Are Civility And Political Correctness The Same?

At WaPo, Elizabeth Bruenig writes about an ongoing debate in certain circles, whether the problem facing the body politic is our inability to talk to each other, to find sufficient common ground to disagree without being disagreeable.

“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about,” Clinton declared in a recent CNN interview. When and if Democrats assume power in Congress, she said, “that’s when civility can start again.” Members of the American left agreed; those on the American right did not. Meanwhile, a study published last week by the think tank More in Common found that 80 percent of Americans believe that “political correctness is a problem.” Conservatives hailed the study as supplying empirical backing to common sense; liberals dismissed it as methodologically flawed and politically motivated.

While Bruenig’s focus is whether there is an American history of political civility, beyond the brief halcyon days following World War II. she suggests we’ve got a long history of being politically uncivil. But there is a collateral question raised in the context of this civility debate. Are civility and political correctness the same?

Both “political correctness” and “civility” have become inflammatory notions in the post-2016 world. But what are they? Essentially, they’re both modes of speech and public conduct that aim to address the largest possible number of listeners without offense. In a liberal democracy, where citizens deliberate in public about political choices, it’s critical to have a widely inclusive, intelligible manner of speaking.

If civility is defined to mean a polite discussion, being respectful to the other person, the subjective nature of these vague terms should be apparent. What constitutes politeness and respectfullness varies. You may offer an assertion in what you believe to be a polite manner, but the communication is perceived as an attack or a slight.

Even so, most of us have a general notion of how to engage in a polite discussion, even when the subject is controversial. It can prove strained, and ultimately pointless when someone goes off the rails, but that’s the case with any discussion. We’re not required to agree or reach consensus, but we can do so without devolving to “you’re a lying moron.”

Political correctness, on the other hand, is a subset of civility. While it incorporates the notions of politeness and respectfullness, it includes an overlay of words, phrases and ideas that are not inherently impolite but are, as a matter of personal sensibility, taboo.

The breadth of political correctness is relatively personal, some people being outraged by some notions but not others that would infuriate another, but the same problems apply: one party to the discussion dictates the limits of the other’s language and ideas, taking those they find anathema off the table before any discussion can be had.

For example, it might be entirely acceptable in a discussion of whether there is such a thing as “rape culture” to discuss toxic masculinity, the over-aggressiveness of males in their dealings with others and the dangers this presents to women. But introduce the contention that the problem may be that women are too emotional and you’ve crossed a line.

This isn’t a matter of politeness, but a matter of an assertion that violates a precept. The assertion is inherently unacceptable, and to raise it is to be politically incorrect and end any possibility of further discussion, as cries of “misogynist” are hurled back in response.

It could be argued that it’s disrespectful to use words, phrases or ideas one recognizes to be unacceptable, but that creates a bit of a problem. Can one argue a point when limited to only those words and ideas that are approved by one’s adversary? One of the core disagreements is that identity politics is grounded in fantasy assumptions. To question an assumption, however, is to spit in a progressive’s eye, no matter how gently it’s done.

At The Atlantic, Emily Yoffe wrote about the growing conflict between sexual assault and due process, a very serious problem given the vilification of due process as the stumbling block to ending the sexual assault epidemic.

Sexual violence is a serious national problem. But in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearing, it has joined the list of explosively partisan issues. Republicans—adopting the rhetorical style of the president—dismiss accusers. Democrats mock the idea that fairness and due process are necessary for the accused. These attitudes will be detrimental to the country and are perilous for each party.

Note the first sentence of that quoted paragraph. Is it factually accurate? It’s certainly the accepted wisdom of the moment, repeated ad nauseum, but is it real? It would be inconceivable for Emily to have written the balance of that paragraph without having begun with that sentence. It might be viewed as Gertruding, but even as Gertruding is assumed that the assertion is too obvious to require statement. But is it true?

We don’t know. We know what’s said, but it can’t be tested to weed out false claims, definition problems where “sexual violence” is whatever someone feels it is, untethered from either sex or violence. The reason we can test this very serious assertion is that it’s politically incorrect to challenge an article of faith such as this.

