“Confront the soft bigotry of low expectations”
–George W Bush
is the editorial/admin staff of Creative Politics, and the pen name used for the original Federalist Papers making the case for the US Constitution in the 1780s. The founders of Creative Politics are a father and son team, both left-handed.
One of the most divisive topics in American politics has been “political correctness.” In fact, “telling it like it is” or “saying what everyone’s thinking” (as opposed to merely spouting whatever comes to mind, as cranial sphincters weaken with age) is one of the key qualities giving the current occupant of the Oval Office potentially as much as 46% of the vote (we’ll never know) in the last election.
But division is definitely not politically correct, especially not with all the challenges we face–politics is about compromise, or better yet, synthesis between opposing ideas and ideals. We do need a kind of political correctness, but to check our current slide, it needs to correct politics, not just people: it needs to be what’s correct for politics today.
As a rule, political correctness has been primarily about language, and this is far more appropriate than its detractors’ ridicule; it’s an acknowledgement that words have power, and this is exceptionally true in politics, which is why it’s always been such fertile ground for neologisms, novel metaphors, and similies, as if the field were attempting to suck up not just all the oxygen in the room but all the marrow from the bones on which human communication rests. In fact, we’re trying to do that ourselves.
But as the term implies, the philosophical underpinnings of political correctness have less to do with creating new language than jettisoning terms and phrases that are standing in the way of political progress together by dividing, distracting, and/or deceiving us, compelling us to act against our best interests and the interests of our country. We’ve come up with a few particularly insidious IDEDs we believe really need to be defused (as true political correctness is wont to do) on the road back to unity, including, ironically, the term “politically correct” itself.
At the risk of more ado–linguistic surgery can get messy–here are our initial nominees (replete with validating rage), along with their proposed replacements, with hopes that you’all will add to the list:
“Politically correct.” As good a place to start as any. Ever hear anyone other than a white male utter this phrase, especially with sneering derision? We didn’t think so. The reality is that what white males call “political correctness,” the discomfort they feel at being on life’s tightrope for a change, is how every other gender and ethnic group has felt when dealing with them for hundreds of years, framing every word, making every move with trepidation, creating an ever-growing tragedy of loss from what was unsaid and undone for fear of how the young master might respond. What’s wrong with white men having to “check themselves” like every other human has had to? The sooner our blanched-skin brothers stop using this phrase, the sooner we will be able to come together as a people and enjoy the proven fruits of diversity that have been sitting on our table, untouched, since our country began. Replacements: “Enlightened” “self-aware.”
“It is what it is.” No it isn’t. No. It isn’t. Yet how many times have you been in a conversation with someone about a challenge you’ve been struggling with when you reach impassion and then, suddenly, breaking into the silence, someone intones, in a profound baritone or deeper, with sage look and Gallic shrug visible even if you’re on a phone: “it is what it is.” It’s tantamount to blasphemy is what it is. We humans know far too little about virtually anything to ever be invoking this phrase. If the problem is one you just don’t want to take on, say so–that’s honest and truthful. If it can’t be solved without you, a deeper and even more honest answer might be “I yam what I yam.” But even such acceptance comes with obligations–just because your leg is broken doesn’t relieve you of the need to walk, and the same goes for your brain. Replacement: “I don’t know, let’s find out.”
“Agree to disagree.” Sorry, but at this point, in our country, in our world, that’s a luxury we can’t afford–the problems we face are too big and coming at us too quickly for us to be doing anything but finding ways to work together, finding solutions. In this era, politicos who’re focused on turnout, “running up the score,” and outvoting “them,” murmuring “there are more of us” to spur themselves on, are like marathoners with torn ACLs who think they can run regardless because, after all, the majority of their body is healthy. We need every Who in Whoville to get on the same page. Replacement: “To be continued.”
“Double-down.” What it sounds like: a gutsy move in a high stakes poker game. What it is: a cowardly refusal to admit you were wrong. Actually it’s worse than that. Increasingly, “doubling down” has become doubling down on doubling down on doubling down until the speaker gets to political China where mistakes turn upside down into truth. Which makes clear what words for the phrase should be used instead. Replacement: “Lie bigly” (in honor of the master double-downer)
“New normal.” You’d think we’d have learned from where “move fast and break things” has led us that just because someone does something new doesn’t make it normal. It’s diabolically true that once someone does or says something unspeakable, even if they’re utterly condemned, it will be done again (we’ve been learning this since the Nazis), just as good deeds become the least you can do in the eyes of their recipients forthwith. But that doesn’t mean we have to give it the human seal of approval (“it’s normal”), let alone egg it on. And the phrase in question does seem to nearly always be used in the context of a clearly negative development, not about something we’re proud to have achieved, which makes it acquiescent and defeatist, which is not new, old, or ever normal in America. Replacement: “interesting.”
