This idea that Americans were overly sensitive to disparaging comments dates back to at least the 1980s, when the term “politically correct” first came into vogue. With the advent of the #MeToo movement and the ouster of men from positions of power following allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, the term “cancel culture” largely replaced it. But the idea was the same: some Americans, particularly on the political left, were policing language to remove commentary it deemed offensive.
Since Trump lost the 2020 election, “cancel culture” has become a focal point of right-wing media and politics. The Conservative Political Action Committee used the theme “America Uncancelled” for its 2021 conference. Fox News has been saturated with various “cancellations,” as of several Dr. Seuss books (a decision made by the author’s estate).
That focus brings new weight to polling from Pew Research Center released this week. Pew asked respondents in four countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France — to evaluate a number of questions related to national culture. It included questions specifically focused on the idea that some people were overly quick to take offense.
For example, Pew asked respondents to evaluate the idea that “people are too easily offended by what others say.” Overall, the four countries weren’t terribly different in their assessments of that claim. The main divide was in political ideology. Those on the political left and those on the political right offered responses to that question that landed only about 12 points apart. For Americans, the divide was 44 points.
Pew asked an inverted version of the question, too: Should people be careful to avoid saying things that might offend? The gap between the two political poles in the United Kingdom was 17 points. In the United States, it was 42 points.
There’s an overlapping set of questions in Pew’s research that focuses on discrimination and the perceptions of people being discriminated against.
So, for example, Germans are more likely than residents of the other three countries to say that people seeing nonexistent discrimination was a bigger problem than discrimination itself. But when broken down on political lines, no group is more likely to hold that position than those on the right in America.
That’s useful to remember when considering how essential people see Christianity being to national identities. More than half of those on the right in the United States identify being Christian as being important to the country’s identity. (Again, the gap between the poles in the U.S. is wider than in the other three countries.) Members of the political right in the United States are also far more likely than others to say that there is a lot of discrimination against Christians in this country.
At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the group that considers Americans too cautious about offending others also is unusually prone to seeing Christians as facing discrimination — even as it also insists that the real threat is false accusations of discrimination.
Part of the subtext to the concern about “political correctness” is the idea that Americans are throwing traditional behavior in the dustbin. Trump framed his comments about political correctness as being about how the country was being harmed by the impulse to temper what people were saying, even though there are certainly a lot of people who would characterize sexist disparagement of women as something worth leaving in the past. A lot of this is about power, of course, with those in power not facing recrimination for behaviors that take advantage of that power and then not particularly enjoying when they’re challenged on that behavior.
Trump’s campaign motto — “Make America Great Again” — played on the idea that the country was changing in a negative way. And on that measure, too, Pew has useful findings. The gap between the left and right in the U.S. on the utility of maintaining national traditions is again wider than in the other three countries. That’s true when the question is asked in the inverse, too: The gap between left and right is far wider when the question centers on the possible benefits of traditions shifting.
On the last question shown above, the importance of sharing customs to national identity, the divide between the left and the right in the United States is not that much wider than in the United Kingdom. It’s a point on which the two sides are in comparative agreement, at least relative to other issues included in Pew’s polling.
The key question, of course, is what customs get included in the ones to be shared.