THE BLOG
12/31/2015 09:52 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2016

Will the Fantasy of Political Correctness Continue in 2016?

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Early in 2015, the liberal columnist Jonathan Chait bemoaned the return of "pc culture" and its "language police." Even good, progressive people, he told his readers, were afraid to be ridiculed by "social justice warriors" bent on ensuring that only ideas that affirmed their identities would escape censure. "Political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality," he wrote, "so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression." By the fall of the year, the Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump would make the culture of "political correctness" that against which he defined himself. In this regard, as in so may others, he said aloud what his rivals for the nomination also believed: "I'm so tired of this politically correct crap."

In the New York Times Thomas Edsall wrote with sententious seriousness that opinion polls have discovered that a significant majority of Americans now believe that political correctness is a "big problem." Meanwhile, the Washington Post just can't devote enough ink to this topic. In the last month alone, the venerable newspaper devoted eight articles to the subject, and that's not counting the columns of ink devoted to the discussion of campuses and free speech. Linking "political correctness" to "university elites" has been a popular sport for decades.

It hasn't always been this way. "After its 1990s heyday," columnist Philip Bump recently pointed out, the term "bubbled under the surface until America's demographic and economic shifts led to renewed uncertainty and resentment between cultural groups." Now writers from across the political spectrum wield the words as a shield against people they find intolerant, or just ideas they don't like. Andrew Sullivan can stand for many in seeing P.C. people "demanding more and more sensitivity for slighter and slighter transgressions."

Alas, in 2016 I expect to see the bogeyman of political correctness circulate even more widely in academic circles and in national political discourse. On colleges and universities the idea of "political correctness" has an important function -- it pumps up the myth that our biggest problems stem from a lack of tolerance for ideas friendly to the status quo. When fraternity brothers are disturbed by changes to the ways they organize parties, they will continue to cry "political correctness." When middle-aged alumni of past college protests no longer see their own battles and slogans repeated by today's students, they will go on whining about pc culture undermining free speech.

In 2016 politicians and pundits will certainly continue to pontificate about the pitfalls of political correctness. There just isn't any downside to attacking this imaginary monster of groupthink, so we can expect to hear speakers trumpeting their own courage in "not being pc" as they attack especially vulnerable groups in society. Ted Cruz has already set a high bar for aggressive vapidity in declaring "political correctness is killing people," but we should expect other candidates to fall over one another in showing they can stand up to this phantom force against speaking one's mind. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on pc elitism, so I fear we will only see more of this in 2016.

In a smart piece on Republican presidential candidates feverishly embracing the posture of being politically incorrect, Paul Waldman shows how "the political correctness charge has become an all-purpose answer to criticism of any sort." Inequality is breeding widespread anxiety, and when progressives talk more about taking away privileges than they do about enhancing opportunities, they only contribute to this malaise.

So many people in America today feel their economic prospects dimming and their social status precarious. The term "social justice," widely used at the heights of the Great Depression, has also had a resurgence in recent years, as inequality has grown ever more pernicious. This term isn't just about demeaning the status of others because of their so-called privileges: it's about creating a more equitable and inclusive culture.

In the coming year, we needn't contribute to this national fantasy of progressive puritans who shame potential allies without opening new hopes for the future. Instead, in 2016 we can find ways to work together to articulate what kinds of change, and what kinds of preservation, are worth striving for. Even if they remain targets for politicians and pundits, our college campuses can defy caricature by incubating ideas and practices to empower students to face problems and create opportunities beyond the university. That may be our most significant contribution to dispelling the fantasy of political correctness by developing an authentic political culture in the years ahead.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University His most recent books are "Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters" and "Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past." He tweets @mroth78