By Marina Skovgaard Dokken
“They have put political correctness above common sense, above your safety, and above all else. I refuse to be politically correct.” This was Trump’s comment following the Orlando mass shooting in 2016, accusing Hillary Clinton and then-US president Barack Obama of hushing down the ISIS threat to protect the Muslim-American population. This anti-establishment attack on political correctness, one of the few consistencies in Trump’s later administration, fuelled his rise to power and spearheaded an international movement. From casting diversity via stand-up comedians to the coverage of terrorist attacks, political correctness is a war fought on many battlefields. But is it a protectorate for minorities against racists, sexists and homophobes? Or is it a gagging of one side by the other? And how should we even define political correctness?
Honesty and deception
For its critics, political correctness is often perceived as a threat. During the refugee crisis, the world has split into two distinguishable sides: countries which are open, and those which are closed. However, this split can be seen both across and within borders. A sign viewed by many that political correctness had gone too far was the allegedly lacking coverage of rising crime levels following the arrival of the refugee waves in their host countries. In a Breibart News article on crime among Syrian refugees in Scandinavia, Tom Toncrado asks: “Why do we only read about this rape epidemic in Breitbart and the alternative press in Europe, not the BBC or CNN?” Breibart may not be factually reliable, but the nature of modern politics is no longer judged by this criteria alone. It is about emotions, and especially a feeling of legitimate concerns for one’s family and personal safety being silenced by both a media and government afraid of being politically incorrect. Trump voters rarely justify their support through his policies, but by how he presents them. The way he speaks. He puts honesty and safety above what people think of him. In doing so, he responds to how they feel, not to how they think.
When something cannot be clearly defined, it is easily coloured by prejudice and fear. Hence, a weakness of political correctness is its ambiguity. It is easy to compare one’s experience to those one has never had, but a look beyond the occasional high-profile case reveals a more structural kind of imbalance. Upon comparing grievances, the matter’s relativity reveals itself. The use of the word Christmas this season was strongly debated, many switching it for the more inclusive word “holidays”. To others, this symbolized a neglect of their Christian heritage, against which Paul Ryan took a firm stance during the lighting of the Capitol Hill Christmas tree by reciting the nativity story for the gathered people. According to the Intercultural Development Research Association, maintaining one’s birth language and culture is important for identity and mental well-being, however a big part of most countries’ asylum process is assimilation. In 2017 Trump even suggested a policy that could prioritise asylum seekers with more apparent potential for assimilation. Hence a difference emerges: For Christian Americans, the consequence of maintaining one’s identity is disagreement; yet for refugees, it may cost their right to a safe home.
Political correctness is in fact problematic to its linguistic core. Its etymology reveals an obscure, choppy history with no clear origins nor bias. The 1990’s saw its first significant rise, going from barely used to appearing in print more than 2,800 times in the US in just two years, from 1990-1992. In most instances, these responsible articles were criticizing a feeling that progressives were being gagged of “deviant” thinking. In other words, regardless of its origins, the term was, and has mostly been, used by the right in a kind of Orwellian self-victimisation. “Political correctness therefore, has only been campaigned against, and has been kept consistently vague, effectively opening it up to manipulation.” It is hence an obscure yet menacing enemy that can be shaped according to anyone’s individual experiences and – more importantly – their convictions.
What can be done?
A possible solution to this shooting-in-the-dark situation might be to substitute the words “taboo” and “intersectionality” as a replacement for the two sides of “political correctness”. “Taboo” points to the hushing-down of certain themes, though also hints that the topic in question is not necessarily linked to any explicit punishments nor one’s social status. Saying that you do not think we should take in more refugees, or simply that you would like to understand why we can not help them where they are, can change other people’s perception of you entirely. “Intersectionality”, on the other hand, points to the focus for the promotion of inclusion; across ethnicity, religion, gender, class and mental and physical ability. By acknowledging the frustrations of taboo, and specifying the idea of intersectional inclusion, the struggles of both sides may be integrated. Unemployed people blaming stresses on refugees is an intersectional issue – a “politically correct” issue – but a nuanced one. By establishing a foundation of mutual respect, this nuance may be more constructively explored.
Political correctness is a complex matter, but perhaps more so than necessary. A more exact terminology might keep a debate between not necessarily polarised sides from heating and radicalising. Shifting from the damagingly vague “political correct” to the specified “intersectionality” may initiate a genuine, constructive and educative conversation, one in which a wish for mutual understanding, not fear of missteps, is the driving power.
By Marina Skovgaard Dokken