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Transit sign, Toronto March 21 2013. Photo by: Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Transit sign, Toronto March 21 2013. Photo by: Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Globe editorial

The threat of political correctness, real and imagined Add to ...

Has political correctness gone too far in Canada? Are Canadians too quick to take offence? Is Donald Trump’s rise to Republican presidential candidate somehow connected to this?

The Angus Reid Institute, a “not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research organization,” released a poll this week that raised these questions. Its findings are startling and important.

The survey of 1,510 people found that two-thirds of Canadians (67 per cent) believe that “too many people are easily offended these days over the language others use.” Three-quarters (76 per cent) believe “political correctness has gone too far.” Eighty per cent say, “These days, it seems like you can’t say anything without someone feeling offended.”

Clearly, political correctness is on Canadians’ minds. They believe that their language is being policed by unnamed forces. Three-quarters say they routinely hold their tongues in the presence of others, mostly to be polite, but also to avoid negative judgment.

This is odd, because Canada is not a right-wing country, while political correctness has generally been a right-wing concept. It is the weaponized drumbeat of Fox News and the “alt-right” – a virulent right-wing movement followed by people who openly distrust non-white races, and who believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim.

Mr. Trump in particular loves to boast that he is not politically correct, that he “tells it like it is” and doesn’t filter his words to appease “liberal media” and “left-wing” Americans. He believes, or says he believes, that his country is going to ruin at the hands of illegal Mexican immigrants, Muslim terrorists and black criminals who are given free rein by a cowed society that ignores obvious dangers out of a misguided fear of appearing racist.

His dangerous bombast, gobbled up by his followers – some of whom are members of white supremacist groups and leaders in the alt-right movement – is arguably the outgrowth of the charges of political correctness laid by conservatives against the promoters of progressive social movements of the 1980s and 1990s. Many conservatives felt then – not entirely without merit – that efforts to rid universities and other institutions of traditions that were deemed sexist and racist went overboard, and made it impossible to talk honestly about certain subjects. “Political correctness” was a pejorative, and it still is for conservatives – an accusation of censorship, of being unwilling to see the fearsome truth about life.

So why do Canadians, who live in a socially progressive, diverse country, say they feel the same tensions that fuel the right-wing movement behind Mr. Trump?

It could be because what conservatives derided as political correctness in the 1990s has morphed into today’s absurd culture of victimhood, where university students demand “safe spaces” to protect them from ideas and opinions that challenge their world view, and where every slight, no matter how small, requires compensation.

Or perhaps it’s not so much that people take offence too quickly today but that the consequences of their taking offence can be so serious. Anyone who innocently gives offence can find themselves being publicly shamed on social media – a devastating experience that is often vastly disproportionate to the misstep. They may even find themselves in the position of having to defend their jobs.

Perhaps Canadians worry that should they unintentionally insult somebody, and be horrified by what they did, they might not be given the chance to redeem themselves. There is little forgiveness in today’s culture. As a writer in Time magazine put it last year, there are many people who refuse to “recognize the good intentions of those who accidentally give offence, and be charitable and civil toward those with whom [they] disagree.”

We understand why those who fight for equality can be unforgiving. Sexism, racism and discrimination against LGBTQ people in Canada have never been polite things, so how can mainstream Canadian society now expect to be treated with the charity and civility it refused to show to vulnerable groups in the past?

But we also understand that many people of good intention consequently are fearful of speaking their minds, lest it come out wrong and they have to pay too high a price.

These are hard positions to reconcile. If the Angus Reid poll is any guide, many Canadians have decided that the currents in today’s society are forcing them to hold their tongues.

But there is a danger in this, as Mr. Trump is proving. His followers have reacted to what they consider to be political correctness by embracing its opposite to an extreme degree. He and they seek the line between offensive and inoffensive, so they can proudly cross it.

Could it happen in Canada? The undercurrent is there, apparently. Thankfully, there is also an understanding that accusations of political correctness are often the first refuge of the scoundrel. A majority of Canadians (57 per cent) acknowledge that people who exclaim “political correctness!” are sometimes just resentful that their prejudices aren’t acceptable any more.

But there are still a lot of Canadians who feel censored by a force they disparage as political correctness. Who perhaps feel that to advocate for lower immigration, or to raise a question about the treatment of people suspected of terrorist activity, or to bring up any other controversial point of view, simply isn’t worth it any more.

This is not good. We all want a better world, and the only way to get there is through civil discourse. If there are Canadians who feel they are being cut out of important social debates because their opinions aren’t deemed legitimate, this must be addressed. Ideas exist to be openly debated, not shouted down. Otherwise, you end up worse off than before.

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