Candidates seem increasingly to give themselves the right to say something not “politically correct.”
“So what,” they say in effect, “I call them as I see them and I don’t care if that meets the standards of the current political debate.” It’s a way of appearing bold, appealing to some supporters without worrying about the affront to others.
Sometimes, not being politically correct is simply not being factually correct. Are poor Latinos flocking to the U.S. to make sure their children can be born here and automatically become American citizens? In fact, the people doing that these days are wealthy Chinese.
Coming to America to have your children be Americans is made to seem to be cheating. Yet the Constitution provides for children born here to be Americans and the ancestors of a great many Americans, coming after the Civil War, took advantage of that constitutional rule.
Aside from dismissing the truth as being politically disposable, such statements are often offensive to a person or a group of people. But that’s all right, because the speaker does not care or intends to be offensive.
Recently, GOP candidate Donald Trump, after proclaiming repeatedly that he was a Presbyterian, commented on his competitor Ben Carson’s religion. “I mean Seventh-day Adventist,” he said, “I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”
In context, he was making a barely veiled criticism of Carson for having an unusual religious affiliation. “I just don’t know about electing a guy with a weird religion,” he might have been saying.
Of course, his words did not disparage Carson’s beliefs – technically. So Carson should not be offended, according to Trump. But Seventh-day Adventists, singled out in this way, might well be offended.
Aside from claiming that nothing offensive was said, another response may be that a statement merely opposed conventional wisdom. That could be true if the remarks were not a direct or indirect attack on a person or group.
Another course for those saying something not politically correct is to claim it was only a joke. Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s remarks that men should not let their wives control the family checkbook was passed off that way. Without the negative reaction, would he have explained it at all?
Because political discourse in this country has improved, notably with the decline of pure racist expressions, it is not acceptable for anybody to speak negatively about another’s race, religion, sexual orientation and many other attributes. This change is taken as a sign of more civilized behavior.
Political correctness may go too far at times. Applying today’s standards to the past seems unfair. Maine Democrats renamed their annual dinner to drop Thomas Jefferson, the party’s founder, because he kept slaves. But we have always known that as well as his considerable achievements for his country.
Recently Harry Truman, the president who integrated the armed forces, was criticized because of a 1911 letter to his future wife when he used the “n” word and “Chinaman.” He undoubtedly held the prejudices of his region, but by 1940, he was campaigning for civil rights before a white audience in Missouri.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, also criticized, used racist language at the same time as he convinced southern senators to support civil rights legislation that, a hundred years late, made good on post-Civil War constitutional amendments.
To transgress the new standards of what is deemed reasonable public speech increasingly requires the speaker to show a kind of false boldness that comes packaged as not being politically correct. Such boldness may please some supporters, but it makes less political sense than it once did.
If most illegal immigrants are undesirable, law-breaking Mexicans (in fact, not a true statement), what is the political advantage from alienating Mexican-Americans? For some, the statement might show politically incorrect courage, but Latino voters may see it as simply incorrect and offensive.
At best, not being politically correct is simply a political tactic aimed at recruiting supporters who hold generally unspoken positions. That may help in gaining a presidential nomination, but is not likely to help win the general election.
At worst, it reflects an attempt to rally those who want to delay or prevent the inevitable ethnic changes taking place in the United States. People of color will be the American majority, and some people oppose policies, like increased immigration, aiding that change.
The First Amendment guarantee of free speech allows people not to be politically correct, but it does not make what they say true – or just plain correct.