Ever since Donald Trump started running for president, one major talking point—and certainly the one related to most if not all of his gaffes and to what extent he ever went “too far”—is the idea that Political Correctness (PC, i.e. that certain things should not be said out of respect for the consequences of thinking and talking that way) has gone out of control.
First, for me as someone not from the U.S., this term refers to a situation where a thought occurs to an individual, with the thought being based on a class/group-based stereotype, and this thought has been found to be detrimental to this class or group’s overall (e)quality of life, then this thought should not be voiced (to avoid reinforcement) in public—with maybe the exception of situations in which it clearly is used in a comedic way, for instance as part of a stand-up routine, suggesting the audience is supposed to be aware of the not-being-serious context.
As an example, the stereotype that women are weaker than men could find its expression in the thought that “women can’t handle it when it really gets tough,” a bit like Donald Trump’s stamina argument about Secretary Clinton. Using this language as part of a (political) debate would, as far as my understanding goes at least, be an opening for the debating opponent to draw the “PC card”; in fact, if he or she didn’t, it might even lead to questions after as to why the PC card wasn’t drawn, as people are supposed to notice this kind of thing and make it a point to raise concerns.
So, coming back to the original point: Conservatives, including several other Republican primary contenders, have from the moment that Donald Trump began to run for president made the very strong argument that “PC has gotten out of control.” In other words, the claim is that our mental lives have been put under a kind of “tyranny of the thought police,” (other) people who won’t allow us to voice our opinions in the way we want to.
While it may seem tempting to approach the over-arching question (should some thoughts be policed) from a First Amendment (i.e. the right to free speech) perspective, I want to avoid that. The main reason is that I have little doubt that both Conservatives and Liberals agree on the idea that some thoughts need to be controlled (for instance thoughts that are in themselves “unconstitutional”), but that generally the best form of control is self-control, and not externalized control. And the First Amendment says nothing about people’s need to police their own thought, but merely that the government is not supposed to take that job.
That being said, the question then remains: to what extent should individuals (be asked to) control their own thoughts and language, and in favor of what outcome (i.e. some greater good)? It is important to point out that in other areas of political disagreement—for example drug use—the roles between Conservatives and Liberals are pretty much reversed. In those cases, Conservatives consider the values of public morale, conforming to Calvinist work ethic, and also (biological) life itself to be of such importance that behaviors threatening these values, such as drug use or certain sexual behaviors, ought to be prohibited (by law).
The crucial difference to me seemingly is to what extent people from the two sides of the political spectrum hold beliefs about (1) how and when they need to and still can exert self-control and (2) whether the consequences of failed self-control are dire enough to warrant a prescriptive-rule model. With free speech, I think the main issue is that if self-control is not prescribed in any way—thoughts do not need to be controlled in favor or any values—an intelligent observer would simply then expect that other values, such as fairness and treating other people with the same dignity, are “second best”.
In principle, I am all in favor of having no prescriptions on when and how to apply self-control in all areas of life, but equally as Conservatives wish to curtail abortion to preserve life, in fear that without any regulations people will turn to abortion for even the most whimsical of reasons, I hope they can now observe in Donald Trump the problem with not curtailing thoughts and speech at all.
But just as Conservatives, by and large, seem to fail to understand that by not regulating firearms this inevitably leads to “individual, bad apples” failing to possess the necessary self-control in the presence of too many guns, they now seem baffled at how someone who has made a kind of personal war against PC his signature move clearly fails to exert the necessary amount of self-control when it comes to what he says. Donald Trump clearly has reached the point of no return, and maybe we could use this as a highly visible example to explain that, maybe, just maybe, there are reasons to demand at least a modicum of (public) self-control when it comes to what people say…