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The Way We Speak Now

When Megyn Kelly leveled her (I think good) question [1] 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 [1]. 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 [2].” 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 [3] 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 [4] over at the Front Porch Republic—he argues that we’ve lost what Edmund Burke called “the spirit of the gentleman [5],” 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 [6].

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 [7] 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.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "The Way We Speak Now"

#1 Comment By Al On August 14, 2015 @ 11:07 am

Excellent piece!

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 14, 2015 @ 11:12 am

The problem is that the gentlemanly naturally withdraw when faced with an overtly hostile politically correct mob mentality, being unwilling to shout over their heads.

Isn’t there a sense in which the politically correct are getting just what they deserve when they cause this reaction, even if we can’t do anything about either?

#3 Comment By Katie On August 14, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

Perhaps what is missing is not the opportunity for people to speak their minds, but the belief that our fellow citizens are speaking and acting in good faith. Things that are labeled as “political correctness” often occur in response to some group feeling devalued or disrespected. That automatically makes honest discussion difficult, because it erodes the group’s trust that they will be listened to and respected. In that context, assuming the best of people is quite difficult. There’s a strong temptation to say, “why should we give them a safe space?! they haven’t made things safe for us.” But if we’re honest, that safe space is what all of us – PC or non-PC – want: a space where we can live our lives and speak our minds without being disrespected.

#4 Comment By AndrewR On August 14, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

“their ability to speak with any sort of moral clarity or purpose is compromised by their refusal to make such value judgments.”

In what universe does the author reside? The left certainly refuses to make value judgements about “oppressed” classes (as defined by them), but they have no problem making very explicit moral judgements of “privileged”/”oppressor” classes.

It’s the right that largely avoids making moral judgements.

#5 Comment By AndyG On August 14, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

Very enjoyable article!
I submit that all the enumerated qualities of a gentleman can be summed up in a phrase, “Respect for others.”
One speaks well, dresses well, conducts one’s business well out of respect for one’s self, and respect for others.
The college student shows a lack of respect with her ultra-sensitivity, and Trump shows a lack of respect with, well, everything he does.

#6 Comment By Peter Henderson On August 14, 2015 @ 5:40 pm

The author fails to see that only certain groups must not be offended. It’s open season on the others. The gentlemanly ethic she refers to is wonderful but few of our politicians have been gentlemen in private prior to the point when it became acceptable to follow them around with a recording device. Harry Truman was ‘plain spoken’ and people rather liked it, as most do with Trump. Being polite out of naked fear does not make one a gentleman. The only way to bust a taboo is to break it. Ordinary people understand that but few journalists.

#7 Comment By Bob K. On August 14, 2015 @ 11:49 pm

Trump may never have heard of Mr. Dooley but he knows instinctively that “politics ain’t beanbag.”

#8 Comment By Bert Clere On August 15, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

What we need is the capacity to accept that, when our neighbor disagrees with us politically, that doesn’t automatically make them a bad or stupid person. I consider myself a liberal, but I have enormous respect for conservatism in its classical form. I’m at heart a New Dealer, but I respect those with honest doubts about the government’s efficacy at solving social problems.

But beyond the ability to respect one another, we need a political system which once again incentivizes compromise for both parties. When we think about how DC functions, we can see a direct correlation between the loss of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans in the 80s and 90s and the rise of gridlock and government shut downs. Neither Party is very culturally diverse right now. It’s true that the bulk of Democratic support comes from white millenials and African Americans. But this doesn’t translate into much policy diversity. On a given issue today, it’s most likely that Democrats have one position on it and Republicans have the opposite position and there is no room to be found in between. It didn’t used to be that way. There used to be Democrats in Congress who were to the right of Republicans on some issues and Republicans in Congress who were to the left of Democrats on some issues. This created a very healthy balancing effect and forced both parties to come to the bargaining table and hammer out compromises on various issues.

So long as we adhere to the US constitution, we’re going to have two parties because that’s what you get in winner take all elections. So the only real way beyond gridlock is to generate more policy diversity within the two parties. That will take a political imagination currently lacking in this country. But there’s no reason why it can’t and won’t happen in the years to come.

#9 Comment By KarenLH On August 17, 2015 @ 12:15 pm

One word that comes to mind when I think about Carly Fiorina is “lady”. When she speaks, she is clear and to the point, but also courteous.

#10 Comment By Liam On August 17, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

The problem is that gentlemen don’t get much traction in the popular media of our day. It’s not that they don’t exist.

I know plenty of liberal and progressive gentlemen who don’t traffic in PC pieties and who are as hard or even harder on their own fellow travellers than on opponents. But that kind of discourse is relegated to the margins in our day.

Be careful of selection and confirmation biases.