Today, the idea of "political correctness" is one of the biggest fault lines in contemporary American politics. Republicans like Donald Trump have made their opposition to P.C. culture a cornerstone of their campaigns. The debate about politically correct discourse on college campuses has become a full-fledged war; one poll found that 79 percent of American adults think political correctness represents a serious problem.
If you ask conservatives (and some liberals) what "political correctness" means, they'll invariably invoke free speech, and point to trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other ideas that have developed in response to student protests over racial injustice and other campus issues. But this version of "political correctness" is mostly a straw man. In its most basic form, "political correctness" is just another way to say "common decency and respect for people whose experiences have been marginalized."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, the basketball legend) had one of the best entries in the debate about "political correctness" in a Washington Post op-ed this week. It's worth reading in full. But if you're short on time, here's a five-sentence passage in which Abdul-Jabbar perfectly explains why the question of "political correctness" isn't just a debate about coddled college students, but an issue that goes to the heart of America's core values:
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.
In other words, Abdul-Jabbar says, political correctness isn't about whether we say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," or whether student activists should be mocked for missing class. It's about compassion, and respect for people whose voices have historically been shut out of the discussion. That's a much less divisive position, and a much more important one to defend.