Who doesn’t like slagging off political correctness?
PC is uptight. It’s priggish, uncool. It’s the ideological version of panic over which fork to use at luncheon. Can’t we say African American anymore? Is it “black” — or even “Black” — now? Who can keep up?
America was practically founded on the rejection of mincing European forms and ceremonies, and among friends, come on, can’t we just admit that LGBTQ has too many letters, Woody Allen and Louis CK are hilarious, and what now? — a man can’t tell a woman she’s got nice legs without the Gestapo locking him in irons?
How good it feels; it’s almost a high. When we can’t be bothered to temper our provincialism — or lechery and racism — we get to dress up ignorance as bravery, rebellion. To defy the PC goblins passes as radical truth-telling. In a flash, our existential terror about being obsolete and left behind — at being a “dinosaur,” as Harvey Weinstein once described himself — turns into bravado about that very same backwardness.
John F. Kelly, the beleaguered White House chief of staff, despises political correctness.
And he doesn’t just hate it on behalf of geezers who can’t get girls to laugh at their off-color jokes anymore. He hates it on behalf of violent men like former White House aide Rob Porter, a “man of true integrity and honor” with a straight part and squared shoulders, whom Kelly advised to weather the storm of emerging evidence that he had choked, dragged and punched his former wives. Kelly did this, even when the FBI had warned him that Porter was unfit to work for the president, because he’ll take the side of the politically incorrect even against his country. To Kelly, it’s not an uncleared and blackmailable White House staff member with a violent criminal history who poses a threat to America. The real threat — which must be stamped out — is Porter’s politically correct accusers who dare to question his authority.
Only after Porter resigned did Kelly bite the bullet and reverse himself. He has yet to reverse himself on his proudly un-PC effort to smear Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) with daffy lies, his indifference to Gold Star widow Myeshia Johnson, and his callousness toward Army Sgt. La David Johnson, Myeshia’s late husband, who died on a failed mission in Niger.
In December 2016, when Kelly accepted Trump’s nomination for the head of the Department of Homeland Security, his first post with this administration, he promised to put a stop to what he saw as the world’s two worst scourges: terrorism and political correctness.
“The American people voted in this election to stop terrorism, take back sovereignty at our borders, and put a stop to political correctness that for too long has dictated our approach to national security.”
Anyone who heard that statement knew what Kelly meant, and it was terrifying. Kelly’s contempt for political correctness had, years earlier, lurched into contempt for the law itself.
Kelly acted on this odd ideology when he ran the United States Southern Command, which put him in charge of Guantanamo Bay from 2012 to 2016. He was so keen on his private war on political correctness that he — a general whose status as a Marine seems to be the most important thing to him — subverted Obama, his commander in chief, by sabotaging the president’s efforts to resettle detainees. Under Kelly, Gitmo guards had no time for PC concepts like international norms; they subjected prisoners to what the rest of the world considers cruel and unusual punishment, including force-feeding and solitary confinement.
Maybe “political correctness” is the latest overman phrase for “conscience,” especially as that word was used by Shakespeare’s King Richard III: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, / Devised at first to keep the strong in awe. / Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.”
The politically correct — with their Constitution and their consciences — are trying to keep the men with swords down.
There are both rhetorical and violent ways to oppose decency and rule of law. Entertainers and contrarians who love to tweak and spite the politically correct are not the same as John Kelly. But just as racism exists on a spectrum, so does the anti-PC stance, which puts the person who strikes it above, or beyond, moral law.
Thus, when we lionize those who clash with women and people of color, or labor to extenuate their misconduct — and I mean everyone from Woody Allen to Donald Trump to Rob Porter to John Kelly to Confederate generals to neo-Nazis — we also lionize ourselves.
It’s a thrill. We become swashbuckling rebels against a hallucination: a phantom army of feminists and social justice warriors who exercise what Nietzsche called their “slave morality” just to guilt us, their rightful masters. And once we see ourselves as brought low by some fussy fancy group that’s a stickler for pronouns, we embolden ourselves to launch our own holy wars. People as diverse as political pundits and school shooters describe this pivot in their articles and manifestos, and style their actions as self-defense against those who dare to inhibit them.
The specter of political correctness, once raised, is evidently seen as so threatening — so unmanning — that it must be crushed by any means necessary. Where PC is code for conscience, defiance of it should be seen as what it is: an extenuation of and prelude to racism, abuse and violence.
Virginia Heffernan is a regular contributor to The New York Times, as well as The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Mother Jones, Politico, and many other publications.