The dust has settled. The first 2016 GOP debate is over. Early on in the debate an interaction occurred between presidential candidate Donald Trump and Fox News reporter, Megyn Kelly. This verbal exchange would go on to be one of the highlights of the night that has continued to be talked about on talkshows and news outlets. Kelly confronted Mr. Trump on several disparaging remarks he has made about women on Twitter and national TV. Trump's response did not deviate from his usual reasons when defending his past statements. "What I say...is what I say" replied Trump, "I don't, frankly, have time for total political correctness." He went on to label "political correctness" as a major problem in our country.
"Political correctness", as it is termed, has been one of Trump's major selling points--that is, his complete lack of it. Many believe that Trump's appeal and current wave of success in the polls is due to his decisive stance against the issue. This appeal may function as a breath of fresh air for some, and mere entertainment for others. Either way, he's getting a lot of attention for his war against political correctness, and it is an unspoken platform for his campaign. As informed voters, we should be evaluating such language, especially since his image that he communicates places the concept at its core. What is political correctness? Is it indeed as harmful as Mr. Trump makes it out to be?
As is the case with all language, you may be able to find a different meaning than mine--from a different source, or a different set of personal experiences. That's okay with me. The best I can do is work from a broad definition that will be most easily understood by a wide range of people. For that reason, I will use Merriam-Webster's definition of Political Correctness: "conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated." According to this definition, both Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump are correct in labeling his past statements about women as NOT politically correct. This is true regardless of which side of the politically correct fence you observe.
Already, however, we are running into some problems with the term. When did matters of sex and race become synonymous with a political party? There is no political party called "women", or "LGBTQ", or "People of Color". These matters (while they may have political correlations) are fundamentally matters of identity. They are statements about people, not the state. At the risk of making too large of an assumption, I would like, therefore, to change the term from political correctness to identity correctness. Here's my new definition: "conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend personal/ethnic sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated." To be clear, I am well aware that there are political connections to matters of identity such as sex and race. I am simply pointing out that "sex" and "race" predate our modern politics, and it is in those identity questions that our issue truly lies. The main arguments that I hear against identity correctness are much like those Trump uses:
"There's no time to try and call everybody by the right title."
"Their taking offense does not make me guilty of offending them."
"It's all just an excuse to get angry and lobby for more privileges."
"It's all meaningless semantics."
Indeed, an underlying assumption of these arguments are that words cannot affect people involuntarily. It assumes that the PC movement was invented for its own sake; or as a tool to impinge on the free speech of the American people by the deviant margins. Such arguments do much to convince people that there are more important issues at hand (e.g. national security, healthcare reform, and education). Should we be wasting our time trying to decide how to address people who are different from us?
Five years ago, the American Journal of Psychiatry published a paper* that, I think, has important scientific implications on this political point of contention. The authors described a study of college students who had been verbally abused as children. They made it a point to not include students who had been physically abused, sexually abused, or otherwise neglected. This left them with a group of students whose chief complaint was verbal abuse, specifically. What they found was profound: words hurt. They don't just hurt us emotionally, they hurt us physically. Results showed that verbal abuse from peers and/or parents during adolescence negatively affects our neural development in significant ways--leading to a higher risk of mental illness as adults.
I think this data reveals a popular lie about identity correctness, which is that it carries no significance beyond political leverage. One can no longer say that a person's offense is conjured up, or a ploy. Emotional injury and physical injury are actually much closer to synonymy than we thought. What's more, the term itself is not as important as is the message it carries. For example, being called a "strong woman" is much different than being told you "throw like a girl".
Accusing people of getting hung up on "terms" is a straw man, because the importance lies deeper in the meaning of the message being conveyed. Watching the way we speak to people, and whether or not they feel supported by others, has direct implications on their human functioning. Their human functioning (in addition to being valuable in its own right) impacts our education system, our GDP, and our ability to achieve diplomatic solutions on an international scale.
Reflect, for a moment, on the national movement specifically aimed at stopping bullying and cyberbullying. One need not look at length on the internet to find archives of young children dying by their own hand, too overwhelmed to cope effectively with incessant teasing at school. Cyberbullying, by definition, cannot involve any type of physical abuse. Yet, it is also showing itself to be extremely harmful.
I disagree with Trump's idea that our country does not have time to stop and think about what we say. It seems a drastic double standard that Trump--who presumably loathes the mincing of words--releases press-release after press-release saying, "I didn't say that, I said 'This'."
What we say matters. That's a good thing, but not without a grim level of personal responsibility on our part. We are responsible for our words just as we are responsible for the bullets we fire, the bombs we drop, and the sanctions we impose. When somebody misfires their gun and injures a person, or when a drunk driver hits a child, we hold them responsible. Their "lack of intention" does not matter. What matters is their irresponsibility changed (or ended) the life of another person. We do not blame the person because they interpreted the bullet wrong. We do not release a statement saying "I did not shoot AT him." The same standard should be placed on our speech. Language is more ambiguous than our intentions. If we think we are being as clear as we think we are, we are ignorant.
Everyone will accidentally offend someone else. I believe this to be an unfixable problem. Denying that we have a responsibility, on the other hand, to strive toward the health of society by ensuring that people do not have to be burdened by harmful speech is negligence.
It's no secret that this holds implications on the way we interpret the term "free speech". That is not a question I have easy answers to, but its a conversation that we, as a society, have a responsibility to begin. Ignoring it is wrong.
What we say is not JUST what we say.
*Teicher, M.H., Samson, J.A., Sheu, Y., Polcari, A., & McGreenery C.E. (2010). Hurtful words: Association of exposure to peer verbal abuse with elevated psychiatric symptom scores and corpus collosum abnormalities. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Vol. 167(12), pp. 1464-1471.