Newton’s Third Law holds that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, which may provide the best explanation for what is occurring simultaneously on the left and on the right, on America’s campuses and the campaign trail. In both cases it’s enough to make defenders of the First Amendment curl up in despair.
The campus revolts just keep coming, as students go to ever greater lengths to defend their right not to be upset. This has now gone well past administrators’ labeling texts with “trigger warnings” to help students avoid having to read about difficult topics like racism or rape, or Mount Holyoke’s canceling a performance of The Vagina Monologues for fear of excluding women who don’t have vaginas.
Students at the University of Ottawa protested a campus yoga class, charging that yoga was a form of “cultural appropriation.” At Smith College in November, students associated with the Black Lives Matter movement asked visiting media to declare their support for their cause before they were admitted to cover a sit-in.
This wave of political correctness is born, essentially, of a noble idea. Minority students, facing bullying or belittlement, argue for the need to protect themselves, to create a safe space. As one Yale undergraduate put it, “It’s about creating a home here.” But in creating that space, these advocates risk walling themselves off from the unexpected, albeit sometimes ugly, reality of engaging in pitched debate with people with whom they do not see eye to eye. They are rejecting the sometimes crushing but always formative experience of discovering that you disagree, deeply and fundamentally, with a friend, and then deciding to stay friends anyway. It is a crucial lesson for anyone living in a pluralistic democracy, especially one in which Donald Trump, the human equivalent of a trigger warning, dominates the Republican field.
Which brings us to the equal and opposite reaction. It is tempting to see the popularity of Trump, who has managed in the past four months to insult not only women, immigrants and Muslims but also the entire nation of China and anyone with a disability, as a direct response to the rise of political correctness. Trump supporters argue that, having had to watch carefully what they say and how they say it for years, there is something liberating about a candidate who seems not only to say whatever pops into his head but to delight in the possibility that he’s not supposed to say it. On the campaign trail, Trump often prefaces his most shocking lines with a confrontational preamble: “Are you ready for this?”
But the idea that Trump’s front-runner status is a reaction to the renewed burst of political correctness is also a little too clean. After all, his rhetoric is born of the same impulse: to jettison intellectual engagement in favor of an emotional response, to prize feelings over reason, to intimidate, rather than engage with, those who would disagree.
Conservatives blame what they see as a liberal “culture of victimhood” for the rise of political correctness. If everyone is a victim, they argue, everyone must be coddled and no one can say anything that might offend anybody. But conservatives’ anger at political correctness often stems from their belief that they too are victimized–by the liberal thought police, by mainstream media, by lefties on Twitter all too willing to smear the next luckless pol as racist or sexist or just plain wrong.
Both defenders of PC culture and its critics argue that in order for democracy to work, everyone must feel welcome to say what they think, to engage with the issues that bedevil us as a society. But it’s not enough to restrict speech in order to make people feel safe, and it’s not enough to be deliberately offensive so that people feel welcome to say what they want. Our politicians must actually grapple with solutions. Trump recently lambasted President Obama and Hillary Clinton for refusing to use the term radical Islamic terrorism: “you can’t solve a problem if you refuse to talk about what the problem is,” he said, and went on to use the phrase gleefully, to the delight of the crowd. But when pressed on what he would actually do about terrorism–radical, Islamic or otherwise–he didn’t need to give that infinitely complex challenge a second thought. “I’m going to bomb the sh-t out of them,” he said. The crowd roared.
This appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of TIME.