Civility vs. political correctness

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, May 4, 2016

By Charlie Mitchell

They are not the same. Never have been. One is truth-centered. The other is not.

Early on in his run for the presidency, Donald Trump sought to explain or excuse his earthy characterizations of others (fat, ugly, stupid) by saying, “Ya know, there’s just too much political correctness.”

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Well, maybe there has been too much political correctness in America, too much fretting about how words might make someone else feel.

But pushing back against political correctness doesn’t require incivility. Never has. Never will.

In its purest form, political correctness refers to speaking circuitously, often behaving in a false or “pretend” manner.

Dictionaries say someone practicing politically correctness believes that language and actions that could be offensive to others should be avoided no matter what. Political correctness, in that context, is about being deceptive.

On the other hand, dictionaries say someone who is uncivil, whether being truthful or not, is rude, ill-mannered, churlish (great word), disrespectful, discourteous.

It’s perfectly possible to be politically correct and civil, but failure to be civil can’t be laid at the feet of political correctness.

Jessica Blankenship is someone who has thought about this a lot, just not in the context of Donald Trump. She is a writer who has explored what it means to be Southern.

It’s a really good question these days.

Blankenship wrote (paraphrasing just a bit) that being Southern —  specifically being white and Southern — means loving the South without ignoring or apologizing for the shameful parts of its past. “Like, slavery happened, racism is still a big problem, but the South is still amazing, so let’s be honest about our past so we can move toward something better.”

That describes the South as a place where people are open, genteel, accommodating, understanding. They live with truths, don’t gloss over them or explain them away. They smile and mean it. They know there are lots of sins, but think greed is the worst.

What about this other South?

You know, the one in the 1960s and the one today that manifests itself in defense of a flag knowing many citizens can never embrace it. The one that sends lawmakers to state capitals to pass laws that single people out to have rights different from others.

Many recent conversations have begun with, “I have a lot of gay friends, but …” which is very similar to those that begin with, “I have a lot of black friends, but …”

Who are these people? Are they Southern? Are they fighting political correctness by engaging in incivility?

To what end?

Other conversations have couched this as resisting the liberal agenda. “You know how these liberals are. If you give them one thing, they’ll just want something else.”

Things are changing fast. No denying that. But how about this?

Instead of worrying about political correctness (meaning how things will sound or appear) and instead of resorting to name-calling, defensiveness or other incivility, can’t we just resort to the better angels of our Southern roots?

Can’t we just think about whether something is right?

Is it right to continue to fly a flag that contains an image commonly used in the last century to terrorize one-third of Mississippi’s citizens?

Is it right to deny any two people who wish to enter a lifetime contract of mutual obligation the right to do so?

Maybe if “they” are given “that” other issues will crop up. That’s certainly been the history of humanity.

It’s just that as Southerners, it’s against our heritage — yes, our heritage — to be self-centered, self-righteous and such. It’s against our heritage to be ill-mannered and uncivil.

When conversations center on political correctness or who is getting what at the expense of whom, rancor and division will dominate, which is what we’ve seen.

When conversations center on right and wrong, they can be pretty animated, too. The difference is they usually lead to solutions.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at