02.07.2017 02:25 PM

Why political correctness is sometimes a good thing

Right-wing knuckle-draggers always like to bray and screech about “political correctness.”

They think it’s a super big deal. The Unpresident, in particular, has been kvetching about “political correctness” for years.

Many years ago, I wrote in the National Post about how Stockwell Day, and those like him in the Canadian Alliance, were always going on and on (and on) about “political correctness.”  The column is a bit ancient, but I think it stands up. You can read it here.

In the main, I wrote, there were a couple reasons why the mouth-breather contingent were endlessly against “political correctness.” To wit:

Sometimes, it is done by intolerant people hoping to give a patina of respectability to their intolerance – to wit, This may not be politically correct, but I think all refugees should be thrown in detention when they arrive here. And, sometimes, it is done by politicians to chill legitimate criticism of their views on issues like abortion, or sexual orientation, or something else.

Donald Trump, as is now well-known, used “political correctness” as cudgel on all of his critics, over and over.  He was a genius at it. He wielded that metaphorical cudgel to (a) normalize his bigotry and (b) to silence his critics and legitimize/mobilize other bigots.  It worked like a charm.

Throughout the presidential campaign, however, I told my wife – about a thousand times, as we toiled as volunteers for Hillary Clinton – that Trump’s words would come back to haunt him, in the unlikely event that he ever became President of the United States.  His hateful words – about Muslims, women, blacks, Mexicans, the disabled and myriad others – could be used against him in litigation, I told her.

“You’ve said that about a thousand times,” she’d say, which was true. “But how can political rhetoric, even his, be considered admissible in a court of law?”

Because, I replied, it’s relevant.  It has probative value, as we lawyers like to say.

In the U.S., you often find this sort of non-legal stuff in something called a Brandeis Brief.  It takes its name from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who – as a lawyer in 1908, before his elevation to America’s highest court – made a legal submission that was (literally) two per cent legal argument, and 98 per cent data, social science, reports and near-anecdotal material.

In the Commonwealth, we have long done likewise.  Here, for example, we have permitted judges to consider what is called “legislative intent” when a statute’s words aren’t as clear as they’d like.  So, judges will often read up on rough-and-tumble debates in the Commons, to discern Parliament’s intention.  It’s messy, but it works.

And, in the Charter era, Canadian judges have often gone even farther.  Non-sworn, extrinsic evidence has been accepted in Canadian courts for decades.  As no less than Chief Justice Bora Laskin put it, this sort of material “may be considered by the Court in determining whether the legislation rests on a valid constitutional base.”

Which is a rather genteel way of summarizing the constitutional dilemma Donald Trump has created for himself.  By being, you know, “politically incorrect.”  What he said outside the courtroom is now being used to hammer him inside the courtroom.  And it’s simply wonderful.

Here’s the Washington Post, explaining why Trump words are coming back to haunt him – and why his Muslim Ban is being found discriminatory, and therefore unconstitutional, by court after court.

Throughout Donald Trump’s campaign and now into the first weeks of his presidency, critics suggested that he cool his incendiary rhetoric, that his words matter. His defenders responded that, as Corey Lewandowski said, he was being taken too “literally.” Some, like Vice President Pence, wrote it off to his “colorful style.” Trump himself recently explained that his rhetoric about Muslims is popular, winning him “standing ovations.”

No one apparently gave him anything like a Miranda warning: Anything he says can and will be used against him in a court of law.

And that’s exactly what’s happening now in the epic court battle over his travel ban, currently blocked by a temporary order set for argument Tuesday before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

The states of Washington and Minnesota, which sued to block Trump’s order, are citing the president’s inflammatory rhetoric as evidence that the government’s claims — it’s not a ban and not aimed at Muslims — are shams.

In court papers, Washington and Minnesota’s attorneys general have pulled out quotes from speeches, news conferences and interviews as evidence that an executive order the administration argues is neutral was really motivated by animus toward Muslims and a “desire to harm a particular group.”

Get it, Donald? Do you understand, now? Being “politically incorrect” may have transformed you into a politician who was seen as unconventional.  But, along they way, it has likely rendered you unconstitutional, too.  Your words are being used against you, and properly so.

There are three lessons, here, for politicians – almost always of the conservative variety – who want to throw off the oppressive bonds of “political correctness,” and say whatever pops into their tiny craniums. Heed them well, conservatives.

    1. Words matter.
    2. You are always, always on the record.
    3. “No comment” is sometimes a really good idea.

It’s like what no less than the Prophet Muhammad said, some 1,400 years ago.  It’s one for the ages. You know: “Say good, or remain silent.”

Donald Trump – who had the right to remain silent, but didn’t – may soon be wishing he had followed the Prophet’s advice.

(Not that he’d let the Prophet into America to be heard by anyone, of course.)