“Tribalism.” Is no excuse, and that’s what it’s being used for. Allegedly, we can’t see eye to eye or even see the same set of facts because we’re tribes now. At the level of superficiality we Americans enjoy with respect to almost anything (which is usually a strength for us–you’ll never catch us still po’ed about something that happened on a bridge in the 12th century), it’s laughable for us to think that any group of us has the same bonds of culture, tradition, and faith that a real tribe does, or the limitations this imposes. It may be the direction we’re headed, but we’re not there yet, and we’d better not arrive, because up until recently, how was this word invariably used? That’s right: someone would be talking about a country in the developing world, usually Africa, and how poorly it was doing, and how it can never seem to get its act together. And how would the conversation usually end? With one word, and a sad shake of the head, and that word was not colonialism. Tribalism means something fixed, immutable, hopeless. We can’t have it. Replacement: “Otherism,” because at least fear and distrust of The Other is not only something we all know is wrong, but something psychologists and countless works of fiction have told us for decades is something we can do something about.
“Optics.” Whenever a modern politician says they’re doing something to “avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” you know that the “appearance” is just the tip of a very dirty berg of unethical behavior. In the same vein, “optics” has become the go-to term of art for political subordinates who know that appeals to common decency or any level of morality will bounce off their bosses’ ears, especially since the term comes complete with a professional glaze that plainer phraseology (like “looks bad”) does not. Replacement: “the right thing to do” or “just plain wrong,” depending on what kind of ‘optics’ are being described.
“Misleading.” In a political context, this characterization of erroneous statements has become superannuated by 21st century information flow. The first time a politician says something factually incorrect, it would be healthier and more appropriate to assume they don’t really have superpowers we lack (to deal with the volumes of ‘content’ they encounter) instead of just assuming/implying malign intent. Changing our perspective in this way would be both more comforting and more scary, and highly salubrious in that regard. It would also allow us to justly tag and punish habitual offenders with a badly needed warning label far worse than ‘Machiavellian’ in America today: incompetent.
On the other hand, if a politico persists in repeating the same false information, even in the face of that same information flow slapping and clapping back at their face, whether they believe their own BT (or not) is functionally irrelevant in the fast-moving scheme of things; to think otherwise is akin to solving prison overcrowding by releasing every inmate who ‘genuinely’ believes they’re innocent. Instead we should take the rare opportunity to establish a clear and even more badly needed state of play where truth and truthfulness are concerned, not to mention finally put ‘three strikes and you’re out’ to good use. Replacements: “mistake/mistaken” for the first two times a false claim is made, “lie/lying” thereafter–no exceptions.
“Entitlements.” Points for great framing here by the elites, because everyone knows that being or feeling “entitled” is bad; in fact, thanks mainly to the behavior of said 1-10 percenters, it’s become the key word in the definition de jour of the body part that almost rhymes with fazool. It’s time for the wealthy and their companies in this country to acknowledge and accept that nothing they have would’ve been possible if it weren’t for the “little people,” who are only asking for a fraction of their fair share in return. Replacement: “[national] debts”
“Partisan.” It’s really touching how politicians go out of their way to help us common folk with our media literacy problems, always letting us know that what might seem to us like a reasonable argument, or a view passionately held out of life experience and knowledge, is really just “partisan,” “feigned outrage,” and/or “political posturing.” We hate to break it to you, fellas, but calling people “paid protesters” doesn’t really increase the GDP. Could the country benefit if politicians actually grappled with perspectives other than their own, and told their supporters to do the same, rather than using dismissive descriptors like these? Why don’t we give it a try for a while, and see what happens? Replacement(s): “Worth considering” or, at least, “a different point of view.”
“But.” We can’t, and don’t want to get rid of this word everywhere, just in political discourse. We can always hear the “but” coming in politics, can’t we? Sometimes before the butters even open their chilly mouths, and especially whenever they’re saying anything that’s actually refreshing, sounding like they might sincerely be ready to engage with those who disagree. From the moment we can visualize it on the horizon, we’re just waiting for it, in growing irritation, knowing that everything that’s come before it has been and will be just a pro forma waste of our precious time, because the “but” is the clean dividing point between what the speaker considers real and what they don’t, a u-turn on the bridge over their political Missouri, west to east, desert to promised land.
Imagine if every time a politician or anyone talking about politics had to say “and” instead of “but.” It would mean having to acknowledge and speak to two realities of equal weight; it would mean having to speak of solutions that address, in synthesis, the concerns that arise from both; it would mean actually having to be “fair and balanced.”
“What about.” It’s more than fair to point out hypocrisy in policymaking–for example, a political party that decries deficits running them up in the trillions–and it’s equally fair to point out to followers of a particular political persuasion how they would be reacting if the leader of the opposing party said or did what their own dear leader just said or did. But that’s not what “whataboutism” is about, is it? It’s about justifying the bad behavior of someone you favor on the grounds that it’s no worse than the actions of some politician on “the other side.” It’s nothing less than a morbid race to the bottom of political behavior, to the lowest uncommon denominator. All because the “whataboutist” has apparently forgotten the second most basic rule required to live together in a society, right after ‘do unto others:’ two wrongs don’t make a right. Replacement: “Yes, that was wrong.” Period.
