I get a lot of angry mail. It goes with the turf.
To work as an opinion journalist these days is to be automatically enrolled in the Suck It Up and Move On School of Insult Response. The alternative is to subject your audience to a hand-wringing treatise on the decline of civility, a sort of kindergarten teacher’s plea to the kids to talk nice and don’t bite. You may wheedle a little sympathy, but the point is probably lost on the incorrigible biters.
Only a few critics, I can truthfully say, are so dramatically and sometimes creatively awful that I’ve had to block their messages and try to hypnotize myself into forgetting what they’ve said.
But I’ve got some regular critics who routinely unload both barrels when they don’t like my political opinions. They’re the folks who use “liberal” as a blistering taunt, who see me as marching in conspiratorial lockstep with some broader progressive agenda, and who strongly feel my views should not go unchallenged.
More than any other descriptor, they accuse me, and most of my media brethren, of being politically correct. To their mind, we’re empty-headed toadies paying automatic obeisance to the lefty cause du jour.
“PC” has been around so long that it was actually becoming an hoary old chestnut, until it emerged as the white-hot kernel of resentment at the heart of this interminable death-march political cycle.
So last week, I brought it up myself. I combed through the mailbox, identified some of my most ardent-but-not-unhinged critics, and asked them to tell me: What do you mean when you say “politically correct?” What does “political correctness” mean to you?
I’m glad I asked, because I got a lot of thoughtful, candid answers. And while these are people with strong opinions who aren’t likely to change their views any more than I’m likely to change mine, the conversation we had was an interesting one.
To me, it’s an outdated term, generally lobbed as an all-purpose insult from right to left. And if you break it down, being “PC,” to me, is observing common civilities in the way we treat each other.
But by and large, these writers described a maddening brand of repressive Orwellian Newspeak that silences dissent for fear of giving offense to specific interest groups.
P.C., one gentleman said, is “excessive restrictions on free speech that, directly or indirectly, result in attempts to squash debate or limit open discussion of a topic due to under and misplaced concerns for the feelings of others.”
Another called it the “dogma of the liberal left that someone can challenge only at the risk of being ridiculed and bullied.”
These are folks deeply offended at being called “racist,” “bigot” or “homophobe.” While such hatred certainly exists, they say, they feel they’re often labeled — and dismissed — for expressing their views.
A surprising number of them mentioned that what they view as the “political correctness” movement was a necessary response to the glaring inequalities of previous generations — but they think the movement has spun out much too far and too long.
“PC surfaced as a way to influence civil discourse,” one writer said. “Quite frankly, it was probably long overdue. It became no longer acceptable to refer to or address someone based on their ethnic background, gender, or sexual orientation.”
“Being just plain insensitive is the other extreme of the spectrum,” said another. “We certainly should not offend others.”
The sticky part, of course, is who gets to define what is or is not offensive. Several of these readers said, for instance, that the Black Lives Matter movement ignores and stifles discussion of black-on-black crime, or the cumulative social disadvantages of single parent households. They believe the danger of terrorism is soft-pedaled to avoid offending Muslims. They believe we’re ignoring the social and economic toll of uncontrolled immigration.
We’re not likely to agree on these issues. But I can’t (or shouldn’t) demonize conservatives — I have one in the house, after all.
Does “political correctness” hamper legitimate debate? I don’t think so, but plenty of people do — and they’re not all alt-right pro-Trump diehards.
And I do think it’s too easy to conflate traditional Republican conservatism with the Trumpian excesses of the alt-right. The mean little schadenfreude dance a lot of us are doing over the internecine warfare in the GOP could boomerang back on us one of these days.
A lot of the frustration I heard from these dozen or so writers was not that the “progressives” or “elites” don’t agree with them, but that they feel disrespected and heckled for their disagreement. One man cited the NBA’s decision to move its All-Star game out of North Carolina after legislators there passed a law restricting transgender access to public restrooms.
“I don’t question their right to do it, but it smacks of a certain arrogance, an indication that opposing views simply deserve to be squelched,” he wrote.
Another cited what he views as the hypocrisy of coaches and athletes who want to restrict demeaning “locker room talk,” yet try to cover up bad behavior by star players. And several said that while they don’t think much of Donald Trump as presidential candidate, his lack of appeal for the mainstream press has turned us into inappropriately one-sided cheerleaders for the Clinton campaign.
Most of these folks and I are rarely, if ever, going to be in the same political camps, especially where social matters are concerned. I’m not sure I even really subscribe to the view some of them hold about being stifled or denied a right to free speech. Of course you get free speech — but you get the consequences, too. We all do.
In all honesty, though, I enjoyed reading their sincere assessments. It was surprisingly pleasant to have straightforward conversation with some of my fieriest critics.
And for the record, I don’t expect less fire. I just want us to keep talking.
Jacquielynn Floyd is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.