  1. WestGuy says:

    I find it interesting that an article that ends with ‘words matter” include the phrase “mouth-breather”. One might get the sense that maybe the
    knuckle-dragger” set were against political correctness because it seemed to espouse criticism to some derogatory terminology while being okay with other derogatory terms.

    • Warren says:

      Oh, don’t be a snowflake.

    • Michael Bluth says:

      Legitimate concern.

      That a progressive feels free to hurl insults at the other side illustrates why conservatives and progressives can’t speak to each other today.

      If you only treat your side with respect and react with outrage at perceived slights while dismissing concerns from the other side then nobody is really communicating.

      The progressive outrage machine is doing themselves more harm than good. ZG68

  2. Eric Weiss says:

    When most conservatives talk about being against political correctness it usually means they miss the days they callus be racist and sexist without impunity.

  3. Steven Blake says:

    Spot on analysis. I agree with everything said except the title … Political Correctness is ALWAYS a good thing. PC is in reality just a placeholder for reasoned discourse that doesn’t rely on epithets, derogatory aspersions or fabricated arguments. Those not possessing the ability or cognitive wherewithal to make their point in that manner resort to “politically incorrect” language. Somehow we have let them turn the perfectly acceptable phrase ‘Politically Correct’ into a pejorative. I don’t buy it.

  4. Miles Lunn says:

    The problem when people on the hard right and likes of Donald Trump use the word political correctness as being a bad thing, what they are really saying is they want it to be okay to be a bigot. Otherwise saying racism is a good thing would never fly so saying political correctness is bad is basically a code word to be a bigot. When many people think of political correctness going too far, they think of it in the sense of one having to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas or not being able to sing Christmas Carols or have a Christmas Tree, things like that. But for the Trump supporters it goes a lot further than that. Calling Mexicans murders and rapists or calling for a Muslim ban isn’t just politically incorrect, it is racist and bigoted. Otherwise Trump supporters take legitimate concerns about political correctness in a few cases going too far as a licence to be an outright bigot, which is what he is and to not play into his game, we need to start calling him what he really is.

  5. Richard says:

    Guys, he said sometimes. Not always. Settle down or you’ll self-immolate with your snowflakey outrage.

    Remember, Warren is the guy who helped create a song called “Donald Trump is an Asshole,” which is probably not a PC way to describe a so-called President.

    • Kevin says:

      Maybe not overly “PC”, but it certainly is accurate.

    • bluegreenblogger says:

      The other day, I was perusing the Twelve Tables of Roman Law, I had to stop and laugh for a minute when I saw this one:

      “VIII. 1 “If any person has sung or composed against another person a SONG (carmen) such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death.”

      Presumably, the precedent is a little stale by now. These laws were promulgated about 2,500 years ago.

  6. tf says:

    I like political correctness – to me it indicates a willingness to adjust automatic biases and shows a sensitivity to the perspective of other people.
    Sure, some terms can sound odd and go overboard but I think it’s time for leaders in the 21st Century to start leading us to a better place; and that requires a change in thinking which begins with the language that comes out of our mouths.
    Here’s to Happy Christmas and Merry New Year and Joyous Epiphany!

    • ms says:

      hey, don’t malign neanderthals, they tried to run, when that didn’t work, they tried to fit in, that failed abysmally, so then they hid in caves and some even did artwork( not all was white male homosapien sapien), lol

      • bluegreenblogger says:

        Lol, I would debate that. You, and I are the result of the Neanderthal ‘survival strategy’. A full 20% of the Neanderthal genome has been preserved in modern Homo Sapiens sapiens. Most humans have between 1.5% and 2.4% neanderthal genetic heritage. Our ability to accumulate body fats (lipide production) is a direct consequence of sapiens-neanderthal hybridization, (which has implications for brain chemistry too). There are also behavioural adaptations and implications, though they are little understood at this juncture. The recently discovered Denisovan hominids contributed a lot more genetic material to homo sapiens in South-East Asia, and Oceania, representing as much as 6% of homo sapiens genetic material (alongside neanderthal, and an earlier hybidization event in sub-saharan africa with an un-identified hominid). Arctic populations of Innu and Aluit speakers could not survive without a Denisovan gene for preferentially storing brown fat. Many cold climate adaptations come from the early hominids who braved the ice-age North before homo sapiens even existed. So there! Neanderthal, Denisovian, and at least one other un-known hominid live on, buried deep in humanities genes. We would never have made it so far without them along for the ride. If we are to continue to thrive with rapid climate change happening, then it will be this diversity that helps us adapt. Interestingly, hominids are far from the only species having weird sex partners in response to rapid changes. Bison, ungulates, mammals large and small are breeding with near cousins all the time, and throwing weird hybrids out ‘to the winds’. For some species, this behaviour is cyclic, during periods of rapid cooling or warming. Which is neat neat neat, like a meta-adaptive behaviour.

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