Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer, is a former cultural ambassador for the United States and the author, most recently, of "Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White."

A church sign in Council Bluffs, Iowa, offers a false dichotomy. (Aaron P. Bernstein for The Washington Post)

America faces a life-threatening illness even more deadly than the Zika or Ebola viruses: “Political correctness is killing our country,” Donald Trump warned on the “Today” show last month. Ben Carson told Bill O’Reilly last summer, when he was the leading Republican presidential candidate, that political correctness was “destroying our nation.” Ted Cruz criticized President Obama’s ISIS strategy by claiming “political correctness is killing people.” Carly Fiorina said, “Political correctness is now choking candid conversation.” Marco Rubio complained that he doesn’t discuss his faith in public was because “I had been conditioned by political correctness.” Jeb Bush agreed: “The political correctness of our country needs to be shattered.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said, "We can't worry about being politically correct," in remarks to a police association in Portsmouth, N.H. Trump provoked uproar by calling for Muslims to be blocked from entering the country after the recent shootings in California by two Muslims who authorities said were radicalized. (Reuters)

Despite the uninhibited insults they’ve hurled at each other for the past couple months (Bush called Trump “unhinged”; Trump called Cruz “the definition of sleaze”; Rubio called Cruz a liar), the candidates who have sought the GOP nomination this year seem to agree that soft-pedaling our rhetoric is a mortal danger to the country. And a majority of Americans are with them: A Rasmussen Reports poll found that 79 percent of American adults think political correctness is a serious problem in the United States, with 58 percent believing that the country has become too politically correct. Of those who believe we’re being too careful, 74 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of those not affiliated with a major political party and 35 percent of Democrats concur. Only 18 percent think we aren’t politically correct enough.

This is nonsense. Although the extremes of political correctness can sometimes be absurd, America needs this trend to help it fulfill the spirit of the Constitution. Our country was founded on principles of inclusion, which means acting compassionately toward the many different people who make up our nation. Almost every group who immigrated to America was at one time the outsider — mistreated, abused and taunted. Maturity means not having to relive our mistakes of the past, but learning from them and doing better. Our country needs more sensitivity, not less.

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The apocalyptic backlash against a benign combination of good old-fashioned manners and simple sensitivity toward others is easy to understand: Many Americans feel growing rage, fear and frustration as the country continues to evolve into something different than what they are used to. Plus, new technology accelerates cultural change, and the erosion of familiar and comforting traditions leaves us uncertain and uncomfortable. Every generation mourns the loss of the good old days, and the perception of change isn’t entirely imagined. For instance, in 1960, 73 percent of children age 18 and under lived in a home with two heterosexual parents in their first marriage. Now only 46 percent do. The country is 62 percent white today; whites will be a minority by 2043.

It’s true that efforts to show sensitivity and inclusiveness can go too far. It’s especially striking on campus: A survey at Yale University found 63 percent of students wanting professors to issue “trigger warnings” before saying anything that someone might find offensive or traumatic. Critics say the “microaggression movement” coddles students who should expect to be challenged to better prepare them for the real world outside. And students did seem coddled when 25 of them staged a UCLA sit-in because a professor corrected spelling and grammar errors on graduate-level essays. (They accused him of creating a “hostile campus climate” for students of color.) University of New Hampshire students received a list of resources to help them avoid offensive language such as “American” (because it suggests the United States is the only country in the Americas), homosexual (should be “same gender loving”), elderly (“people of advanced age”) and healthy (“non-disabled”). Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock say they won’t play college campuses anymore because the climate is so restrictive. Bill Maher claims that “political correctness Nazis” “hound me to censor every joke and apologize for every single slight.”

Outside the academy, some Americans have bridled at movements to replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” which seems to them a sinister attempt to restrict religious expression rather than a way to include non-Christians in the holiday spirit.

Here’s the problem with these attacks, though: Every political and social policy or tradition has examples of excess. We don’t define the value of a policy based on its most extreme manifestations. We can point to the absurd behavior of zealots around all of our most cherished values. We poke fun at helicopter parents for being overprotective, but we don’t erase safety laws and regulations that protect children.

A fairer critique would ask whether political correctness had solved the problem it was devised to address: Has it scrubbed away American prejudices? Certainly not yet, and of course it’s impossible to tell whether political correctness is even helping to diminish these, given how many other factors can influence behavior. But the task is worthy and vast: to erase centuries of bias in our country’s collective unconscious — and one way to do that is with language. For the same reason we no longer use terms that came to seem pejorative (Negro, colored, chick, bitch), we should eschew phrases tinged with hate (fag, cripple, retard) from our vocabulary.

There is some evidence that this works. Research at Cornell University concluded that political correctness may aid the creativity of mixed-sex work teams by “reducing the uncertainty that people tend to experience while interacting with the opposite sex,” according to associate professor of organizational behavior Jack Goncalo. “[E]stablishing a clear guideline for how to behave appropriately in mixed-sex groups made both men and women more comfortable sharing their creative ideas,” he said.

Even on a purely anecdotal level, we can look around and see younger generations growing up to be more aware of instances of discrimination based on gender, race, religion, or gender identity and not accepting them. Armed with this awareness, young people are less likely to accept bullying or exploitation simply because it’s endorsed by a social code. (“Glee,” “Modern Family” and Macklemore’s “Same Love” are a few examples of pop-culture pushback.) They will be more self-reliant, stronger and more tolerant of others. Better Americans.

PC’s opponents point to its most extreme examples to argue for doing exactly what we did before political correctness showed us the racism, misogyny and homophobia embedded in our language: Nothing. Deriding political correctness gives people permission not to fix a problem, because the real problem, they tell us, is the cure. This is the logic of vaccination deniers and climate-change skeptics. Or all those hard-core smokers back in the 1960s and ’70s who laughed at the warning labels about the damage cigarette smoking could do. They accused the government of being a scold and boosted cigarette sales by over 7.8 billion in 1966, the year the labels first appeared on cigarette packs. Arrogantly clinging to wrong-headed traditions is not good for the country.

At a February rally, Donald Trump repeated with mock shock what a woman in the audience had just shouted about Ted Cruz: “She said, ‘He’s a pussy.’ That’s terrible!” The audience shouted their approval, even as Trump grinned and pretended to be offended. But there are serious consequences to insulting someone by calling him or her a vagina. It furthers the association of women with weakness. Every time we laugh at this suggestion, we’re endorsing the narrative of women as less than men. Every time a male coach berates his players by referring to them as “ladies” or tells them to “hike their skirts” while playing, we’re perpetuating an atmosphere in which women are not men’s equals.

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Anti-political-correctness rhetoric serves as a clever tool for politicians who wish to distract voters from the real issues (and their lack of solutions) by tapping into their darkest fears about those who are different than themselves. It’s genius — as long as those they’re manipulating are too zombified to think for themselves.

Which is exactly what they want. They want you to feel and behave like children while they pretend to be the all-knowing benevolent father. While they rile you up about how immigrants are stealing your jobs, they distract you from the expert assessments that show how Latino immigration has had less effect on employment than factories that moved abroad, weakened labor unions and recurring recessions. So while we’re told to focus on building a massive wall to keep out immigrants, the real architects of job loss and economic instability continue unaffected.

We’re better off taking back the reins of our future by following the suggestion of 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

Of course, to be PC, it should read, “When I became an adult.”