A popular column has circulated from the Washington Post penned by Cato’s immigration policy analyst, Alex Norwastch. In it he articulates a speech standard similar to political correctness, which he has termed “patriotic correctness.” The premise (as summarized at the top of his column): “Conservatives use ‘patriotic correctness’ to regulate speech, behavior and acceptable opinions.” I think this summation is generally acceptable for most people. However, Jim Geraghty at National Review took issues with some of the content of the column, writing counter to Norwastch, in part, stated:
We live in a world where Brendan Eich can get tossed from a company he founded over supporting a marriage initiative, ESPN fired Curt Schilling for a Facebook post about transgender bathrooms, bakers get fined $135,000 for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding, and the Department of Justice goes after the Little Sisters of the Poor for claiming an exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. At the core of modern leftist-driven political correctness is the idea that the social transgression of holding an unpopular opinion must be met with economic repercussions or legal prosecution. Conservatives may complain loudly and frequently, but so f ar, they’ve shown little ability to generate economic repercussions or legal prosecution.
It appears to me that Geraghty takes issue with the governmental and social forces behind the left’s brand of political correctness that appear to be lacking behind the right’s “patriotic correctness.” This is a notable distinction, but does not mean political correctness is absent on the right, nor does it mean that “patriotic correctness” does not actually exist and is simply a preference for conservative opinions, as he asserts elsewhere in his piece.
However, this institutional power- the ability to punish people who do not adhere to a particular brand of political correctness- may shift as it is likely to do with the coming of the Trump administration. Indeed, Trump has already expressed (perhaps sincerely, perhaps he is just “puffing his wares“) a desire to punish those who do not adhere to his view regarding the flag. Though this may never be fully realized, it may speak to a tendency to adhere to a brand of political correctness that will later turn the power of the state, or his government position, against it’s citizenry for exercising unpatriotic or unpopular opinions. Indeed, as Garaghty points out in his column, it doesn’t have to be illegal for the impact to be substantial, as was the case for Brandon Eich. The ability to match power with political correctness is the more dangerous form of political correctness. (Perhaps termed “hard political correctness,” though that sounds awkward).
The form of political correctness embraced by the right, and somewhat outlined by Nowrasteh, possesses the central property of political correctness: creating politically driven speech codes to prevent substantive debate by treating the conclusions as a given. In short, it is politically-branded question begging. The left does this by eliminating anything it deems politically offensive, particularly involving minorities. A task that seems to have drained many college students of any emotional capacity to actually go to class. The right does it much like (not exactly like) Nowasteh suggests, by taking positions that bolster patriotism and deference to certain elements of state power, such as law enforcement. This general definition of political correctness may be termed soft political correctness, as it may lack institutional power at the moment. However, that does not mean it will not gain institutional power in the future.
Nowasteh’s column fails to clearly distinguish where it should. As a result, it misses the mark for those concerned about political correctness and how it stifles speech and honest discourse and imposes real consequences on those unwilling to adhere to the tenets of the left (who are not as well mannered as Nowasteh suggests). Yet, the risk remains that the status quo may shift and the first step in preventing a new right-leaning brand of political correctness from harming others and stifling speech is to recognize the risk it imposes. Especially as a new administration, one that may be unfriendly to speech and willing to use institutional power to silence dissent, comes to power and threatens to impose their preferred speech codes, either through the bully-pulpit or social pressures.
It is also worth noting that much of these bad speech habits are somewhat unavoidable. They are part of our heuristic natures. I wrote previously on adopting a heuristic of liberty, and think heuristics are part of human nature and often good. But they should be replaced with a more nuanced understanding when possible. The middle ground between these two columns suggests we break down these linguistic heuristics and self-analyze to prevent discourse from being stymied.
James C. Devereaux is an attorney and freedom fanatic. Questions, complaints and hysterics can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @jcdevereaux1. All views are representative of author only and not of any affiliate or employer.