Human language is like a living thing, constantly evolving as we produce new words and phrases and change the meanings of existing ones. And sometimes we actually destroy the usefulness of certain words and phrases by overusing them or stretching their meaning to the point where they don’t mean much of anything anymore.
One phrase that has been bent and twisted to fit far too many situations is the term “political correctness.” Merriam Webster defines political correctness as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to the extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”
This extreme avoidance of saying anything that might offend some group of people is a real threat to free speech and is a valid problem to raise a red flag over. But it has been used so often and in so many different situations that being “politically incorrect” has become a free pass for people to say anything offensive at any time and place regardless of whether or not what they say has a point to it or in some cases whether or not it has any basis in fact.
In short, we seem to have trouble discriminating between what is legitimately politically incorrect speech and what is just a case of someone being a jerk (I’m thinking of a much stronger word than “jerk” here — use your imagination.) Let me give an example of what I consider to be a politically incorrect statement and what I consider to be jerk behavior, and maybe the difference will be more clear.
When instances of white-on-black police shootings were dominating the news cycle, a number of people pointed out that statistically speaking young black males are much more likely to be killed by other young black males than by policemen of any race. The suggestion was made that if the goal was to save the lives of young black men then the energy and attention that was being directed toward protesting police shootings might be more wisely focused on black-on-black violence.
That’s a good example of politically incorrect speech. A lot of people didn’t want to hear it and some found it offensive, but it was based on facts that could be checked and you could argue that it was a useful thing to point out.
Now let’s look at an example of something that was said and mischaracterized as politically incorrect speech but was actually just an example of someone being a jerk. The poster boy for that sort of speech is clearly our current president, so I’ll repeat one of his first and most well-known examples of jerk-speech to illustrate my point.
On a number of occasions on the campaign trail Donald Trump characterized Mexicans who were coming across the border illegally as largely made up of hardened criminals, even stating flatly that Mexico was purposely sending the worst of the worst (“rapists” and “murderers”) into our country.
Those statements offended a lot of people and were labeled by Trump’s fans as examples of political incorrectness. But there’s a problem. His contention is demonstrably untrue, as the crime rate for all first generation immigrants (legal and illegal) is significantly lower than that of native-born Americans. To contend that his statements upset people merely because they weren’t politically correct is itself false and misleading.
Hopefully the difference is clear now. Saying something offensive that is true and has some sort of point to it could accurately be called political incorrectness. Saying something that is false and/or is said for no other reason than to embarrass someone or score cheap political points is being a jerk.
Please spread the word to all the jerks you know and have them stop abusing this once-useful phrase.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.