make him the Republican candidate. So here we are. But I for one am not going to sit back and watch people fall all over themselves to explain how Trump’s racism is actually just a refreshing and noble dose of honesty. If you say political incorrectness is a virtue, then you’re saying racism is a virtue. At least call it what it is, and embrace that honesty of which you apparently think so highly.