Civility and Political Correctness

Commercialism in American life is also a force destructive of civility. (Agnes M. Conklin, 1922)

On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. In his speech, he lamented that we never beat China in a trade deal, that we never beat Japan in car sales, and that countries are dumping their worst citizens into our country. Quite famously, he said that Mexico is sending criminals, and rapists, and “some good people.” Not exactly civil. Not very PC, either.

During the election cycle, he also pointed to “political correctness” as a major problem for the US. In the televised Republican debate, Trump said: “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.”

Shortly thereafter, Trump began to lament to loss of civility in US society. Trump advocated for a return to civility, for example, after Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia. He also called for a return to civility after pipe bombs were mailed to a number of Democratic politicians and Trump critics. Instead of acknowledging his own role in the lack of civility, Trump blamed the Democrats and the press.

Well, for one, we’ve never been that civil. In fact, discourse today is downright tame compared to some other moments in our history. For another, civility and political correctness are interrelated. Addressing someone in a respectful manner (political correctness) is part and parcel of civil discourse and civil engagement. If Trump wants the latter, why attack the former? The short answer is that he doesn’t really want civility. He merely wants to weaponize it.

Let’s just look at these two terms historically, and we will see that the term “civility” — much like the term “political correctness” — gets trotted out specifically to silence certain groups and certain ideas.

In his essay “The Paradox of Civility,” Fredrik Logevall argues that “The halcyon days of political geniality and decorum in the United States never existed, not in the early days of the republic and not in the two-plus centuries that followed.” Indeed, Logevall notes the rancorous language between John Adams and Thomas Paine, the insults hurled between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. A bit later, during Lincoln’s 1864 campaign, Lincoln’s opponent circulated pamphlets filled with racist images and language. Sounds all-too-familiar.

Beyond rhetoric, politicians actually became physically violent. In 1856, for example, a pro-slavery Democrat form the south, Preston Brooks, attacked an abolitionist from the north, Charles Sumner. On the floor of the Senate, Brooks beat Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him in the process. The caning was retribution for Sumner’s speech criticizing slave holders. Halcyon days of civility, indeed.

Perhaps more importantly, calls for civility have too frequently occurred in order to silence a group or individual. When feminists argued for employment opportunities, they were told they would lose their feminine characteristic of civility, and told to return to the kitchen and wait their turn. When suffragists picketed the White House, they were called uncivil, physically attacked, and jailed. When African-Americans demanded civil rights in the 1960s, they were told they were being uncivil. When they insisted, they were beaten and jailed, too. When members of the LGBTQ community were dying of AIDS in the 1980s, they demanded legislative and medical action. They, too, were told that their rhetoric and demonstrations were uncivil. ACT-UP did not listen.

It is a fairly clear pattern of insistence on civility. And of silencing.

The calls for civility are intertwined with calls against “political correctness.” In point of fact, “political correctness” is nothing more than a way to shut down conversation. Claiming PC is a way to dismiss someone out of hand. Claiming PC is simply a way not to engage in a discussion about something. Screaming, “I don’t have time for political correctness” is a way not to have to look into oneself, a way not to have to make any changes.

Let’s take, for example, someone who is accustomed to using the term “negro.” And then someone says, “You shouldn’t use that term. It has a racist history. It was a way for one group to define another group. You should use African American, instead.” Frequently, the response will be, “That’s just being PC. I don’t have time for that” — the very phrase used by Trump. Instead of acknowledging that the term “African American” better reflects the history and status of a community, instead of acknowledging that “African American” represents an attempt at self definition, the person retreats into a hollow catch-phrase. What that retreat signals is a refusal to engage with the history of the terms. It signals a refusal to recognize the harmful, racist effects of the term. It signals that the individual simply does not want to have to change how they think or how they speak. “I have called them ‘negro’ my whole life, and I’m not going to change now.”

In point of fact, I have heard people say, “I don’t want to have to be self-conscious about how I speak.” But that’s exactly the point. We should be self-conscious when we speak. And we should be conscious of the effect of what we say has on other people. That’s the foundation of civility and civil discourse. You — and by that I mean Donald Trump — cannot have it both ways.

Kenneth Cmiel notes that a 1942 ruling by the Supreme Court (Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire) argued certain words were not protected by the First Amendment (fighting words, lewd words, obscene words). Further, the court fundamentally argued that “free speech was possible only in what eighteenth-century writers had called ‘civil society.’ Civility, in other words, had to precede civil rights” (263). Justice Frank Murphy wrote that “insulting or ‘fighting’ words” were not protected speech. Instead, their only purpose was to insult or harm another individual. As such, they hold “no social value” and are rightful restricted.

On this understanding, “civility” does not mean never calling someone out on their sexism or racism or homophobia. It does, however, mean that you — and by this I mean Donald Trump — cannot stand on a podium and insult members of the press, knowing that the words inflict harm. He cannot stand (metaphorically) on his Twitter pulpit and insult and inflict harm on members of Congress. This form of speech is not protected speech. Furthermore, it does not fit the criteria of civility. This form of speech does not recognize the interlocutor as a citizen, as a self-defined and self-determined individual. So-called politically correct speech expressly recognizes the other as some one. Politically correct speech, in the words of Justice Murphy, does offer a “step to truth.”

Trump may say that this country does not have time for political correctness. He’s wrong. It’s the very basis of civil society, and we damned well better find the time for it.

Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of a book on feminist science fiction and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls.

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