I'm all in favor of acid wit and barbed satire. But too many partisans on both sides sound like Beavis and Butt-Head, tittering over trivia. More important, if political correctness is as absurd as so many people think it is, why is it so successful? This newspaper, your local schools, police and fire departments, city hall, your church and workplace all likely subscribe to vast swaths of what was once called a politically correct agenda, from rules barring sexual harassment to the language you can use in casual conversation or e-mails. Surely if PC is the Orwellian imposition so many conservatives claim it is, Americans would reject it the way they resisted other alien impositions, such as the metric system, bidets or David Hasselhoff's Germanic personality cult.
The reality is that much of political correctness - the successful part - is a necessary attempt to redefine good manners in a sexually and racially integrated society. Good manners are simply those things you do to demonstrate respect to others and contribute to social decorum. Aren't conservatives the natural defenders of proper manners?
Remember that D.C. bureaucrat who lost his job for using the word "niggardly" correctly in a sentence? That was outrageous overkill, but I don't know that many well-mannered white people who would use "niggardly" in a room full of black people either, for fear of offending. The problem with political correctness resides in the demand that new manners be created from scratch, which is bound to turn people off. I mean, did we really need to replace "old" with "senior" or purge "Dutch treat" from the vernacular?
PC's problems become even more acute when the left insists on smuggling larger agendas into what should be a polite conversation about what constitutes politeness. There's remarkable overlap between conservative and liberal complaints about the culture. But when traditionalists talk the language of decency and morality, the left hears bigotry and theocracy. And when liberals talk about sensitivity and white privilege, the right hears something totalitarian. The result is that the two sides hold separate conversations. And when they do talk to each other, each side is listening for hidden agendas.
Perhaps the reason the national conversations always sputter out is that they start off too ambitious. Rather than tackling America's fundamental problems, we could start by talking about how we should talk.
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