Donald Trump is running as a rebel against “political correctness.” His supporters believe that Americans have gotten too sensitive, that people can no longer express their opinions safely and openly without someone getting offended.
Trump assures his followers that they’re the underdogs: that the nation’s most powerful institutions are dedicated to silencing their views. “The establishment and their media neighbors wield control over this nation through means that are very well known,” he told them Thursday. “Anyone who challenges their control is deemed a sexist, rapist, xenophobe and morally deformed. They will attack you. They will slander you. They will seek to destroy your career and your family. They will seek to destroy everything about you, including your reputation. They will lie, lie, lie and then again they will do worse than that.”
Trump paints himself as an iconoclastic hero: willing to break the norms to tell it like it is. “Now I'm being punished for leaving the special club and revealing to you the terrible things that are going on having to do with our country,” he says.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising — or at least, in keeping with his brand — that, according to multiple women who have spoken out in the past several days, Donald Trump has a long record of transgressing against another norm: the one that says you shouldn’t kiss, grope, or have sex with women without their consent.
But it also exposes a big problem with the idea that Trump represents an era of American life when people could be honest with each other, and were free to speak out without fear of retaliation.
If the pre–“political correctness” era was really so open, why is it only now that these women are speaking out?
Why did it take not only Trump’s presidential run but his apparent admission, on a leaked tape from 2005, that he grabbed women and kissed them without “waiting” for consent — and his subsequent denial to CNN’s Anderson Cooper during a presidential debate that he’d ever sexually assaulted anyone in practice — for them to feel comfortable speaking in public about what happened to them?
The fact of the matter is that the era before “political correctness” wasn’t any less repressive than the era of “political correctness” has been. It was just repressive in different ways — in private, using norms of what was and wasn’t appropriate for public discussion and of what things women should and shouldn’t admit to or talk about.
It allowed powerful people, particularly powerful men, to do what they liked without fear of exposure or retaliation, protected by shared interests in keeping things quiet — and by the ability to use speech norms against the victims of their acts.
The pre-PC era wasn’t an era of freedom. It was an era of impunity. The two are not the same.
People have always been shamed and told their experiences were inappropriate to share — it’s just a question of who’s getting told that
The critique of “political correctness” is rooted in the idea that “free speech” is a matter of not just legal protections but social norms. If there are social norms that discourage particular people from speaking, or particular opinions from being expressed, that will deter people from participating in public discourse and have a chilling effect on speech.
But speech norms have always existed, in one form or another. It’s just a matter of who has been discouraged from speaking — whose speech has been chilled.
If speech were truly free in the way “political correctness” suggest it ought to be — if people could talk about their opinions and experiences without fear of retaliation for speaking their minds — the accusers of Donald Trump would have come forward before now. Trump cites the fact that these women haven’t come forward until now as reasons to disbelieve them, but the reasons are much deeper.
You’ve seen women who have spoken out publicly about times they’ve been groped, harassed, and assaulted — not just by Trump, but by anyone — in the days since the 2005 Trump tape leaked, many of them for the first time.
The old pre-“PC culture” didn’t just create a hypothetical chilling effect but an actual one.
The lesson that should be taken from the post-Trump floodgates — from the sudden rush of new groping allegations Wednesday night to the hashtags for women (and others) to share their stories of assault over the weekend — isn’t just that harassment is a constant threat to millions of Americans and billions of humans, a “tax” assessed in every interaction. It’s that there are particular reasons that people do not speak out, and reasons they’ve been discouraged from doing so.
Private shaming is chilling but invisible
In a Medium piece about evangelical leaders’ excuses for Trump’s behavior, writer Katherine Noble divulges that she was assaulted at a party as a freshman in college — something that, as a Christian woman, caused her deep shame. When she finally worked past the shame to open up to someone she trusted in private, all she got in return was a reminder of why she’d felt ashamed to begin with — and a clear indication that she shouldn’t talk about this anymore:
I finally broke down and “admitted” the incident to a religious leader I was very close with.
Her first response was: it’s sad what happened, but realize that it also means you are no longer a virgin. Her second response was: you were drunk at a party, which is a sin. Her third response was: this is what happens when you don’t trust God and instead befriend non-Christians, we need to get you back on track.
The norm against Christian women talking about sex — much less their own sexual encounters — was, for all intents and purposes, stronger than the norm against sexual assault. This wasn’t limited to evangelical Christians or particularly conservative subcultures: It was a consequence of a time during which it was considered inappropriate to talk about sex to, in front of, or if you were a woman.
Society was still limited by the belief that you couldn’t say certain things because they were offensive; they were just different in who would be offended and why. The upshot was that women were quietly, privately deterred from speaking out about sexual victimization — or even deterred themselves. (You can see remnants of this in the response to Trump’s tape among some conservatives — dressing people down for saying “pussy” on television, even though they’re quoting Trump, because it’s inappropriate for children to hear.)
