But what if the things people have held themselves back from saying for fear of social censure aren’t inherently meaningful? The sad thing about so much supposed truth-telling is that their supposed transgressions aren’t remotely risky. They’re just rude.
Take the reaction to NBC commentator Al Trautwig’s odd refusal to call Olympic gold-medal gymnast Simone Biles’s parents her parents. Biles’s grandparents adopted her and her sister after they were placed in foster care when their biological mother’s addiction rendered her unable to take care of them and an an attempt at reconciliation failed. Even when observers pointed out that Biles’s parents are legally her parents, and that she considers them to be her parents, Trautwig stuck to his phrasing, at least for a while.
I have no idea why, other than sheer stubbornness.
Yes, it is factually true that Biles’s parents are not her biological parents. We know this, because it’s mentioned in pretty much every story about Biles. It does not take Al Trautwig’s doggedness or bravery to bring this information to light. And even if it did, what would it matter? Are biological parents in such danger of losing their status to adoptive parents, or to extended families who care for children, that they need a champion? Who was he defending? What distinction was he trying to preserve?
There are no good answers. Sometimes stubborn rudeness is just stubborn rudeness.
In a similar way, some of Trump’s most controversial moments on the campaign trail reveal the fallacy of a supposedly bold battle against political correctness.
Trump’s mocking of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, a condition that causes curvature of the joints, was both mean-spirited and meaningless. We do not live in a world where people with disabilities are catered to or coddled in any significant way.
As of 2015, people with disabilities were unemployed at twice the rate of people without disabilities; that’s a figure that only accounts for people who are actively seeking jobs, not people who are unable to work. Around the world, disabled people often get the message that it would be better for them or their caretakers if they were dead. Last month, 19 people with disabilities were slain at a care facility in Japan. Trump’s imitation might have been blunter and more visible than public policies that throw up barriers for people with disabilities who want to work, travel, live independently and raise families, but it was not fundamentally out of step with the marginalization of disabled Americans.
The same faux-edginess is one of the reasons “Suicide Squad,” the latest installment in the DC cinematic universe, felt like such a disappointment. As I wrote when the film was released, it’s a nasty piece of work, relying heavily on sexist unpleasantness and racial stereotypes as signaling and shorthand.
But as much as it’s wearying to get smacked with sexism on a constant basis, it somehow feels worse in a movie that’s supposed to be somehow daring. Calling a female character a word that has been a staple insult against Hillary Clinton on the 2016 campaign trail is the inverse of bravery. It suggests you have all the edge of a kindergartner who just learned a new naughty word, or a middle-schooler who just discovered that Playboy exists.
Presenting commonplace unpleasantness as an act of moral courage is a nifty bit of reframing. This formulation allows its practitioners to treat their own laziness, meanness and self-indulgence as ethically and politically meaningful, when in fact they’re anything but. We may not be able to afford the suppression of important ideas in the public sphere. But people who rail against political correctness need better examples if they’re going to insist that kindness and decency are threats to the republic.