The time has come to delete the term “politically correct” from the American vocabulary.
We no longer agree on what it means, which makes it useless. And it’s been hijacked by Donald Trump as an epithet that justifies the meanest, most bigoted statements we’ve seen in mainstream American political discourse in many years.
It’s certainly a phrase with a checkered history. Earlier in the 20th century, “politically correct” was a thought-killing Stalinist phrase used to enforce ideological conformity and squelch dissent within the Communist Party.
A couple of decades ago, “political correctness” was used to refer to language and behavior that was respectful of the dignity and rights of women, people of color, and people with disabilities.
More recently, the phrase evolved into a verbal weapon of left-wing academics seeking to promote an extreme brand of sensitivity to the identity politics of the oppressed. Its use by these dogmatic practitioners of intellectual and moral superiority made it a ripe target for satire.
Satire and irony, in turn, have most recently turned the phrase “politically correct” into an insult, and thus it has become Donald Trump’s favorite put-down for anyone who challenges his vitriolic verbal assaults on immigrants, women, John McCain, or anyone else.
It’s become a phrase designed to shut off conversation, to shut down critical thinking, and to excuse verbal cruelties such as alleging that Mexico is sending rapists and criminals across our border, that women who aren’t beautiful are dogs, and that a war hero is a loser because he was captured.
It’s become an all-purpose justification for tolerating and even encouraging racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia.
That’s the opposite of what our civic discourse needs – especially in the coming presidential campaign. Instead, we need a focus on thought, speech and policy that is morally rigorous. That’s our nomination for the catch phrase for the 2016 presidential election campaign.
In a nation of immigrants and Indian nations whose founding purpose is freedom and equality for all, moral rigor requires constant examination of where we are moving forward, where we may be backsliding, and what we ought to do to accelerate progress. This would lead to conversation about voting rights, equal opportunity in education and the workplace, and equal protection from discrimination.
A morally rigorous presidential campaign would also focus on what sort of world we are creating for future generations. That would entail intense conversation about climate change, pollution, and sustainable agriculture – all topics completely missing from the first Republican debate.
But perhaps most important, a morally rigorous presidential campaign would focus on creating a civic culture of kindness – the simple human quality that lubricates discourse with civility, respect for differences, and the humility to do what former President Jimmy Carter recently urged his Sunday school class to do: At least consider the possibility that the other person might be right, and that we might be wrong.
If we want to make America strong, we need leaders who constantly work to pry our minds open, not those who use meaningless slogans to keep them tightly shut.