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The Complicated Relationship Americans Have With Being 'P.C.'


In these next few weeks before the November elections, we'll be taking a look at what is often called identity politics. And there's one divisive phrase that has been at the forefront of the way identity politics is expressed in public.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The political correctness that we have embraced - enough already.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have to stop with political correctness.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Americans have been choking on political correctness.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Freshmen - I guess you can't use freshmen anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You have to say first-year. You can't say...



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Because you're discriminating against women.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: PC culture - liberals supposedly love it. Conservatives can't stand it. Or at least that's what we've been told. But a new study by the group More in Common shows something quite different. Political scientist Yascha Mounk wrote about the survey for The Atlantic, and I asked him to explain the results.

YASCHA MOUNK: The first headline is just how many Americans think that political correctness has become a problem in our country. It is actually 4 out of 5. So 80 percent of Americans feel worried about the kind of role that it plays in our discourse. And then the second big surprise is that there's this sort of narrative that young people, women perhaps, people of color, tend to really like political correctness, and older, white men are the ones who deeply oppose it. And what's really striking is that that's not at all what you see in the data.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. The best proxies are education level and income.

MOUNK: Absolutely. White people are actually slightly less likely to think that political correctness is a problem than people of color. The people who are most likely to see it as a problem are Hispanic or Native American. In the same way, in terms of age, the very youngest don't like it any better than older people. On the other hand, if you earn more than $100,000 a year, if you have a postgraduate degree, then you're much more likely to like political correctness.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The reason that this is so interesting is because we often portray the country as divided- right? - hopelessly. But your analysis says that there is, quote, "an exhausted majority" whose views are not actually so different from one another. Can you explain what that group is feeling right now?

MOUNK: Yeah, so it's easy to think that there's sort of 50 percent of a population who are woke in every single way, and then there's 50 percent of a country who are just sort of racist and really don't care if we have lots of hate speech. And what we see in the study is that 80 percent of Americans dislike political correctness, and 82 percent are really worried about hate speech. So most people are not racists, but they also are a little concerned that if they say the wrong thing, if they stress themselves a little bit wrongly, they might somehow come off as being hostile when they're not.

So, you know, one of the people who was talking in a focus group said, look. You know, nowadays, I'm not quite sure - do I say Jew, or do I say Jewish? Do I say black, or do I say African-American? And I feel like if I get it wrong, people are going to shout at me. And that's where this educational divide comes in because the kinds of people, frankly, who, you know, listen to NPR every weekend, who perhaps have a higher degree and so on - they tend to be more comfortable knowing what the right words are and what they aren't. And there's a lot of Americans who have good intentions, who don't have hate in their heart at all, but they're just unsure about what words to choose.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I want to take the term Latinx, which has gained popularity - I'm Latina. And if I talk to members of my parents' generation, they feel entirely excluded from that term. The term is meant to be more inclusive, right? But these terms can also make people feel like they're not in on the conversation.

MOUNK: Yeah. And that's why we just have to be self-critical about what's actually going to achieve more racial equality in our country. If you think that, for your own political reasons, Latinx is a better term to use, then Godspeed to you. But I think if you talk to your fellow citizens and they care, for example, about the ways in which the Hispanics are being discriminated against at the moment in the United States, but they don't use your preferred term, I think you should see that they're potential allies, rather than denouncing them as enemies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, how does that work? How, for example, can a politician run on progressive values where the language doesn't alienate what this survey says is the vast majority of the country? I mean, how does it practically work?

MOUNK: Well, I think there's a huge difference between standing up for minorities that are under attack and talking about it in a way which sounds like you have a sort of laundry list of all of the different groups that you have to win over in order to win election. And I think that was the difference between how Barack Obama talked about it and how Hillary Clinton talked about it, actually.

I was struck, for example, by the way that Cory Booker argues for a set of progressive causes. When he talks about why it is that we have to have more equity in high school education, he obviously talks about the fact that it's unjust to the children in poor school districts who don't get a good education. But he also talks about the fact that we need to educate all of our citizens to their best abilities because we're in a global race of competitiveness with China.

When he talks about prison reform, he doesn't just talk about the injustice to the people who are imprisoned. He also talks about the huge cost to the taxpayer. I think those are ways in which you're making the argument that is close to your heart, but you're also trying to show why it is that this is in everybody's interest.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can hear liberals listening to this conversation and say - you know, that's fine, but the fact of the matter is the other side weaponizes words in a way that we cannot cede the ground. And conservatives listening to this conversation might think, they're always trying to label us as racists. And the divide has become so vast in this country that people are listening to a conversation about something like this in totally different ways now.

MOUNK: It is a problem that some people on the "alt-right," for example, use popular discontent with political correctness in order to gain license to spew things that are straightforwardly racist. But I think the right response to that is to have a little bit of a sense of humor, to say, yes, look. We can sometimes be too invested in whether the appropriate thing to say is Latino or Latinx, but you know what? - that's not a reason to deny that we have deep injustices in our country. Come join us in the political fight to make this a country that lives up to its principles better than it does at the moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Yascha Mounk. You can read his piece at The Atlantic website. He's a lecturer on government at Harvard and the author of "The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is In Danger And How To Save It." Thank you so much.

MOUNK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.