"I gotta tell you something. I'm not politically correct."
That's what neurosurgeon Ben Carson declared at his presidential campaign announcement in Detroit — and boy, talk about an understatement. Politicians are often accused of saying things that aren't so, but this was an example of truth in advertising. Because Ben Carson is right: The newly minted GOP presidential candidate is a lot of things, but whether he's comparing our society to Nazi Germany or ObamaCare to slavery, Ben Carson is definitely not politically correct.
He suggested that prisons turn people gay. He blasted the IRS's "Gestapo" tactics. He warned us not to “jump on the bandwagon of demonizing" Ray Rice. He's said lots of things that are clearly worse than "politically incorrect."
Now, Ben Carson is very much against political correctness in general. He makes a point of saying so. During his famed National Prayer Breakfast speech, he said: "PC is dangerous because, you see, this country, one of the founding principles was freedom of thought and freedom of expression. And [political correctness] muffles people. It puts a muzzle on them. And, at the same time, keeps people from discussing important issues, while the fabric of this society is being changed." That's entirely defensible in a vacuum. But this obsession with being politically incorrect (or worse) could be a big problem for him.
Political correctness is dangerous when it discourages thought or expression. But simply declaring oneself "politically incorrect" — as Carson pridefully does — is not a license to throw off the shackles of protocol and politeness and say crazy, offensive things. It's a cop-out — a get-out-of-jail-free card for someone who doesn't want to discipline his tongue or learn to communicate effectively, but instead wants to promiscuously and cavalierly opine about any old thing that crosses his mind. If you abstain from calling the president of the United States a "psychopath," are you bowing to political correctness, or just not being a jerk?
Sure, Carson gets a lot of mileage by throwing politically incorrect red meat to the base. But if Carson actually wants to advance his conservative ideas, he'd be better off framing them in a way that is more compelling and acceptable to mainstream America. Politics is about more than selling personality — it's also about selling ideas. Selling is the key word. You can't just have great ideas — you have to sell them in a way that a majority of Americans will buy. Carson acts as if the act of softening the sales pitch around his ideas is tantamount to selling out.
Compare Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan. The failed 1964 GOP candidate didn't care what people thought about him. He went around talking about "extremism in defense of liberty." His very slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right," was a tacit admission that he thought he could win by virtue of ideas that on the surface made people uncomfortable — without having to go to the messy trouble of softening his rhetoric. After all, that would be pandering!
Ronald Reagan, conversely, knew ideas had to be sold. He was able to frame his conservative ideas in a way that made him likable and made his ideas appealing. As has been noted, philosophically, Reagan and Goldwater were nearly identical. Yet one man lost in a landslide and the other man won in a landslide. Isn't it better to be a politically correct winner than a politically incorrect loser — especially if being politically incorrect doesn't require you to change your platform?
Part of Carson's problem seems to be that he thinks of himself as a commentator, not a politician. He's talking not as a candidate, but instead, the way a conservative blogger hoping to gin up attention might. This is not about political correctness, but rather about appropriateness, staying on message, and winning.
In many cases, Carson could have been less controversial and more persuasive had he simply stated his positions in more diplomatic (not to be confused with PC) fashion. You can attack ObamaCare without referencing slavery.
And indeed, a surprising number of Carson's gaffes involve either slavery or Nazi analogies. Really, what is he thinking? This is not about political correctness. Those things were so evil that comparisons to them are almost always flawed.
I agree with Jonathan Chait in that political correctness has run amok in America. And I think the left, in its churning, fervent need to add to its running list of all the things that are offensive and unacceptable, ends up looking silly. But even those of us who scoff at the concept of "trigger warnings" and "microaggressions" must also adhere to acceptable polite behavior and protocol. We do this because we live in a civilized society; we do this because we want to advance our message to people who aren't already in our camp. You can't antagonize and endear at once. You have to choose.