As the majority of Americans and the world at large hunkers down for a Trump presidency, many commentators have blamed his rise to power on a backlash against unchecked political correctness. Of course, those who voted for the now-45th President despite his antics are solely responsible for their decision — and will likely have a lot of explaining to do over the next four to eight years — but the criticism of political correctness among the left should not be dismissed, whether or not it really did drive people to elect the billionaire last November. The phenomenon threatens the academic environment on college campuses and may be actively harming students’ mental health. It often breeds hostility that prevents the frank discussion of important ideas like human nature, innate differences between men and women, and the role of Islam in acts of terrorism. And it fosters a divisive political climate that polarizes rather than compromises.
The result, predictably, is that too many not-so-savory characters are permitted — if not outright encouraged — to relinquish their inhibitions and air their bigotry in the name of anti-political correctness. The charge of “racist” or “sexist” has been worn thin such that just about anyone who is either of those things gets a free pass from Trump’s nativists.
Yet political correctness is not just for leftists. True, dictionaries typically define political correctness as avoiding expression that could “exclude” or “marginalize” disadvantaged groups — women, people of color, LGBTQs, the disabled, etc. But these definitions are an artifact of the discovery of the phenomenon among liberals, who tend to sacralize groups on the lower side of the totem pole. The right refuses to entertain certain topics of conversation too, and we shouldn’t be afraid to call it what it is: political correctness.
Indeed, much of Trump’s rhetoric — and that of his supporter base — features all of the condemnation of taboo found in many liberals. While the left’s political correctness primarily concerns itself with protecting victim groups from real or perceived harm, the right censures real or perceived disrespect for God and country.
Last year, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the pre-game national anthem in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, conservative outrage erupted. He was branded as ungrateful and disrespectful — some accused him of being Muslim. In short, his stance was “unAmerican.” He violated a taboo.
Similarly, President Trump tweeted shortly after the election:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has twice ruled that such an act — no matter how disgraceful one believes it to be — is protected speech under the First Amendment, more than 200,000 of his supporters had no qualms hitting the ‘like’ button on this statement.
Religious beliefs often take certain topics off the table. Conservative outrage over stem cell research and abortion exhibit the hallmarks of an inability to engage in rational discussion of the issues. Life begins at conception, they say, often simultaneously starting and finishing the conversation with just four words. Conception is a remarkably complex biological process. At what stage of conception does personhood enter the picture? This type of question is virtually forbidden.
Any attempt to ensure government doesn’t favor Christianity over other religions (or no religion at all) is met with apocalyptic panic over the destruction of the moral fabric of society. Conservatives claim that “America is a Christian nation,” overlooking the fact that the United States was the first country to be founded on religious freedom.
In the same vein, one needn’t dig too deep to recall the religion-based hysteria over gay marriage. “Marriage is between a man and a woman,” again beginning and ending the conversation. Compromise is impossible under such conditions, and the refusal to delve deeper is a red flag signaling that we’ve crossed into the zone of political correctness.
There are more, to be sure, but the above examples demonstrate that liberals aren’t the only ones who all-too-often can’t take a joke. Though the topics of discussion that are off-limits are quite different, the main problem with political correctness — the inability or outright refusal to engage in or allow conversation on a given issue — is present on both sides of the political aisle.
Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is well-versed in the differing moral values among liberals and conservatives. Through his research on what he calls “Moral Foundations Theory,” he and his colleagues have found that liberals primarily value fairness and caring for others, while conservatives hold these two in equal standing with other values, including sanctity, authority, and loyalty.
The result, inevitably, is that anything (whether factual or otherwise) that can conceivably be seen as unfavorable to the disadvantaged — those who are seen as uncared for and given a bad hand in life — is highly offensive to many liberals. Consequently, individuals who deign to speak their mind on a topic that affects these victim groups can expect to have their words interpreted in the most uncharitable manner possible by those who wish to stand up for the downtrodden.
Similarly, conservatives are frequently put off by that which can be seen as disloyal (burning the flag), degrading (recreational drug use), or subversive to authority (criticizing police use of force).
This has helped to create the unfortunate circumstance we now find ourselves in: we are unable to discuss — never mind compromise on — most of the important issues of our time. Reflexive emotions evoked by a discussion that touches upon the causes we care most about prevent a level-headed weighing of the pros and cons. The title of Haidt’s landmark 2001 paper described this as “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail.”
So conservatives should take a look in the mirror and see that they too are guided by emotion. And liberals, after taking a beat to acknowledge the drawbacks of political correctness and considering how to mitigate them, should not only push back against conservatives who accuse them of having a monopoly on feelings-driven politics, but ought to also point out the ways that conservatives exempt themselves from rational discussions, too.
Perhaps then we can move past this speed bump on the road to continued progress.
Evan Anderson is a Boston-based independent journalist. Follow him on Twitter @