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Populist correctness: the new PC culture of Trump’s America and Brexit Britain

Rightwing snowflakes are offended by everything from Kermit to holiday greetings and Starbucks cups

By Arwa Mahdawi / The Guardian / February 19, 2017


An Englishman, a Frenchman and an American man walk into a bar and make whatever jokes they want because – have you heard? – political correctness is dead. Donald Trump and Brexit have sent it to its grave. You can say whatever you like now, offend whoever you like!

Well, not quite.

From the gender-neutral ashes of political correctness a new sort of PC culture has risen. You could call it populist correctness: a virulent policing of language and stifling of debate that is rapidly and perniciously insinuating itself into daily life in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain.

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Populist correctness is the smearing and silencing of points of view by labelling them “elitist” – and therefore at odds with the will of the people and the good of the country. Take, for example, the rhetoric around “remoaners”, which can be summed up as “the people have spoken, so the rest of you should shut up”. Opposing Brexit, Britain’s tabloids tell us almost daily, is unpatriotic and undemocratic. See, for example, front-page headlines such as: “Damn the unpatriotic Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people” and “Time to silence Brexit whingers. Silencing opposing views would normally be seen as incompatible with the freedom of speech conservatives are supposed to hold so dear.

But the cunning thing about populist correctness is the way it dresses dogma up as democracy, invoking a majority consensus of opinion it doesn’t actually command. Theresa May, for example, recently warned MPs not to stand in the way of Brexit, stating: “Now is not the time to obstruct the democratically expressed wishes of the British people.” Strictly speaking, of course, Brexit wasn’t the will of the people. About 17.4 million people voted leave; 16.1 million voted remain; 12.9 million didn’t vote. The wishes of the British people are complicated. The same goes for the US, where almost 3 million more Americans voted for Clinton than for Trump. But populist correctness doesn’t bother itself with inconvenient details. Rather it carves the country up into a neat dichotomy of ordinary people versus the elite.

As well as silencing opposing opinions by branding them elitist, populist correctness works to rebrand ideas, creating a new vocabulary for a new world order. The right prides itself on being straight-talking, on calling a spade a spade, but when it comes to calling a Nazi a Nazi or a racist a racist – well then, things are more vague. They are the “alt-right”, please. Use unacceptable terminology and they will get very angry indeed.

But what’s this? I thought an easily triggered outrage button was the preserve of politically correct liberals? From the vitriol the right heaps on “sensitive snowflakes”, you’d think they have skins as thick as elephants. Far from it: nobody is offended by quite such a wide range of banal things as conservatives. Everything from insufficiently Christmassy Starbucks coffee cups to Budweiser ads to Kermit the Frog’s lack of trousers seems to cause an outpouring of outrage. And, while jokes about minorities or women may be considered just banter, don’t even try joking about white people – that’s reverse-racism! Indeed, many triggered rightwingers recently deleted their Netflix accounts in protest against a new comedy show called Dear White People.

Holiday greetings are another hot-button issue. A survey by Public Policy Polling found “very conservative” Americans were more than twice as likely to be personally offended by someone saying “Happy holidays” to them (21%) as “very liberal” respondents to be offended by someone saying “Merry Christmas” (10%) to them.

Kneeling down can also trigger conservatives. Last year, the American football player Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem to protest against racism. This caused distress to many “patriots”. A conservative post that went viral said: “My heart is exploding, my lungs are without air … my body is shaking, and tears are running down my face. Kaepernick … is refusing to stand for the national anthem.” But liberals are the sensitive snowflakes eh?

Trump is, of course, king of the snowflakes, flying into a rage at any hint of criticism. He has even, seemingly unironically, called for safe spaces. Last year, after cast members of Hamilton politely criticised Mike Pence, he tweeted: “The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

Conservatives are impressively adept at belittling politically correct snowflakes one minute and flying into fits of ideological outrage the next. Snowflakes are to be mocked because they take things personally; their feelings are hurt. The outrage of populist correctness, however, is framed more as righteous indignation. It is not you who is offended. You are offended on behalf of the people. On behalf of your country. Your outrage is morally superior.

The most dangerous thing about populist correctness is the way liberals have been swept into it. Always keen for a little self-flagellation, the triumph of Trump and Brexit triggered a crisis of liberal confidence. Perhaps we have been out-of-touch and elitist, wrote columnist after columnist. Perhaps political correctness did go too far. Perhaps we shouldn’t say “racist”, perhaps we should say “alt-right”. Populist correctness isn’t just making us question our right to dissent, it’s quite literally putting words in our mouths.

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