To hear some people tell it, there is no greater threat to the Republic at the moment than political correctness. It forces dissenters to cower before views they would ordinarily reject, out of fear that they will be labeled as bigots. It thwarts attempts at finding common-sense solutions to the country’s problems. It stifles open debate and free inquiry. So negative has the term become that no one is ever heard saying, “I’m proud to be politically correct.” Admitting to political correctness is tantamount to admitting that there are limits on one’s speech and, by implication, on one’s thoughts. Conversely, refusing to bow to standards of respect demanded by various groups is supposed to convey a deep commitment to unadorned truths.
What truths are so sorely missing from our national conversation? Undocumented Mexican immigrants are, according to Donald Trump, potential drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. The businesses that severed ties with him over these incendiary statements have taken “the weak and very sad position of being politically correct,” Trump declared. Banning foreign Muslims from entering the United States is “probably not politically correct,” he said, “but I don’t care.” In February, Trump lamented that ISIS terrorists are “cutting off the heads of Christians,” but we’re “too politically correct to respond in kind.”
But political correctness isn’t a bête noire for Trump alone. At a presidential town hall in February, Texas Senator Ted Cruz insisted that having women serve in the front lines of combat “makes no sense at all” and that “the military should [not] be governed by political correctness.” Ohio Governor John Kasich, the supposed moderate in the race, claimed that the March terrorist attacks in Brussels could have been foiled if not for—you guessed it—political correctness. And last month, North Carolina passed a law that bars transgender people from using bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t match their gender identity at birth. When confronted about the discriminatory aspect of the legislation, Governor Pat McCrory complained that “political correctness has gone amok.”
These responses work like wild cards, played at convenient moments in a political game. And like wild cards, they have no inherent merit. For example, when Trump suggests that the United States “respond in kind” to ISIS terrorists, he is not only proposing that we bring back torture—an immoral practice, not to mention an illegal and ineffective one—he is also legitimizing other punitive measures favored by ISIS like beheading, crucifixion, and sexual slavery. How many voters would be willing to take political incorrectness and “responding in kind” to that level? Similarly, when Cruz says that women should not register for the Selective Service, he is clearly implying that the ability to fire a weapon or pilot a fighter jet is limited by gender. And when McCrory says that North Carolina’s new law doesn’t take away existing rights, he means that it doesn’t take away the rights of men and women who unambiguously present as such.