The surge in ‘political correctness’ in Western society over recent years has helped fuel a push-back from the far right in politics… as well as the rise of extremist groups like ISIS (not that I want to get into war or foreign policy decisions here – but their hatred of our ‘privileged’ Western way of life also cannot be ignored). Now, we have to figure out a way of dealing with it that doesn’t only include what we’ve been doing up to this point. It will need something more.
Mainstream politics is changing. The UK government earlier this year campaigned hard for remaining in the EU, only to be humiliated when 52% of the voting public showed they weren’t listening, or at least didn’t want to. In the US election, Hillary Clinton was very much the candidate of the ‘establishment’; for whom supporters claimed her experience alone qualified her more for presidential office than counterpart Donald Trump. It’s true; if the presidency was a normal offer of employment for which prospective candidates had to submit a CV and go through an interview for the job, Clinton would have been a shoe-in, and was still seen as such even in the democratic environment where we should know anything can happen. Those at the top became complacent, thinking people would vote the way they ‘should’ vote, trusting that the majority would ‘see sense’ and that things would inevitably go the right way.
For too long the US establishment mistakenly looked at Trump as the underdog – someone who perhaps would provide an easy opponent against whom the Democrats could guarantee the first female president. I won’t get too much into party politics here, but let’s just say if it had been Bernie Sanders going against Trump in this election, I daresay we would have seen a different outcome; but nor would so many people be in uproar right now at the fact that a perceived sexist misogynist pig could get as many votes as a woman whose greatest attribute, aside from her gender (which I’m sure the Democrats hoped would suffice), was ‘experience’.
Politics for so long has been about a cult of personality; to the extent that most who considered themselves ‘decent’ people thought there was no chance anyone could possibly vote for a candidate like Trump. Rather than trying to answer the concerns raised by Trump regarding the establishment, concerns clearly shared by those planning to vote for him, they instead called into question his character – something which many of his supporters actually considered secondary. Yes, some people dared not be offended so easily. Quite a lot of people, as it turned out, hadn’t bought into the politically correct mindset that dictates we must all be offended by certain things.
Yet that mindset is still being pushed in the aftermath of this election, and (to a lesser extent perhaps) the EU referendum that preceded it. Those who have voted for personal reasons this year have been largely labelled racist, misogynist or a variety of other general labels, thrown by people over the Internet to strangers they don’t know, based on the perception created by a minority who’ve taken to bullying others in public places without being openly challenged for it. People would rather take a recording with their phone and/ or condemn the actions online later, when they’re back in their safe space.
Everyone’s brave when they’re given a keyboard with which to fight their own little battles. But put them in the midst of an actual problem or confrontation, and that’s when your politically correct cultural bubble won’t protect you. We’re part of a generation that hasn’t had to fight any great wars; we’re subject to a movement that seeks to somehow convince us that words are the real enemy, that being offended is the real evil.
Speaking of online labeling, it is the emergence of mass social media usage that has given rise to a greater cultural awareness of how things work, including politics… People are more aware than ever of the kind of corruption that occurs at the highest level. True, president Obama has shown us that it is still possible for the establishment to inspire the general public; all it really takes is charisma, which I’m afraid Clinton just did not have. Many people now consider a vote against this establishment as a victory.
Notice as well, how when people look back at Obama’s tenure as president, their first thought won’t be that he was only elected ‘because he was black’. No, he is perhaps the most charismatic leader of modern times, and it largely helped carry him through two terms. The social justice, politically correct movement wanted Hillary Clinton to be president mainly so they could say we had elected the first female president. But these things shouldn’t be forced; when a candidate comes along who is able to engage with people, as Obama did, and to a lesser extent as Trump has been able to do, they will find success. It would be shallow, not to mention quite insulting for anyone to claim that Obama was elected for his colour rather than on merit; it would be equally insulting for a woman to be elected president just because she was a woman. There will be a female president in the near future, I’m sure of that; but it will be someone who is able to bring people together and inspire others better than Hillary Clinton could do.
From another perspective, things have happened during Obama’s time as president that has gradually seen people who may have voted for him previously, now be turned off. The rise of ISIS means we are living in a different world now than when Obama was first elected, and their undeniable association with the Islamic faith has provided an extra incentive for single-minded people to vote for the kind of rhetoric that Trump – and the ‘leave’ side of the EU referendum in the UK – has come out with (though don’t me wrong, I acknowledge – unlike some other people – this was only one small part of the campaign, and for a lot of people, an insignificant one). As the ostracism of Muslims and other minorities may only serve to push them into the manipulative hands of extremists and greater hatred of us in ‘the West’, we could be heading for an uncomfortable few years to come.
We’re seeing now that political correctness is laughable in the face of extremism. It serves to reinforce our privilege. That is not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t respect each other, that we shouldn’t value different opinions and viewpoints, but the balance has been unsettled. PC culture has gone too far in trying to force a polite society in which everyone thinks a certain way and doesn’t offend each other.
