Not long ago, on an airplane going from somewhere to somewhere, I had one of those flight attendants who, fancying him or herself something of a performer, delivers a bit of stand-up over the cabin P.A. He spoke in the rapid-fire patter of a harried-but-jocular shoeshine boy from a 1930s talkie. His name was Buster, or should have been. He wore an American flag tie.
As we began our descent, Buster got serious and reminded his captive audience that when we think of heroes, we think of fullbacks or pop starlets. But they ain’t the real heroes, he told us. No, the real heroes why, those are the brave boys in girls in Iraq and Afghanistan putting their lives on the line so the rest of us can sit pretty taking our freedom for granted. And right here, ladies and gentlemen, in the back of this very airplane, Buster said, we have a G.I. coming home from Iraq. So let’s put our hands together, why don’t we, and take a moment to thank one of the real heroes who keeps America safe.
I hesitated to join the applause.
Hadn’t we known for years that the war was predicated on misinformation? Were we all so ready to agree that it was keeping Americans safe? It was, in fact, killing and wounding thousands upon thousands of Americans—many more than were killed on 9/11. Our troops, in turn, have killed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis who did nothing to any of us. Maybe the soldier on the airplane signed up to keep me safe and to protect our freedom. But why should we all have to agree that his choice was free of false assumptions? Why should we be expected to display our gratitude, to put our hands together, for what may in the end be a senseless waste of life and a squandering of national power?
Yet all of this is expected of us. By a flight attendant in an American flag tie. So I hesitated. But sooner or later we all feel the ugly nudge of conformism and make some small surrender to keep up appearances. On that juddering plane descending through the clouds, it seemed worth communicating that I was not, after all, on the side of the terrorists.
So I clapped, lightly. I clapped despite my conviction that we passengers were only encouraging the next cohort of young people to walk into the recruiter’s office, into the next war, with too little reservation. I clapped though I believed that the public praise of martial virtue encourages a martial culture in which war is seen not as a gruesome tragedy but as a stage for the performance of righteous valor. I clapped though such warm and willing applause only reinforces a deeply ingrained American habit of easy patriotism so mindless and self-satisfied that we cannot see the brazen moral relativism of it. This is our war, so it is just. These are our troops, so they are heroes. Even to hint that this is not so is to invite the withering scorn of polite society. I clapped.
In the same vein, responding to the same cultural force, those around Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan failed to divert him from his brutal path for fear of giving offense. Hasan wasn’t hiding the political rage that led to the massacre of 13 at Fort Hood. When he blazed away at his colleagues screaming “Alahu Akbar!” he most certainly was not hiding his embrace of a militant strain of Islam. He wasn’t hiding his vehement opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. He wasn’t hiding his panic at the prospect of deployment or his desperation to leave the Army. If he was hiding his correspondence with al Qaida confederate Anwar al Awlaki, the FBI says they knew about it anyway. So why did thirteen people die at his hand? He wasn’t hiding it.
Political correctness makes us feel bullied, pushed around, afraid to speak our minds, careful with our words. That’s not always a bad thing. We should be sensitive to the way others see things. We should hesitate to give offense. Though we may feel muzzled by P.C., sometimes our silence really is golden. The struggle for social equality is clinched in the awkward pauses of unuttered jokes.
Cultures evolve by constantly redrawing the bounds of the socially acceptable, and we inevitably disagree over where those lines should be drawn. It’s natural to resent one day finding oneself on the wrong side of the line, and to push back against the feeling of being pinned in by social pressure. Conservatives have pushed back by casting “political correctness” as a nefarious plot to wipe out independent thinking. To be “politically incorrect,” then, is to refuse to be silenced by the humorless soft coercion of moralizing popular opinion.
And that’s great. Sometimes we need to get real and tell it like it is. Sometimes we can’t get where we need to go walking on tiptoe. So let’s have some real talk and admit that political correctness can get people killed. Let’s admit that political correctness helps explain why Nadal Hasan was not stopped in time, despite all the warning signs. And let’s admit that political correctness of a different ideological flavor got me to clap on that airplane, that it makes even liberal politicians fall over each other to prove how “tough” they are, that it keeps us from talking about what war really is, keeps new recruits signing on the dotted line, keeps boots on the ground, keeps body bags full.