This was supposed to be a year of revolt against political correctness. A major party nominee’s presidential campaign was based largely (we were told) on the bubbling resentment against restrictions on speech and thought. Millions of Americans supposedly were rejecting the thoughtless demand that they adhere to an elite-approved vernacular. Common sense would not bow to the illiberalism of liberals, who were too busy constructing safe spaces and new pronouns for an ever-expanding alphabet soup of sexuality. This was not about race or gender, they said. Political correctness was the real culprit; it was an ideology of condescension that prevented minorities from dealing with their own social deficiencies, from illegal immigration to Chicago gang culture. A silent majority would no longer be cowed into censoring their thoughts on controversial issues.
At least that was the story until Colin Kaepernick showed up.
Kaepernick, of course, is the backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who began this preseason with a declaration that he would no longer stand for the national anthem as long as racial injustice went unaddressed. That one simple action (or inaction) reverberated throughout the country and brought out torrents of vitriol and hate from the very folks who previously were so defiant about political correctness. Kaepernick has been inundated with hateful and racist attacks and rumors. He was booed lustily before a preseason game in San Diego. The local police union threatened to withdraw security for 49er games in response. And the conservative outlets that ridiculed PC culture and its perverse consequences condemned Kaepernick with a vengeance.
Their objection is a traditional one, which recalls the angry backlash against flag-burning hippies protesting the Vietnam War: the military and police are institutions above criticism and the flag is a sacrosanct symbol of their sacrifice. Fair enough. But if flouting conventional norms of racial tolerance is counterculture individualism and free speech, then how is a small gesture of protest toward a national symbol such an anathema? Kaepernick even made clear that his protest had nothing to do with the military. But even if it had been, why the outrage? What could be more politically incorrect than criticizing the troops?
We’ve seen this before. Among the very first objections to Barack Obama as a presidential candidate was his apparent refusal to wear an American flag pin on his lapel. That observation quickly turned into wild and irresponsible speculation about his national loyalties. Obama’s barely noticeable decision to depart from this sartorial necessity appeared to be a quiet critique that iconography is but an empty gesture when paired with inaction. But even as his campaign insisted that the pin’s absence held no larger purpose, the forces of political correctness insisted on its meaning. In short order, those powers resulted in Obama’s capitulation. The flag came back up, fastened tightly to this very day.
Kaepernick’s silent protest is just a small piece of a larger effort by the politically incorrect to enforce their own version of political correctness. In response to police killings in Ferguson and Baltimore, the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets to oppose the clear, demonstrated racial inequities in American policing. Black men are disproportionately likely to be stopped, harassed, and unlawfully killed by police, a fact supported by both anecdotal experience and statistical certainty. The conservative response to Black Lives Matter, however, has not merely been to disprove this reality or cabin the problem to the actions of a few bad apples. It has been to proudly and defiantly proclaim that “All Lives Matter.” The new phrase’s purpose was to reprimand the Black Lives Matter movement’s insensitivity and exclusion. Taken at face value, “All Lives Matter” is as PC as it gets.
This contradictory rhetoric about political correctness by its most ardent practitioners demonstrates that, though they claim otherwise, people cannot separate process from substance. A displeasing message turns free speech absolutists into censors. Which, of course, raises the question of whether their sometimes devotion to unfettered speech on race is really more about the divisive underlying message of its speaker than the simple right to speak it. And so it is that national politicians can paint all illegal immigrants as vicious criminals and certain cable news anchors can make wild, inaccurate generalizations about black social dysfunction and be heralded as truth-tellers, protected by the angry backlash against an ever-encroaching PC culture. Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick kneels quietly on the sideline with a simple message, victim of a political correctness of a different color.