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Political Correctness and the Sociology of Ignorance

A few bulleted, campaign-inspired thoughts about political correctness, which I started writing about in the 1970s.  One of the best things I wrote in graduate school back then was a paper titled “Academic Values and Liberal Orthodoxy,” in which the latter two words were stand-ins for PC.  It was a paper that my professor – a wonderful scholar but no right-winger – called a “contribution to the sociology of ignorance,” which she really did mean as a compliment.

  • A condensed definition of both “political correctness” and “incorrectness” deals with issues and/or viewpoints that people (disproportionately on the right) are pressed not to talk or write about, lest they become targets of especially ugly aspersions and nasty names leveled by other people (disproportionately on the left) even though nothing racially, ethnically, or otherwise mean-spirited ever passed through the lips or laptops of the first group and likely never will.  The result is an effective silencing of many substantial and otherwise brave men and women, not just on the right, who have important things to say.
  • This is not to say that many issues which are heavy-handedly ruled off-limits aren’t, in fact, difficult and sensitive and must be discussed and debated with care; the kinds of issues, more specifically, which cause many people (disproportionately racial, ethnic, religious and other minorities) to become legitimately and unsurprisingly offended when oafs say and write genuinely offensive things.  No one should be frightened into silence by PC.  But everyone needs to recognize the emotional quotient embedded in many vital issues and address them, not only with as much courage as possible, but also with as much grace and fellow-feeling as one can command.
  • This is exactly why, for example, I decided a long time ago never to talk or write about “illegitimate children” or “illegitimate births,” as such terms needlessly and grievously hurt.  I actually was accused twenty years ago of surrendering to PC by using less harsh terms such as “out-of-wedlock births” and “nonmarital births.”  I would like to think the only thing to which I surrendered was decency.
  • Starting a campaign by referring to Mexicans as rapists is not the least bit decent.  This is the case even if the candidate patronizingly slobbers a few seconds later about what a “wonderful” and “beautiful” people they really are.
  • Talking about that very candidate, his supporters frequently say they like him because he’s not “politically correct.”  Very true, he is not.  But what’s lost in such enthusiasms, by both candidate and fans, is that while rudeness and crudeness are proving attractive to many in the run-up to Election Day, such behavior is more likely to morph into major obstacles to governing successfully if, by chance, he wins.
  • If the idea is to make progress against problems in which intricate issues of race, ethnicity, religion, or gender are implicit, how could ongoing pokes in proud but skeptical eyes not cause many who are quick to take offense to be even quicker?  For that matter, why wouldn’t enormous numbers of other Americans without a hyper-sensitive nerve in their respective bodies view presidential incivility as hyper-boorish, and as such want nothing to do with that kind of leadership?  This would be the case even if insults were largely PC-free, just tasteless, as in calling every other person a “loser” or “stiff.”  Or questioning and wondering about bodily fluids.  Though on second thought, the second set of comments and slings probably falls under a PC umbrella.
  • LBJ also could be famously crude and rude, but to his credit and the nation’s benefit, he kept such moments private for the most part.  It also probably was consequential that he was seen as opening doors, not building walls.
  • Successfully challenging PC requires a lot more skill and courage than body slamming on worldwide television.  How about someone running for president saying anything about massive rates of family fragmentation in the United States and how they are severely damaging tens of millions young and older people as well as the country as a whole?  That would take some fortitude, not that I’ve heard any candidate, in either party, offer more than a peep about it, if that.  If I’m wrong in this stricture, my apologies, though I would like to see the video or the transcript.
  • For a last bullet, a bull’s-eyed and self-interested commercial.  Right from our very start, Center of the American Experiment has been Minnesota’s most potent PC buster.  It was no accident (as a famous lefty once put it) that our very first event, twenty-six years ago next month, was an all-day conference titled, “The New War on Poverty: Advancing Forward This Time,” and that it featured the anti-PC likes of Charles Murray, Linda Chavez, Bob Woodson, and Larry Mead, with a keynote on crumbling families by Chester E. Finn, Jr. that made national news.  I would like to think that much my work over the last quarter-century-plus has been in this to-the-point but respectful spirit.  And we have had hundreds of other intrepid men and women, on and off staff, grace our stages and pages.  But if for some reason none of this convinces you of our PC-busting bona fides, might you be familiar with the name “Kathy Kersten”?

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder & American Experiment Senior Fellow.  His most recent book is Broken Bonds: What Family Fragmentation Means for America’s Future.

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