The only way Emily could get to her point is to accept this article of faith as a foundational premise. Even so, she’s regularly castigated for her views, for her failure to adhere to the orthodoxy. Emily is invariably polite and respectful, so there is no issue of civility raised by her writing. But to even question the propriety of due process in the context of “sexual violence” is politically incorrect, and her writing is often denigrated for it.

Civility, in itself, has become a desired virtue mostly in contrast to incivility, screaming ugly names at one another rather than substantive debate. Tone policing is the last refuge of the prissy, used mostly to avoid the unpleasantness of having to confront the irrationality of one’s deeply felt views.

But political correctness is a worthless endeavor, as it’s a game played with your hands tied behind your back. If the debate can only be had on politically correct turf, then it’s not a debate at all and a waste of time. Be as civil as you want, but if you can’t be real, then why bother?

33 thoughts on “Are Civility And Political Correctness The Same?

  1. Richard Kopf


    I nominate ““you’re a lying moron” as the conversation starter of the month. All the best.


      1. Rojas

        I suspect a regional taint. “Well bless your heart” has been in at the top of the charts for quite awhile around here.

      2. bryan

        I believe that was “ignorant slut”, an important distinction. Miserableness is inherently subjective, ignorance on a topic, or generally, is at least somewhat objective. I’d try to explain in which category slut-ness falls… but I think that would be politically incorrect.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    Through inappropriate overuse in some quarters, “that’s racist” has lost some of its sting, so it’s time to turn “you’re an asshole” into a damning moral judgement.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s hard to come up with a decent attack these days. When I was in college, I used to tell people to “eat my fuck” and then walk away. I don’t think that would work anymore.

          1. LocoYokel

            Because you know the origin of the goat kisser and would be laughing a little inside every time you said it?

  3. Hunting Guy

    Donald Trump

    “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. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”

      1. Hunting Guy

        Robert Heinlein.

        “How anybody expects a man to stay in business with every two-bit wowser in the country claiming a veto over what we can say and can’t say and what we can show and what we can’t show — it’s enough to make you throw up. The whole principle is wrong; it’s like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t eat steak.”

      2. Guitardave

        How about…of all people…the late Terrance McKenna….circa 1991..

        “This has just got so un-generous of spirit, to point out that someone makes no sense at all. Its as if their feelings have become preeminent in the value system ……it’s become more important that you not hurt someones feelings, than to let them walk around with a head full of crap.”

  4. Lee

    I am reminded of the book by Jack Vance, The Languages of Pao, which extrapolated on the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. If one does not have the word, one cannot have the concept.

    Put differently, control the language and you control the discussion.

    And the Progressives and Social Justice Warriors are all about control.

      1. Ben

        But, contra, whoever wrote Genesis.

        The rulers of Babel knew everything needed to build the perfect society, therfore they forbade anyone from saying anything else.

        And yet people would insist on saying other things.

      2. Lee

        Yeah, but can you really trust a homophobic, ex-cop, former fellow traveler, child abuser who hid behind a nom de plume? I mean, the man was a smoker and probably and racist and a misogynist.

        How could we possibly give credence to what he wrote back in the last century? He should be erased from history!

        Oh, wait. Never mind. 🙂

  5. Ayoy

    “Political correctness, on the other hand, is a subset of civility”

    Or you could frame it as: “PC is the latest iteration of civility”.

    If there IS such a thing as “political correctness” when, how and where did it come about?

    Is it the work of malevolent social scientists?

    Or is it the result of societal changes in the last 50 years? We live in a more heterogeneous less patriarchal society. Those people get to vote, have buying power too.

    Or maybe elements of both, or somthing else entirely.

    1. Skink

      Out here in the swamp, I live with my dog. But it might be a really big cat. I dunno. There’s also bugs–big and small. Some have wings; some teeth, but them might be stingers. My dog/cat don’t like the stingers, but I think they should vote for stuff. It’s one of them “up in the air” things.

      But I’m wondering how much rum it’ll take for me to understand you.

  6. LTMG

    It will be interesting to see if, when the Democratic Party is the majority in Congress, civility will soon follow. If not, will members of the Republican Party be civil in their demands for civility from the other side?

    1. SHG Post author

      Because we don’t suppose they’re both similarly, if not equally, full of shit about wanting civility? But then, is this about political parties or people? Note that I never mention Dems or Reps, yet that’s where your head goes.

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