Being around people who think differently from us, those who have other opinions we may not be used to, is healthy. Even getting offended from time to time is healthy. It’s how we learn. Respect for each other isn’t something that can be forced; it’s something to be earned. There is supposed to be a balance somewhere, in which we feel comfortable in being ourselves but at the same time don’t think everyone else around us should be the same way.
Our PC culture has gone some way to unsettling this balance, and the drastic push back from the other side is something we are now seeing take form. Because many people feel they’ve been forced into accepting everything, from other cultures to other lifestyles, opinions and viewpoints, they now want to close the borders instead (to cite one example).
This culture of being afraid of offending each other has made Western society reluctant to call bullshit when necessary. Then someone like Trump comes along, who says things the establishment would dare not say, who in the process freely and willingly risks offending whole groups of people, and in doing so speaks to a group who felt the same way as he but were reluctant to say it openly.
It’s something new, something that a lot of people haven’t seen in the mainstream for a very long time… They’re so used to everything being polished and orderly, of politicians saying the right things, smiling at the right times, looking perfect for every photo opportunity. They’re tired of the comfortable political system that has formed in the years since the latter stages of the Cold War, at which point countries in the West had really begun to get their houses in order and set up some kind of peaceful political structure.
Western countries like the US, the UK, most of the EU, became comfortable with their ‘system of structure’. Then along comes a catastrophic event like 9/11, an attack on this way of life and in some ways the catalyst for the problems we’re faced with today, and everything began to change again…
When the structure comes under attack, people start looking around for who’s to blame, and we inevitably begin to point fingers at each other, letting our minds become clouded as we’re bombarded with various conflicting messages in this digital age. Granted, in 2001 it was easy to see who was to blame – those evil people over there in Iraq who don’t share our treasured Western values. Therefore we had to invade them to get our ‘revenge’ and stand up for these values; an action that began a chain reaction leading to where we find ourselves today. That certain things have since come to light regarding the Bush administration (I won’t be going into them here, except for the use of one key word: oil) is in no small part to blame for the major loss of faith in ‘the establishment’ and the rise of an outsider like Donald Trump.
One must remember, the ‘digital age’ is still relatively young – social media itself has only hit its ‘boom’ period during president Obama’s tenure in office. Up until around 2008 it was still somewhat niche. Now everyone talks about ‘giving us a like on Facebook’ or how many Twitter followers they have… and this has changed how the population thinks, it has changed how we communicate. It can be used to communicate messages positive or negative, of hope or despair, on a mass global scale in a matter of seconds, and everyone wants to get involved to show they have a voice. They want to be acknowledged so they feel their opinion has value.
Some who voted for Trump will have felt that their voices weren’t being heard, either by the establishment or by those of us who try to impose political correctness on others. Many of them we don’t see on social media, probably because, again, so many of us refuse to engage with those who think differently on issues we feel strongly about. We think Facebook and Twitter are good barometers of the broad social climate, and are then shocked to find out half the country might dare to disagree with us.
And how do we respond? The only way the Internet knows how; by broadly labeling, throwing insults at people we don’t know, and panicking that the world we live in may not be the perfect cosy little one we thought political correctness had achieved.
But the digital age also provides hope for those who think everything’s suddenly gone to shit. Things like racism and bigotry will phase out of society over time, as people are exposed to more stuff and naturally become more educated – the Internet is perhaps best used in this capacity. I don’t deny that racism and bigotry helped swing the vote in both ‘Brexit’ and the US election. Yes, there were a LOT of voters voting who were not racists and bigots, but that doesn’t allow us to discount the fact that those things DID swing the vote in both cases, because both cases were narrow victories. We know by the rhetoric that was being thrown around by the campaigns in both cases beforehand, and by those who feel they’ve been empowered in the aftermath.
American citizens need to remember that slavery of human beings of a different colour to white folk is still a relatively recent tragedy, and something their country has never really dealt with. Racists do still exist, that’s the undeniable and unfortunate reality, but there are now far less of them than there once was, and no, Trump’s victory does not automatically imply that half of the US is still overtly racist.
Education is relentless in the long run, and the answer to our concerns is to keep strong in our own convictions and beliefs. History has shown us that hate and bigotry doesn’t win. But it is also now showing us, perhaps, that the other extreme of political correctness doesn’t win either.
More of us need to be willing to stand up to things like racism when we see it on our doorstep. To not be afraid of offending people by calling out bullshit if it is for the greater good. To accept that different opinions exist, but they do not necessarily imply evil intentions.
Perhaps politics in 2016 has helped wake some of us back up from our complacency and realise this once again. We’ve become too comfortable, too reliant on ‘political correctness’ to make the world a nicer place rather than doing the hard work ourselves. Too worried about what people say, rather than focusing on what people do. Trump is a fine example of someone who’s taken advantage of that, and stepped into the void created by the failed US political system, of which Hillary Clinton was the finest model. If she had been half as radical as her opponent with her message, we wouldn’t be here now – but the best reason her supporters could come up with for voting Clinton was ‘experience’. That’s not what American or British people wanted this year; their message was “enough of the status quo”. Mainstream politics needs to step up and listen if it wants to win them back.