Ben Carson is experiencing an ascent in the polls — he’s polling close to Donald Trump and seems to be popular among voters who want a candidate less bombastic than the real estate mogul but equally as crazy. Carson has established himself as an opponent of “PC (politically correct) culture” and a sentinel against the imminent oppressive onslaught of the “PC police” (or “Speech Nazis,” if you want to use Ann Coulter’s lingo). Carson, in dire terms, has warned that American culture — and America itself — faces an existential threat from within, from the cancer that is PC culture.
So what the f*** is PC culture? On the surface, it seems to be that invisible cultural force that might compel my editor to edit the F-word out of the previous sentence. But it’s tricky to define broadly, because “PC” is used largely as pejorative term: The people who use the term “PC Culture” are almost exclusively the same people who claim to be adversaries of it.
A working definition might be the following: PC culture is a set of conventions that dictate what we can and can’t say, enforced through the threat of audience outrage. The majority of these conventions make sense: For instance, I’ll say “little person” instead of “midget.” I make this change because it is much easier for me to vary my vocabulary than it is for a person of short stature to forcefully forget the freak show-era discrimination attached to the M-word. In simple terms, PC culture reflects a collective expectation that an interlocutor will avoid using language that unnecessarily offends or alienates an audience.
But Carson and Coulter seem to believe that PC culture is something much more insidious than benign cultural convention: They argue that PC culture goes beyond modulating language and seeks to control ideas.
Opponents of PC culture allege that “offense” is being leveled as a silencing force. There is a prevalent belief among conservatives that accusations of racism and sexism are being used by liberals to silence people who disagree with them: In a column in The Washington Times in 2013, just as he was becoming a household name, Carson alleged that PC culture “… is in place to ensure conformity to the prescribed expressions and lifestyles dictated by the elites. They attempt to silence or destroy any who dare think for themselves or express opposing views.”
Carson might actually have been on to something — there may well be an issue in our country where contrarian ideas are being silenced because they are regarded as offensive. But what’s disappointing is that Carson used “PC culture” as a scapegoat in order to discredit legitimate criticism of his ideas: He wrote his column in response to the backlash he received for declaring that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the U.S. since slavery. He was criticized for being idiotic, not for being un-PC: Comparing the Affordable Care Act to slavery was an enormous historical fallacy.
But it seems Carson had discovered something that propelled his rise in conservative politics: The good doctor discovered that he could name political correctness as the reason for any backlash to his ideas and be rewarded with enormous support from people who agree with him. With his column in The Washington Times, Carson effectively reclaimed the narrative: He was able to get his supporters to ignore his dearth of good ideas or moral understanding and instead focus on the mysteriously invisible, nefarious force of “PC culture.”
Sticking to this discovered model, Carson has continued using “PC” as a nonsense term to delegitimize his opposition. The neuroscientist turned politician complained that the only reason we don’t torture detainees is that “[w]e’ve gotten into this mindset of fighting politically correct wars.” And when he experienced backlash earlier this month for his absurd (and frankly disgusting) claim that the Constitution prevents a Muslim person from becoming President, Carson defended his statement by saying that he was criticized for being un-PC, rather than for being xenophobic toward Muslims and ignorant of the actual content of our Constitution.
When Carson and others have capitalized on ambiguous definitions of “PC,” they demonstrate a profound lack of respect for people who disagree with them: When Carson claims those who are anti-torture are simply overly-sensitive “PC police,” he refuses to recognize his opponents as rational people whose ideologies regard torture as immoral for reasons that they can defend with arguments more substantial than “boo-hoo, it’s not PC.”
What makes this rhetoric so damaging isn’t just its divisive nature: It’s the fact that a limited exchange of ideas may be becoming an actual issue in this country — even President Obama has expressed his worry at the “coddling” American college students. Something that could be called “PC Culture” does indeed exist, but the version of “PC” that Carson and others espouse is completely nonsensical and entirely self-serving. And if we’re to take this potentially dangerous phenomenon seriously, we have to create a set of objective definitions for what we’re seeing, and resist the urge to spin it in our own political favor: “PC culture” has become too loaded and too meaningless a term to use responsibly. It’s time we talk about this issue in a more mature way. And that’s what this column will seek through this volume of The Daily.
Contact Jack Herrera at herreraj ‘at’ stanford.edu.