“Counterpuncher” — It feels like the signature move of a true tough guy, and maybe it is, if your admiring definition of toughness includes massacring hundreds of innocent civilians in your own public square. Leaving aside the question of whether a metaphor of violence should ever be used in the context of political debate, consider the context in which this term, in particular, is inevitably used. Someone has just been asked whether a person in power’s response to a critic is justified. And why is the question being asked? Because the response in question seems disproportionate to the criticism and the power relationship between the two parties, in fact so disproportionate that “he’s a counterpuncher” is really the only thing that can be said in defense. And that makes the word or phrase that should be used instead even more of a no-brainer than the original offense. Replacement: “Punching down.”
“Illiberal” — What’s with the “liberal” media’s never-ending quest to find realpolitik euphemisms to describe governments we ought to oppose, as if attempting something of a secret handshake with the powers-that-behind? Given the proclivities of the governments described with this word, the average American could be excused for thinking it just means “conservative,” or at worst “against the libtards.” But on close–or any–inspection, illiberal governments like Hungary’s aim to stifle the free press, crush the independence of the judiciary, and destroy other hallmarks of constitutional democracy. Technically, this does make them “illiberal,” though only because the conservative thing to do in today’s world would be to become a liberal, based on how both ideologies were originally defined. Confused? That’s the idea, because the would-be dictators being draped with the word are not conservative; they’re un-American. Replacement: “authoritarian,” like we used to call them even if they were “tilting towards the West.”
“unconventional,” “unorthodox,” “disruptive” — Far be it from us to discourage creativity, but here’s a test to use to determine the proper deployment of words like these in the political sphere. Can you call the process or policy that sparked these utterances innovative? With a straight face, that is. Or would you reach for the word atrocious first? Like “stubborn,” these three descriptors are all words that have a peculiarly well-deserved positive cachet in American culture. And what our moms told us about what to say when you can’t say something nice ought to go for what’s true, too, especially with respect to adjectives, which are always optional, rather than gratuitously adding spin where it’s not been earned. Replacement(s): either “creative” OR “grotesque,” depending–or nothing at all, if we’re genuinely unsure, which should probably be more often than we are.
“The base.” It sounds like something solid, a solid foundation, grounded; something you can build on. Take a look at the guys in the picture on the right. Do they look like a solid foundation, grounded in any way? And if you don’t think they’re typical, you haven’t been to a rally lately. Meanwhile, the liberal base may not look like this, but be honest, passionate liberal friends, you’re like these guys in your heads and social media plenty, and to be fair, so are radical centrists like us. But our media, many of whom seem to have grown up wanting to be sportscasters, can’t seem to help falling all over themselves as they explain, like Sunday afternoon color men, how well something totally outrageous (not in a good way) is “playing to the base.” As if the other 60-70% of the country doesn’t matter. Replacement(s): “extremists,” “idiologues.”
“Post-truth.” As in: the “era” we now live in, as in all facts are fungible. If it weren’t so dangerous, it would be ironic, even a little amusing, that the more often journalists use this phrase, usually in dismay, the more they contribute to one of the central processes behind it: The Big Lie, which succeeds only through endless repetition. So stop it, people. It’s actually a positive that we all now understand how difficult it is to know the truth, just like it is that even those who most fiercely proclaimed climate change a hoax now acknowledge the problem is far worse than anyone has officially been talking about. But just as the right response to that reality check is not to conclude that there’s nothing to be done but party like it’s 2099 and make the problem worse, the difficulty in finding the truth is not a reason to believe it doesn’t exist or stop looking. Replacement (in honor of the conspiratorial outlook of the most fervent post-truthies): “the truth is out there.”
“All’s fair.” Along with “politics ain’t beanbag,” “war by other means,” “bloodsport,” and every other expression used by the sally fourth estate treating politics as a game because they aren’t willing to put in the work (or, in the case of their corporate overlords, the investment) to make the issues our country faces, and the possible solutions to them, more ‘must-see’ than play-by-play.
Politics isn’t really a game at all, unless you really believe that after every donnybrook between your favorite team and its top rival, an actuarily prescribed number of the losers’ fans should be shot. People die because of decisions made by our politicians. The qualities we admire in a great football team–lock-step discipline, gamesmanship, a take-no-prisoners attitude–are not what we should be instructed to view with awe in the body politic. And to those who laugh with barely suppressed glee at fellow citizens who get taken in by the cons (e.g. the ‘dumb suckers’ who try to vote by text because someone pretending to be their candidate told them to), we say: in the long run the joke will be on you, though unfortunately some of the political pie in your face is going to end up all over the rest of us. If you really believe caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) should apply to our nation’s most sacred founding rite, you no longer believe we are a nation.
Replacement: “E pluribus unum,” always.
Do you want to “correct” us on anything above? Are there additional words and/or phrases you think should be added? Tell us in comments below.
Part of our Talk, Talk, Talk series
Creative Politics synthesizes the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk. All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing the Federalist Papers today. We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real–thanks much for your time and insights; they will go unpunished!