Gov. Paul LePage last week made national news when said the state’s heroin epidemic involves dealers who come here to sell their wares and to impregnate “white girls.”
The insinuations behind the statement were that drug dealers are black men, Maine’s “girls” are white and unwitting, and there is no local drug trade.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump leads the Republican field for president. Over the course of his campaign, he has equated Mexican immigrants with rapists and proclaimed that African-Americans are primarily responsible for the deaths of white Americans. He has voiced his support for a database to track all Muslims in America as a means to combat terrorism.
When the rest of us note that these types of one-to-one correlations are at best false, the speakers act as if we’ve missed the point. By their logic, we should be thankful that they are saying what’s in their head, allowing it to leave their mouth without filter. They use it as a positive measure of comparison, deriding the popular practice of reading poll-tested, pre-scripted remarks from a teleprompter.
As if the hallmark of a great leader is whether he uses some form of note cards. As if thinking before speaking is shameful. As if the way a statement will be received, or perceived, is completely irrelevant in considering whether the statement should be made.
Part of their off-the-cuff ethos depends heavily on their pride that they are not “politically correct.” They have claimed the role of political outsider, and found that the role is comfortable. To them, outsider status means not having to play by the insider’s rules, including rules about word choice.
We can all cite examples of political correctness gone too far. A Nevada school district asked teachers not to call boys “boys” or girls “girls” because the expressions were deemed too “gendered.” A school official in Portland, Oregon, suggested that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches carry racist connotations.
But taking something to an extreme does not mean that the underlying practice is itself extreme. Trump has filed for four corporate bankruptcies, making him the top filer in recent decades. It is not likely he would take kindly to the argument that his own record suggests corporate bankruptcy protection doesn’t work because companies do not learn their lesson the first time they restructure their debt.
Political correctness, at its non-extreme, means avoiding forms of expression that further marginalize the disadvantaged. It means declining to perpetuate unfair generalizations. It means communicating with some sensitivity and capacity for nuance.
Trading on stereotypes is not a form of enlightenment, and misguided speech is not the aw-shucks result of an acceptable intolerance for political correctness. Re-branding either as evidence of heroic independence from the establishment is a decoy, like saying during a job interview that your biggest weakness is how seriously you take your work.
When LePage suggests that all drug dealers are sex-crazed black men, his multi-layered mistake should not be forgiven because someone once called a short person vertically challenged.
Nor is it fair for Trump, LePage and their ilk to cast thoughtful speech as a waste of time, worthy only of a career politician. My son is not allowed to use “unkind words” on the playground because of the negative results they yield. He’s 4. Grown-ups should know that we speak carefully because we’re part of a human community, not because we’re all veterans of the political machine who have lost the ability to answer questions directly.
Yes, the political machine is tiresome. But political correctness is not what makes it tired. Predictable, meaningless grand-standing and pandering is what makes it tired.
For “outsider” status to be valuable, the outsider should spurn intransigence, not thoughtfulness. Provocation should be of the intellect. Words should mean something. A promise should be backed by an idea, an idea by a road map, a road map by reality.
The hallmark of a great leader should be that he or she appeals to our best selves, not our lowest common denominator. We are better than the knee-jerk reaction, the inflammatory sound bite, the brutish short-cut. So we should expect better. That’s the most admirable way I can think of to “Make America Great Again.”