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Exploring 'Political Correctness,' Or Lack Thereof, In The 2016 Election


Remember Howard Dean's victory yelp the Dean scream and Mitt Romney's binders full of women? It was a big deal at the time, but it all seems quaint when you consider the ways this election has upended norms for public discourse. This year, we've been treated to Donald Trump's harsh descriptions of women, including his opponent whom he called a nasty woman. On the other side, Hillary Clinton went on the attack calling some of Donald Trump supporters deplorable.

But it's noteworthy that for some people this kind of speech is part of the draw. We wanted to talk more about this, so we called someone who thinks deeply about political speech. Kathleen Hall Jamieson is professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania. And we reached her at her home office in Philadelphia. Professor Jamieson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: So the first question I wanted to ask is about that term - politically correct. What do you think it means?

JAMIESON: I think what is generally meant by it is a designation for a category of language in which there is unwarranted sensitivity to someone's feelings, and as a result, some topics are taken off the table.

MARTIN: And when you hear Donald Trump supporters that one of the reasons that they say they like him is that he's not politically correct. What do you think that they're saying?

JAMIESON: I think they're saying two things. First, Donald Trump is signaling that he is a candidate of change by breaking all of the discourse norms, and in the process suggesting that everything is on the table for him. Donald Trump is making the argument that in some cases because those of the opposing side will not use certain language, they can't deal with certain problems. And so he is arguing that by breaking through political correctness, he is able to offer solutions that are off the table if you can't use the labels he would apply.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the times, though, when the phrasing seems to have backfired. It does appear that his phrasing of, you know, Hillary Clinton is a nasty woman which he used in the last presidential debate does not seem to have served him well. I mean, Clinton supporters latched on to that phrase, and they've actually started selling, you know, T-shirts. And it's become kind of a rallying cry for them. I'm wondering why you think that is?

JAMIESON: Because when you engage in what was traditionally called ad hominem attack and when it's an attack on a woman, we probably should call it ad feminam attack, what you are basically doing is inviting all of that person's constituents to identify with the person who's been attacked. This is the kind of discourse that traditionally we have said violates the norms of discourse because it attacks the person, not the person's positions or the person's policies.

MARTIN: So now let's wheel around and talk about basket of deplorables. I mean, this is something that she has since apologized for, but a lot of people thought that was inappropriate. I'm interested in, first of all, on your take on that. I know that the Clinton supporters would say that that's a false equivalency, but nevertheless it was insulting.

JAMIESON: There's another rule in politics which is you can disagree with the supporters of your opponent, but don't characterize them in personal terms either. And that comment appeared to do that in a national stage able as a result to be repeated in media. So the question becomes when someone does that, does that characterize the person? Is that who the person is? And to Hillary Clinton's credit, she did apologize for the statement. I hope after the election is over, those on both sides will step back and ask how do we have the kinds of discussions that we didn't have this year so that in the future we have a higher level of legitimate discourse and a discourse that isn't as alienating?

MARTIN: That's Kathleen Hall Jamieson. She's a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She was kind enough to let us disturb her Sunday at her home office in Philadelphia. Professor Jamieson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JAMIESON: It's good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.