On Anti-“Political Correctness” Posturing, Human Dignity and Self-Governance

I have been musing about Donald Trump and his supposed “assault” (see below) on political correctness and wondering whether those who applaud his screeds against immigrants, Muslims, individuals with disabilities, women and veterans who have endured torture are missing a vitally important point in understanding their significance for not only the present campaign, but also for our democratic politics and self-governance more generally. I have read any number of accounts of citizens voicing their support for what they take to be Trump’s “refreshing honesty” and “willingness to tell it like it is,” as if expressions of contempt, hatred and bigotry aimed at entire classes of people are appropriate and have heretofore been prevented only by self censure. I confess I find these sorts of voter comments morally repugnant. At the same time, I have also concluded that whatever ugliness they may represent, they have little or no connection to political correctness. More bluntly, my sense is that Trump’s contentions, and similar ones offered by other current GOP presidential candidates, are not criticisms of political correctness at all. They instead constitute insidious attacks on the principle of human dignity, and thereby on the fundaments of democracy. The citizens responding to them may believe that these public statements reflect their attitudes, and perhaps they do. But if so, that fact says more about those individuals’ willingness to embrace hate and smallness than it does about the contours of political correctness, whatever its specific characteristics.

For his part, New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall, for example, appears to have been convinced that Trump was criticizing political correctness in his commentary of December 23, 2015, “Trump, Obama and the Assault on Political Correctness.” He observed:

 

Opposition to political correctness has always been a weapon brandished by the right against what it sees as ‘multicultural liberalism,’ but Trump has taken this to new extremes.

 

Trump’s resounding success with the reckless abandonment of the norms of political discourse suggests that he has tapped into a deep reservoir of antipathy to the culture of polite restraint.[1]

 

Edsall’s view has surely been the dominant one among interpretations of Trump’s remarks. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the candidate’s assertions instead erode the principle of human dignity and equality, without which present-day democratic liberalism cannot be sustained. That tenet was established formally in our time in 1948 with United Nations (and United States) adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Preamble of that charter begins as follows:

 

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people. …[2]

 

Articles 1 and 2 of the Declaration are, if anything, even plainer in their embrace of human dignity, irrespective of specific religious faith or other characteristics:

 

Article 1.

 All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.[3]

I can see no way to accept this document’s principled support of universal human rights, and their clear link to freedom and democratic possibility, and simultaneously to countenance would-be U.S. leaders actively calling for dismissing whole classes of residents and citizens on the basis of their gender, religious faith, disability or any other characteristic. Such stands are not merely appeals for an end to political correctness. To accept the views that Trump, particularly, has asserted, is to argue our nation should set aside the most basic precept of self-governance, the ascription of rights on the basis of human dignity, to adopt a flavor-of-the-month demagogy in which we become willing collectively to single out a group of individuals for ridicule or hatred based solely on their appearance or disability, war experience, or other attribute as may suit a majority’s desire at any given moment. As such, Trump’s rhetoric should be regarded as hate speech of a very specific sort that has sought to elicit popular support for the degradation of human freedom.

Perhaps those now celebrating Trump’s cruelty and meanness have long secretly wished to discriminate against their fellow citizens and residents, but if so, we need collectively to assert the rights of all against their ignorance. If we do not do so, we shall soon find ourselves depriving one or another group of their basic human rights for the most fatuous of reasons, as Trump has done, and in that process abrogate the rights and freedom of all, for no one would be safe from the demagogic gaze in such an environment.

A democratic people does, in fact, need to learn to practice self-restraint, self-discipline and prudence, if they are to live with heterogeneity and difference and not fall prey to fear and “othering” behaviors. Given that our own nation is among the most diverse on earth, it follows that Americans, especially, should be leery of those who exhort them to excoriate one another.

Political thinkers at least since Aristotle have cautioned democracy’s partisans that it can be an extraordinarily difficult regime to maintain, since human beings historically have often and viciously demonstrated their willingness to tyrannize over one another on the basis of real, perceived and sometimes, contrived differences. All the more important, then, that when our polity is confronted with anyone who would tear at the fundamental rights and principles that bind the community, that person be labeled for what he or she is, rather than be allowed to press divisiveness under the cover of a supposed redress of overreaching “political correctness.” Donald Trump’s demonizing and demeaning rhetoric is profoundly anti-democratic and counter to the human rights that underpin a free polity. It should be called the demagoguery that it is.       

 

Notes

[1] Edsall, Thomas, 2015. “Trump, Obama and the Assault on Political Correctness,” The New York Times Campaign Stops blog. December 23.   http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/23/opinion/trump-obama-and-the-assault-on-political-correctness.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fthomas-b-edsall&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=collection&_r=0. Accessed February 7, 2016.

[2] United Nations, 1948. “Preamble,” Universal Declaration of Human Rights.   http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html. Accessed February 7, 2016.

[3] United Nations, 1948. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html. Accessed February 7, 2016.