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The Way We Speak Now

When Megyn Kelly leveled her (I think good) question about women to Trump during Fox News’s presidential debate last Thursday, and received his disdainful response, my first thought was, “How ungentlemanly.” Regardless of Trump’s political views, churlish insults do not encourage a civil or thoughtful political discourse—they are designed only to enrage and insult.

Yet there are many who seem to revere Trump for his lack of political correctness—for the way in which he laughs in the face of the “PC” police. These Americans are tired of the way in which we spread a cloak of niceness over political discourse, and the resulting quagmire that we face.

You need look no further for evidence of this “niceness” promotion—and its resulting paralyzing effect—than The Atlantic’s recent article, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” In it, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt consider the escalating crackdown on anything even remotely controversial on college campuses:

The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card. This leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels. In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.

Since 2013, new pressure from the federal government has reinforced this trend. Federal antidiscrimination statutes regulate on-campus harassment and unequal treatment based on sex, race, religion, and national origin. Until recently, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights acknowledged that speech must be “objectively offensive” before it could be deemed actionable as sexual harassment—it would have to pass the “reasonable person” test.

… But in 2013, the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome.” Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.

If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond.

It is quite ironic to see reports of Donald Trump’s uncouth political tantrums interspersed with such talk of the “micro-agressions” and “trigger warnings” that pervade college campuses. But what may not be obvious on the face of it is that the boorishness of Trump and uber-sensitivity of the modern college student are related: they are derivatives of an age that has lost a standard for public discourse, an understanding of proper limits or behavior. This is something Mark Mitchell has discussed over at the Front Porch Republic—he argues that we’ve lost what Edmund Burke called “the spirit of the gentleman,” the architect and animator of “all the good things which are connected with manners and with civilization.” Mitchell writes,

Forms and limits are not welcomed in a culture that sees freedom as the highest good, a culture that fairly worships at the altar of individual choice. The history of the liberal project has been a steady and determined attempt to defy limits, to destroy forms, to expand the idea and practice of liberation to all spheres of existence. How can the idea of the gentleman, the essence of which necessarily depends on the propriety of limits, co-exist with the goals of liberalism? One admits of limits and finds nobility in respect for them; the other finds limits offensive and seeks to break down any hint of limitation, form, or residue of difference.

Ours is a culture that worships freedom, albeit in varying ways—both Trump and the college students discussed in Lukianoff and Haidt’s article are touting their version of freedom and individual choice. In Trump’s case, it’s a freedom from political correctness, a freedom to say or do whatever he pleases. In the students’ case, it’s freedom from critique or offense, a freedom to live in emotional security without fear of chastisement or judgment. The freedom of the one to say or do whatever he pleases will inevitably clash with the freedom of the others to live in a state of politically correct security. How do we police modern discourse when the righteous indignation of the one camp is so discordant with the fierce fury of the other?

This is what the “spirit of the gentleman” used to provide: a reasoned, courteous atmosphere in which public discourse could take place—where opinions could be stated without savagery, and received without rancor. The problem is that gentlemen are out of popularity on left and right—for reasons Mitchell makes clear in another FPR post.

The gentleman is unpopular with the left and “PC” crowd because, in Mitchell’s words, he “is one who is willing and able to judge well. He is discriminating in his judgments and does not shy away from making hard distinctions even when they cause him discomfort and even when he is forced to stand alone [emphasis added].” Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world. Yet there seems to be a right way in which to make judgments about problems, policies, and people—and the gentleman knows how to do it. The modern students shies away from those distinctions in the name of being inclusive or “PC,” but in fact, their ability to speak with any sort of moral clarity or purpose is compromised by their refusal to make such value judgments.

But this is not to say that the gentleman would applaud the brash tones of Trump or his followers. To the contrary—Mitchell states further on that the gentleman is characterized by decorum and propriety: “A sense of propriety, when properly formed and not merely a sense of personal dignity, requires an awareness of other people. A person with a well-developed sense of propriety makes other people feel at ease.” The gentleman is also amiable: “An amiable man is a good conversationalist who is interested in the people with whom he speaks. He is not self-absorbed nor is he so self-conscious that he refrains from engaging with others. … An amiable man is not a boor who cares only for the sound of his own voice.”

To suggest that Trump has any of the above qualities would indeed seem laughable. But one must be quick to note that his lack of gentlemanly virtues has won him accolades, attention, and poll approval. How are we to see and hear more of gentlemen in our public discourse, if we foster and encourage their very opposites?

The same is true of the attitudes we foster on college campuses: if good and thoughtful professors are afraid to speak up in their classrooms, how will we foster another generation of discriminatory (yet amiable) thinkers?

The sad truth is that we won’t. The reasoned voices in our media, politics, and academia will devolve into one of two camps: the shouters, or the mute.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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