Donald Trump did not win the election on a traditional platform. There were no forward-thinking promises or plans, only talk of regression and enemies. Trump painted a picture of a nation beset and infiltrated by enemies: job-stealing Mexicans, terrorist Mulsims, crooked politicians, etc. And since Trump is a megalomaniac who can’t abide criticism, he drew another familiar foe into the fray: the intangible force of political correctness. Like most of those other sinister adversaries of freedom, this one is highly convenient for Trump’s agenda because it isn’t real.
Moria Weigel wrote a fantastic piece for the Guardian about the evolution of the “politically correct” ideology. It’s too long to summarize, but one salient detail is that, prior to a 1990 article in the New York Times, “political correctness” was not a crusade, but an ironic bit of light-hearted criticism exchanged between liberal academics and activists. And after the article, which railed against the “unofficial ideology of the university” standing for “a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform,” political correctness still wasn’t a crusade. But suddenly it had a very vocal counter-crusade, with major news outlets calling it “Thought Police” and “the new fascism” – despite the fact that PC, insofar as it was an ideology, was an unofficial one, not a police of any sort.
I was still in high school in 1990, but by mid-decade I was an English major at a very progressive university. I remember debates, mostly in cafés but sometimes in classrooms, about the changing value of terms like “Indian” and “queer.” But there were no dictates being passed down from on high, nor any expectation that our conclusions about language would spread beyond the ivory tower. We were English majors; we were exploring language. And if we brought any expectation of “correctness” and “incorrectness” into our discussions, that was because we were twentysomethings, and we still saw the world in black and white.
What is “political correctness” anyway? To be “correct” is to be right, yet somehow adding politics to rightness makes it wrong. To accuse me of PCism is to claim I’m adjusting my language to accommodate others – but I’ve always simply thought of that as “being considerate.” The “politics” implies I’m only doing it to win brownie points with minority groups who prefer not to be insulted – like, you know, the rest of us. The self-serving of the world will forever accuse the considerate of hiding selfish agendas, because they have trouble imagining altruism.
Critics of PCism argue that language policing isn’t necessary, presumably because other people’s feelings don’t matter as much of the critics’ right to speak. But even as they decry PCism as inconsequential with one breath, the next indignant howl paradoxically shows how important it is that they police the use of PC phrases. It’s not enough that they feel entitled to say “Merry Christmas,” it’s also necessary to shame or censor others who would say “Happy Holidays.” At its worst, the struggle de-evolves into two squads of self-appointed language police, both lacking in authority and neither capable of enforcing any sanctions that stick.
Today, most liberals claim that authority lies with personal experience – so that, for example, the only group who can decide whether or not a stereotypical sports mascot is offensive is the group it’s mocking. Sometimes, though, another group adopts a cause in the name of intersectionality, which is a big word for “trying to include everyone” – a time-honoured liberal pipe dream. Meanwhile, conservatives’ counter-arguments revolve around tradition, which sounds like whining to anyone who doesn’t adhere to those traditions (So, “We don’t need new pronouns for non-gendered people” sounds like “I’m too lazy to learn any new words”). Inevitably, the spectre of privilege is invoked, since there is one gender/ethnic/age demographic who controls most of the world’s mass communication. If these buzzwords – intersectionality, privilege – aren’t familiar to you, then welcome to the world of “identity politics.”
What are “identity politics”? Like “political correctness,” the term takes a positive idea – everybody has an “identity,” nobody would want it to be otherwise – and ruins the soup by adding politics. The term has been in use since at least the civil rights movement, and arose to acknowledge the repression which may occur even within unified political movements – so, for instance, black lesbians may find their voices unheard within an LGBTQ organization primarily composed of white males. Once again, a means of course-correcting within liberal circles eventually became the bugbear used by conservatives to decry all liberal politics.
After the election, I developed a nauseating conviction that “identity politics” and “racism” are two sides of the same coin. Back in August in the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf was already speculating that a Republican win would demonstrate the adoption of “identity politics” on the part of middle-class white males. Now, liberals argue unproductively about whether voting for a racist is, in and of itself, a racist act. It’s not – but only because no one self-identifies as “racist,” any more than anyone actually calls themselves “politically correct.” The white men (and women) who voted for Trump were practicing identity politics, rallying behind the man who claimed to give them a voice.
If I were PC, I wouldn’t call Trump an arrogant, manipulative bully – but that’s what he is. If I believed in the value of identity politics as we move forward, I’d asterisk my opinions by outing myself as a privileged cis/het/white/male – and that’s what I am. But he, and I, and all of us, are going to have to be more than those labels if we’re going to make it. Because there’s a new threat, happening now, and it’s far more dangerous than immigrants or terrorists or thought police. And we’re all in the same boat. If we’re going to survive it, we need to transcend the binary politics of liberalism and conservatism – maybe transcend politics of any kind – and be Humans of Earth.