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?