Cleaning Up the National Conversation

Why “political correctness,” often seen as a source of division, is exactly what’s needed to heal America.

People protest the arrival of President Donald Trump as he visits the Tree of Life Congregation on Oct. 30 in Pittsburgh.
People protest the arrival of President Donald Trump as he visits the Tree of Life Congregation on Oct. 30 in Pittsburgh.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

With the midterms over, high octane electoral politics have mostly settled into what the historian Ernest Renan called the “daily plebiscite.” A nation, Renan argued, is a mass of people affirming every day that they are willing to live together. Americans are deeply concerned about our corroded public discourse, which is arguably less able to fulfil this affirming function than ever before. According to a recent survey, many identify “political correctness” as a major force driving us apart, and the sentiment holds across the political spectrum. This is unfortunate, because the idea behind so-called political correctness—that language should signal to people that they belong—ought to be seen and promoted as a way of bringing us back together.

In the Atlantic last month, Yascha Mounk highlighted “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” a survey conducted by the nonprofit More in Common that found 80 percent of respondents from a sample of 8,000 American citizens thought that political correctness was a problem in the United States. That agreement is remarkable, but it’s misleading. As Mounk admits, it is hard to draw conclusions here because respondents were not asked what they understood “political correctness” to mean. The term itself is an unfortunate framing for an important social issue, dreamed up as it was by the right in the 1980s to discredit advocacy for the wider use of inclusive language. The report further confuses the issue by plotting respondents’ opinions on political correctness on the same graph as whether they thought that “hate speech” was a problem. Political correctness, however you define it, is not necessarily the opposite of hate speech.

So-called political correctness is often imagined as a kind of thought control in which certain words must never be uttered by certain people. That has it backward: The goal of inclusive language, as proponents like myself prefer to call it, is trying to speak to someone the way that they would want to be spoken to. In other words, it’s a kind of politeness. Historically this view of communication—which we teach to schoolchildren as the golden rule, but often forget as adults—has warned that society would come apart if we did not constantly affirm our ties to each other in speech and deeds. In other words, we need to stop accepting divisive language as a harmless game, but instead see it as a part of a national crisis that we all must take a role in fixing.

The most helpful way to think about inclusive language is recognizing that it is simply taking the effort to engage with someone to learn about their preferences, and by extension, who they are. Nobody can do that for you, and in an ideal society, it would be as natural as making eye contact or holding the door for someone. Some academic concepts relating to inclusive language—for example, the idea of social privilege or the microaggression—have become more widely known outside university settings. However, popularizing such ideas (important as they are) is, it seems to me, less helpful than hammering home the idea of speech as dialogue: For a conversation to be meaningful, you have to signal respect for the person with whom you are speaking. Otherwise, you are just talking down to them.

The nastiness over transgender people’s pronouns is an obvious example. It is not my responsibility (or anyone else’s) to work out whether a trans woman is feminine enough to be “worthy” in some abstract sense of carrying the feminine pronoun. If she wants to be known as “she,” then it would be insulting to insist on calling her something else. If, on the other hand, someone thinks that trans people are not worthy of dignity in society, then that—not the use of a particular pronoun, not “political correctness”—is the fundamental problem.

The willingness to make the effort to understand other people, and not “wokeness” in general, should be the test of whether someone deserves social sanction for using the wrong words. If a person is unwilling to engage with others to learn about them, then that unwillingness is what needs to be called out. We all have limitations and make mistakes, so good-faith efforts to get it right that fall a little short (a slip of a pronoun, using a group name that has recently fallen out of favor, and so on) should generally be excused. Inclusive language should not be a Moloch that devours its children, as often happens on activist Twitter where people turn their fire on less au fait members of their own group instead of taking the message to others.

However, even while acknowledging that speech norms can be bewildering, especially when usage is in the process of changing, the rage some people feel about supposedly not being able to say something does not justify incivility. When someone announces an intention to make a “politically incorrect” statement, it is not a brave act of resistance but an admission that the following words are going to be an insult to somebody.

Responsibility for the kind of good manners that I am talking about does not fall to a single community of Americans, but to all of us. Perhaps ironically, though, the people who generally believe themselves to represent the “real America” probably have to do more work than others to understand their fellow Americans. Members of marginalized groups constantly have to consider how people outside their own group see them. (W.E.B. Du Bois identified this phenomenon of “double-consciousness” over a century ago.) The think pieces that argue if coastal elites only bothered to try to get to know the denizens of the heartland, then America’s political polarization would be healed, miss the point. The understanding has to go both ways. It is not a single event that one group initiates but a mutual orientation that develops over time.

To be clear, I am not arguing for a milquetoast “civility” or “decorum” in public life: There is sometimes necessity to be rude. Rudeness is power, which the conservative movement knows well. Congressional Republicans have often used “decorum” to mean “shut the hell up” and “civility” to mean “let’s not talk about what you want to talk about.” Structures of power mean that being polite is inherently more laborious for some people than others. The people who have the most to be angry about are often prevented from expressing it constructively. (Because of social conditioning, angry white men are typically seen as righteously impassioned, but women or ethnic minorities showing a full range of emotions in public are dismissed as unhinged.) In fact, the politer our discourse is in general, the more dramatic the effect when breaking the rules of politeness becomes necessary.

Despite the widespread fear of political correctness, there are not actually clear codes in present-day America that govern how we speak to others. This free-for-all in communication is unusual in contrast to the elaborate rules in the past. For example, as a historian I research adab (”good manners”), a Persian cultural practice that connected much of Asia for a millennium and still has some purchase today. Adab involved a complicated etiquette that was taught to everyone who learned how to read and write. It was a complicated system because it had a crucial function: Adab gave people the tools to demonstrate through speech and behavior how they connected to each other. It envisioned society as a set of mutual responsibilities linking everyone from the most exalted king to the lowliest beggar. Today we usually imagine such rules as an inhibition, but it can be liberating to have guidance on what should and should not be said. In the absence of clear rules, we depend more on each other to know what is appropriate.

Adab is obviously a utopian vision and not a historically accurate description of how a society ever really functioned on the ground. But as an ideal, it matters because it highlights the fact that for a nation to survive, people must constantly express through their words that they respect each other. The opposite seems to be happening in America today, especially when it comes to electoral politics. What we particularly need is better resilience to communication that is not meant to communicate much of anything, but just seeks to demean or exclude people. Unfortunately, the president is himself a master of this sort of rudeness. Because as the “ruler” he is failing to set a good example to his people, in the world of adab, the president would be considered a mad king in need of a talented vizier to temper his bad morals. Given that there are apparently no such viziers working in the White House, it falls to the rest of us to try to rescue politeness and inclusive language from the shadow of “political correctness,” and use them to repair the bonds that bind a country together.