Black and white issue

Barack Obama’s presidency has birthed one of the most deliciously awkward conundrums ever to beleaguer American letters.

Barack Obama’s presidency has birthed one of the most deliciously awkward conundrums ever to beleaguer American letters.

Especially in coverage leading up to his election, media outlets and cultural critics on both sides of the Great Partisan Chasm have found themselves dancing around what boils down to a very straightforward (and extremely awkward) question: Is Barack Obama black or African American?

The media’s waffling between the two terms has been of epic proportions. Read the first paragraph of Amanda Ripley’s Times profile of the then Illinois Senator and he’s “African American.” Skip down to the second paragraph and he’s “black.”

Even the Journal of Black Studies can’t seem to come to a conclusion on the issue that is forever built into the title of their publication.

Bear in mind that the aforementioned are both fairly liberal publications and they’re both suffering from the same problem: the American left’s embarrassing misuse of politically correct language.

Since the term “politically correct” has been used as a straw man at various points (this being one of them, for those keeping track) by both right and left wing pundits, it would do well for me to define it here as the following: Language created specifically for the purpose of reframing a political issue.

For most of the 20th century both American conservatives and liberals have split their time between accusing their opponents of political correctness and becoming red in the face as they stutteringly defend themselves from accusations of the same.

According to the official versions of American party politics, there have been no efforts to reframe policy debates (the logic being that the facts as they are clearly point to our being right, therefore why would we bother reframing them?).

However, a quick survey of political terms reveals multiple (and let’s face it, mostly liberal) examples of this practice in use. We have “African American,” “Native American,” “reactionary” and “differently abled,” to name a few.

Never mind that these terms are often plainly inaccurate (“Native Americans” is used to describe some 562 distinct cultures) they are also directly counterproductive to their supposed goals. If greater equality is one of the country’s foremost public goods, the end of an institutionalized diminutive, then these terms do nothing to help the situation.

However, despite its apparent lack of utility, politically correct language is still employed with such regularity as to become permanently embedded in political arguments.

I would argue that this is because it does serve a purpose, but that purpose is one that has much more to do with those employing politically correct terms than those being labeled by them.

For instance, find someone sleeping under an awning and inform him or her that they are no longer “homeless” but rather “financially disadvantaged.” Observe and record how much their situation is actually changed by this pronouncement. Not a whole hell of a lot.

What political correctness actually does is create the appearance of concern to take the place of the actual thing.
Those who employ politically correct terms are displaying an awareness of a problem—be it racism, poverty or myriad other possible inequalities—and by deploying those terms they create a rhetorical shield to deflect the argument that they “don’t care” or, even worse, simply aren’t aware.

The actual redistribution of wealth required to remedy the problem of “poverty” or “financial disadvantage” would be a messy business in several aspects and though modern liberal elites have proven, on the whole, unwilling to undertake these steps, they still have a marked interest in appearing concerned, an appearance that is, for lack of a better term, politically correct.

While the hypocrisy inherent in this is worth mention in and of itself, what is truly frightening about liberal America’s use of politically correct terminology is that conservative strategists are now employing the same distortions. And they’re working extremely well.

Just as “black” and “African American” have slowly drifted towards interchangeability at the center of American language, so now are “global warming” and “climate change,” “estate tax” and “death tax” and “pro-life” and “anti-abortion” becoming generally interchangeable.

By allowing the political debate to be redefined in service of their own insecurities, liberals have opened the floodgates for wholesale distortion of America’s most widely contested issues.

Still, this practice might fall under the category of “irksome” rather than “frightening” if it weren’t being carried out by people who know full well the consequences of these redefinitions.

The phrase “death tax,” for instance, was in fact conceived of by a conservative marketing firm as a tool to pull public support away from the estate tax increase. It has since been deployed (very effectively, might I add) in persuading middle-class Americans to attack a law that would actually reshuffle financial weight in their direction.

Whether you agree with them or not, these rhetorical hat tricks are fairly impressive once revealed. However, what both their liberal and conservative iterations represent is the dangerous misuse of a very sharp tool.

Language, at its most basic, is a tool of persuasion. (If you don’t believe me ask the ancient Greeks.) Like any tool it can be misused, and liberal America’s deployment of politically correct pseudonyms is roughly the rhetorical equivalent of using a blowtorch to patch a gas leak.

The political discourse in America is already painfully complex and the willful distortion of that complexity is something that threatens to undermine both those practicing it and the parties they seek to help.

The Obama administration marks the emergence of a new era, one way or another, in America identity politics, and if ever there was a time to cast aside the auspices of a failing nomenclature it is on the watch of our first black president. Or first African American president, depending.