You Can’t Say That!

Madeline Wong ‘17, Opinions Editor

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While listening to and reading about the narrative of this election (well, really, just one candidate’s narrative), the same rebuke keeps popping into my head: “You can’t say that!”  You can’t insult someone’s physical appearance.  You can’t attribute someone’s mood to her period.  You can’t libel an entire race.  For goodness’ sakes, you’re a politician; you can’t say such bigoted and blatantly false statements.  You should at least try to be “politically correct”.

After all, political correctness has been the language of politics for years, and ever increasingly has become the language of American society.  Its rise in prevalence has created a generation of hypersensitive, considerate citizens.  Though we may have freedom of speech in this country, shifting culture has ensured that certain words, phrases, and even ideas are no longer free to say in civilized company.  Or, mostly ensured.

Because now there’s Donald Trump, a presidential candidate who breaks the rules of political correctness and plain politesse.  “[T]rump gets away with saying what he does,” as Joseph Barr ‘19 observes, “because he says what a certain number of Americans want to hear.”  Marketing himself as a Washington outsider, Trump has made a reputation out of blunt language and crude insults.  He has become the champion of politically incorrect rebels, likening politically correct speech to “the corporate spin, the carefully-crafted lies, and the media myths” at the Republican National Convention [1].

To the shock and chagrin of his opponents, Donald Trump has attracted millions of Americans with his blustering, controversial statements.  Still, that same audacity repulsed many of his supporters after the Washington Post released the now-infamous “grab them by the *****” recording from 2005 [2].  Not only was the remark politically incorrect, but also it was simply intolerable.

And here lies the problem with political correctness: it was all too easy for Trump to write-off dubious behavior as a revolt against a so-called political practice.  After all, the definition of political correctness has nothing to do with morality or decency; it is simply the practice of avoiding potentially offensive behavior [3].

Consider this: what do you find offensive?

As Ashley Yang ‘17 points out, “It should be noted that things can be offensive to groups of people… but offensive is an opinion.”

My parents might believe that swearing is offensive.  My teacher might believe that exclamation points in an email are offensive.  My grandparents might believe that calling an adult by their first name is offensive.  The only way to offend absolutely no one, it seems, would be to remain silent.  (Even then, someone would still end up miffed that you won’t talk to them.)  The point is that we can’t separate our language into black and white categories based on offense, because offense is unique to individuals.

But what do you think is wrong?  What is intolerably cruel or immoral?  You probably agree that discrimination based on traits out of one’s control is unfair: racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism.  You probably think that people shouldn’t joke about assaulting or abusing others, whether it be physically or emotionally or sexually.  But as much as you might think, “You can’t say that,” people like Trump prove that, apparently, you still can.

As it exists today, political correctness might provide geniality to our conversations, but it will never genuinely change our culture.  After all, words are important, but they don’t shape character; character shapes words.  Censuring of certain words won’t change one’s character, and, as evidenced by Trump, won’t even censor the words themselves.

Instead of focusing on whether our words are politically correct, we should value our principles first and foremost, and let our words reflect a culture of decency and respect.  Undoubtedly, there are things that we “can’t say”—they’re inconsiderate or malicious or discriminatory.  But if Trump’s campaign teaches us anything at all, it’s that we need to pursue much more than political correctness for “can’t” to become “won’t”.




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