Ft. Hood and the Bugaboo of 'Political Correctness'

November 23, 2009 |
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The Ft. Hood massacre was not the first violent tragedy that conservatives have blamed on political correctness. But it might be the first one in which they actually have a point.

In March, commentator Glenn Beck suggested that Michael McLendon, the man who killed 10 people in the worst rampage in Alabama history, might have been "pushed to the wall" because he felt "silenced" by political correctness. (Conservatives, in particular, he said, are afraid to speak up because "you're called a racist.")

Ten years ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blamed the infamous Columbine High School massacre -- in which teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 13 people and injured 21 others -- on the cultural contamination caused by decades of "political correctness" that "undermined the core values in American history." He said the two teenagers probably never realized they were robbing their victims of the "inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" because their teachers never taught them about the Constitution.

Let's face it, ever since the term was brought into popular usage in the 1990s, political correctness has been a convenient bête noire for conservatives. The PC label makes fun of the absurdities of the self-righteous liberal language police, and the right has done a bang-up job of spreading it around.

But the joke congealed into something nastier. Political correctness is not a powerful and deadly force, as prominent right-wing commentary would have us believe. But the term has become a kind of code for an essentially racial struggle over what it means to be American.

Take the three examples above of conservatives blaming mad violence on political correctness. In each case, those wielding the term are arguing that "Americans" have either been hamstrung in their ability to root out the bad guys (Ft. Hood), or have been induced to become bad guys themselves (Columbine and Alabama) by a PC regime that contaminated their heritage. But who are these Americans whose heritage and hands have been so tightly bound?

To answer that, it helps to remember why and how the culture of political correctness emerged. At best, the term refers to the active avoidance of expressions or actions that could exclude or offend minorities. It was this "soft" political correctness that led to our generally harmless acceptance of ethnic labels such as Native American in place of Indian, gender-neutral terms such as firefighter in place of fireman, and generally made members of the majority (i.e. white Americans) aware that not all Americans thought alike.

At worst, political correctness became an attempt to limit language, ideas and what was acceptable in public debate or conduct. Campus advocates have bullied or sought to silence those with opposing views. Oversensitive cultural watchdogs have encouraged stilted, self-conscious interactions -- between races, classes, genders or any minority group and the majority -- presumably to ensure that nobody was ever offended, not one tiny bit. Finally, and this may apply to the case of Maj. Nidal Hasan, workplace and legal regulations have made some bosses feel they could not fire even unsatisfactory minority employees for fear of being accused of discrimination.

For good or ill, political correctness was a response to the rapid diversification of the U.S. population and the perceived need to induce the majority population -- whites, or often more precisely white males -- to take into account the sensitivities and self-definitions of minorities of all kinds. That means the Americans who are considered to be victims of political correctness are members of the white majority. And the revolt against everything PC is driven by a sense that whites have bent over backward for -- and even sold out mainstream culture to -- minorities.

But is that true? Do blacks, women, Latinos, Native Americans or handicapped people, for that matter, have the United States in their proverbial pockets? Are the actions and lives of white people at large really impinged and shaped by the demands of these minority groups?

We do have an African American president, but can we even say members of that minority and others disproportionately hold seats of political or economic power in the country? White supremacist groups would say yes, but I don't think even Glenn Beck or Newt Gingrich would agree.

To be sure, the hazards of political correctness are not merely a figment of the right's imagination. In the case of Hasan, it may be that his problems and proclivities were ignored because his superiors feared they'd be accused of discrimination against a Muslim. And it's possible that his dangerous actions and behaviors were shrugged off as a matter of cultural sensitivity, or to provide the military with more strategic diversity.

But however PC things were during the major's career, what went wrong with him and the system surely can't be reduced to one bugaboo; it is deeper, broader and more complicated than that.

In any case, as conservatives should know, political correctness doesn't kill people -- angry, crazy people do.

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