Sunday, August 09, 2015

Political correctness and sincerity

One thing I found interesting about the recent showdown between Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly is how he brought "political correctness" into the discussion:
I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I've been challenged by so many people, and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness.
What I noticed was that he didn't actually bother to defend the behavior which Kelly complained about, namely his disparaging remarks about women. He wasn't so much making a bad argument as making no argument at all. He simply observed that his behavior is "not politically correct" and claimed that political correctness is a big problem in this country--as if to suggest that his behavior's taboo status was itself proof of its worthiness.

You could use this reasoning to defend any position at all. Hey, I think a man should beat his wife with a frying pan every night! You offended? Sorry, I'm not PC. I think black people are feeble-minded, Jews are cheap, and only the rich should be allowed to vote. Don't like what I'm saying? That's just because you're too PC.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this type of thing as simply another Donald Trump absurdity. On the contrary, it lies at the heart of most arguments attacking political correctness, and it's been a feature of these arguments for the last thirty years. Whenever you say something that offends someone, you say you're "not being PC" as if pointing that out automatically absolves you of responsibility for your remarks.

I mentioned the following anecdote a couple of years ago on this blog, but it bears repeating. I was once reading a blog discussion on a subject that had nothing to do with politics. One commenter referred to the author of some book as an idiot. The blogger said he agreed with the criticism but added that there was no need to engage in ad hominem attacks. The commenter retorted, "Oh, don't be so PC."

One of the assumptions underlying attacks on PC is that you're being more authentic, more truthful, than the other person. As a result, the anti-PC trend in our society has fostered an idea that civility and common courtesy are nothing more than strategies for hiding what people are really thinking.

This idea is reflected in the repeated claims I keep hearing--and not just from Trump admirers--that Trump is "speaking his mind" or engaging in "straight talk." This is a patent misunderstanding of Trump's whole public profile. It's obvious to anyone who bothers to pay attention that Trump's antics are pure theater. I literally have no idea what he really thinks about Mexicans or PMS or Obama's birthplace. It doesn't matter. He understands something which shock jocks began capitalizing on more than a generation ago, which is that outrage sells.

That's part of the whole allure of attacks on PC: they equate sincerity with a willingness to offend. The assumption is based on a fundamental fallacy. It's certainly true that professional politicians typically behave in a canned and artificial manner by avoiding saying anything that will offend their constituents. But it doesn't follow that going to the opposite extreme, acting rude and boorish in an erratic and unpredictable way, automatically implies authenticity.

Nobody argues that when Andy Kaufman did his Tony Clifton act, he was showing a truer version of himself. Yet that's just the sort of assumption people make whenever celebrities or politicians stray outside the boundaries of what is generally considered decent behavior. Trump may be a walking caricature, but like a lot of caricatures he throws some things about the real world into sharp relief.

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