Public shaming was only used when private shaming failed
Of course, once a woman did speak out, the gloves came off. It was appropriate to question the sexual morality of a rape accuser, or anything else about her character — because she was the one who’d broken the norm first.
The fact that many have responded to the latest allegations against Trump by questioning either their veracity or at least their timing is a pretty good illustration of why the alleged victims felt unable to speak out to begin with. If the chilling effect couldn’t work in private by persuasion, it could be reinstated in public by brute force.
Trump himself, when confronted with these allegations (or any other allegations against him), always goes for the very bluntest tool in his arsenal: the threat to sue. Legally speaking, the threat is absurd. Strategically speaking — as a way to coerce people into withdrawing their allegations rather than face a costly legal battle, or deter others from speaking out to begin with — it’s illustrative.
Trump isn’t actually a supporter of free speech. He’s simply used to his power speaking for him. When it doesn’t speak on its own, he marshals it into service using the law — or at least the threat of the law. There was always, after all, something inherently weird about a man who requires nondisclosure agreements from every single campaign volunteer crusading as a defender of open and honest discourse.
These things have always been wrong — that’s why they used to be kept quiet
This brings us to another critique of PC culture: that it’s an attempt to force new norms and standards on people who are used to old ones, by dismissing anyone who doesn’t use the right words or exhibit the right attitudes.
This critique has merit. But it’s used far too casually.
It didn’t take the rise of political correctness to know that serially groping women was wrong. Otherwise, Trump would have bragged about it everywhere, not just to Billy Bush or Howard Stern. It’s simply that there were norms of impunity that protected people like Trump from their actions being publicly divulged. Those norms didn’t just cover the victims — they covered witnesses, colleagues, bystanders. People who would have been able to speak out but who decided not to.
This is the real meaning of the phrase “locker room talk”: that there are private, men-only spaces in which it is acceptable to discuss things that are unacceptable to discuss or do in public. That everyone understands the rules, and no one is going to tattle on a fellow locker room confessor or balk at his outré behavior. That men have a safe space.
In the aftermath of the leak of the “pussy” tape, Trump allies like Rudy Giuliani tended to defend his comments as just talk — nothing that necessarily reflected Trump’s actions. But when asked if Trump had ever actually done the things he discusses in the tape, they professed not to know.
Of course they didn’t. They knew better than to ask. They knew it would be wrong to do what Trump was bragging of doing, and they didn’t want to be burdened with the knowledge that Trump had done anything wrong.
Back when the corridors of power were also men-only spaces, locker room talk didn’t need to be confined to the locker room. Powerful people have a habit of keeping secrets for each other.
John F. Kennedy was a serial philanderer. This is a fact that goes uncontested 50 years after his death, and it wasn’t entirely a secret during his lifetime: People in Washington, politicians and press alike, knew about it. But none of them particularly felt the need to report it. Not because it was uncontroversial, but precisely because it was wrong — because Kennedy would suffer if it were divulged.
This isn’t just about free speech. It’s about who has the power to act without regard to the consequences. That is the definition of impunity.
It is actually good that not everyone is able to say whatever they feel all the time
Norms exist for a reason. It is not actually a good thing to allow literally anyone to say literally anything to literally anyone else and not feel any social consequences for it. There are things that are inappropriate to say in public, and things that are inappropriate to say at all, and social sanction — shaming — is the first line of defense for keeping those taboos intact.
“Political correctness” is an emerging set of norms about who gets to speak, what they get to say, and how they get to justify their speech. It’s replacing an old set of norms governing the same things.
Neither set of norms creates perfect equality among all speakers. Both are prone to abuse, and to chilling of legitimate speech.
Defenders of what’s called “political correctness” argue that they’re the ones who are actually creating an honest and open exchange of ideas, by empowering people to speak who didn’t feel empowered to speak in the past. That’s true to some extent (though in practice, it often really is not easy to perfectly balance the need for safety with the need for openness).
But what’s particularly striking about the timing of the new allegations against Trump is that they didn’t come out simply because the times have changed, and society is more amenable to taking sexual assault survivors seriously than it might have been a decade or two ago. They came out because Anderson Cooper asked Trump directly and honestly if he’d ever done the things he’d bragged about doing — forcing him, in public, to deny it.
Cooper took Trump’s words seriously, as an honest expression of desire. He took them as something that deserved to be discussed in public. He treated them, in other words, the way many opponents of “political correctness” say they want to be treated: as participants whose opinions deserve to be valued and taken seriously, as participants in the ongoing negotiation of what is, and isn’t, appropriate for an American to say or do.