In one of the news media’s many embarrassing moments from this past week, CNN’s John King, who went on to incorrectly report that the authorities had someone in custody on Wednesday, initially stated that the suspect was a “dark-skinned male.” King was rightly ridiculed on the internet for his errors, and especially for his comment about skin color. Now imagine, as a thought experiment, that King had instead stated that the suspect was a “white-skinned male.” Would that have been as dire an error? Would the abuse thrown his way have been as strong?
The answer is, of course, no. Al Sharpton would probably not have gone out of his way to call King’s comments “shameful.” King would have been scolded for inaccuracy, but the racial dimension is what outraged viewers. King dug his own grave even deeper by pompously stating that he actually had more information that he would not reveal, and adding, “I want to be very careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things."
Well, yes. They do. And for good reason. It’s hard to imagine any potential damage resulting from King talking about a “white-skinned male.” (Meanwhile, there was a lot of baseless news media fear-mongering about a supposed “Saudi suspect;” a 20-year-old Saudi had attended the marathon and was hospitalized after the blast, but still had his home searched and his character called into question by national media outlets). The week was full of journalists engaging in speculative behavior that went unnoticed, but unless you want to completely remove the potential consequences of speculation from the moral calculus, the subject of the speculation is relevant. The consequences could be a lot worse than just questioning the character of a student victim—and, in turn, the resulting global blowback could be, too. If the King episode contains any value, then, it is to remind people that in times of national emergency or stress, double standards—one form of that dreaded disease called political correctness—serve very useful purposes.
This argument would no doubt disgust much of the conservative intelligentsia, which generally prides itself—in times where, as Bill Kristol put it, we are facing barbarism—on saying what it means (and meaning what it says). Responding to King’s decision to speak only of skin color, for example, Glenn Beck exclaimed, “He’s not going to use ‘other words'? What are those other words? Foreign national, Saudi, Arab? And who is offended by this, John? CNN, look at yourself in the mirror. Who is offended by this? Saudis? Foreign nationals that are bad? Al-Qaeda? Muslim terrorists?” Charles Krauthammer, in a recent column portentously titled ‘The Language of Terror,’ mocked the unwillingness of President Obama to speak of “terrorism” in his initial statements about Boston. Krauthammer didn’t use the phrase political correctness, but his entire piece was an attack on this mindset, which he sees as concerned primarily with the possibility of offending people. Meanwhile Peter King, the New York Republican Congressman, granted an interview to National Review in which he stated that, “We can’t be bound by political correctness.” He went on to call for more surveillance of the “Muslim community,” and generally fret that P.C. will damage us in the war on terror.
Political correctness is a broad term with several meanings, but it generally concerns watching what you say, especially around issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. But it can also express a broader willingness or desire to avoid “rocking the boat” on subjects that affect racial or religious minorities. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the Boston attacks, my Twitter feed was full of white liberals expressing the hope that the suspects were not Muslim. In conversation with liberal friends and family, I heard frequent expressions of angst about the consequences that might result if the attack was in fact perpetrated by “dark-skinned” Islamic terrorists. A Pakistani friend said that her first emotion—after sadness about the victims—was to hope that the terrorists were not Pakistani.
The typical term associated with political correctness is “knee-jerk.” And indeed, everyone has spent time with the P.C. bore who instinctually reacts to every situation in the most “okay” way possible. But not all politically correct responses are so “automatic.” Some of them are reasoned reactions to a society that is still full of racism and bigotry, and in which Muslims have been frequently discriminated against. All one needs to do is read reports like the one from the Center for Constitutional Rights on the various Muslims rounded up after 9/11—solely for their religion—to know that there are costs to speculation and fear (even if, as was certainly true in September of 2001, there was a reason to be scared).
Rounding-up “suspects,” however, was only one reason to have hoped that the attack was not carried out by Muslims, and to voice concern about the press jumping to conclusions. If the terrorists had been militia-men type extremists, it’s hard to imagine racial profiling would result, or that children would have to see their parents strip-searched even more frequently at airports, as the children of many Muslim Americans frequently do. (Bill O’Reilly, confronted with this line of thinking, called it “appaling.”) The terrorists turned out to be Chechen, and although at this moment it doesn’t appear that they were connected to any international terrorist groups, if they had been, the consequences could have been military action in other countries. Of course that could conceivably have been necessary, but it’s not exactly something to root for. In sum, one doesn’t have to be an acolyte of Samuel Huntington to acknowledge there is some sort of grand clash occuring, and that the less fuel added to the fire, the better.
It’s certainly not all that difficult to take this line of thinking too far. There are those who seem to be unbothered by the threat of Islamist terrorism, and those who only seem capable of registering true outrage at American actions, whether they concern the violation of civil liberties, or wars abroad. Christopher Hitchens, after he decided to leave The Nation magazine, spoke of not wanting to write for a place full of “those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”
Recognizing the danger of Islamist terrorism and also worrying over the response to it—and thus perhaps wanting to tiptoe around whatever could possibly cause an offense or overreaction—is perfectly reasonable. We can be aware of the need to call things by their names, and still be wary about the potential consequences of doing so (and not just because of the risks of being wrong). Political correctness may be tiresome and occasionally enraging, but part of the reason that we haven’t, say, interned American Muslims en masse over the past decade is that anyone who suggested such a course of action would be pilloried. After all, that would just totally not be okay.
Follow Isaac Chotiner on Twitter @IChotiner.