DEAR MISS MANNERS: In the light of rude comments made by political candidates under the guise of not being politically correct, could you please explain how to be polite without being politically correct?
GENTLE READER: Good question. As modern usage of the term "politically correct" has meant refraining from delivering wholesale insults to groups of people, that would be difficult.
The usual defense by those who express nastiness is that they are being frank and honest about what they think. As indeed they are. But that does not make their spoken opinions any less nasty.
When much of the public stopped tolerating hate talk, Miss Manners was thrilled. It became her favorite counter-example to those who believe that etiquette has steadily deteriorated since the days of King Arthur -- or at least their own vaguely remembered childhoods.
But now this tremendous advance is being threatened by both detractors and supporters of political correctness.
Those who scorn the term declare that political correctness is a danger to our constitutional right to free speech, which Miss Manners, like all Americans, holds sacred.
No, it is not. Surely you have noticed that lots of people are exercising their legal right to spew obnoxious thoughts, and there are no legal reprisals. Etiquette relies on voluntary compliance.
True, there are social reprisals. Those who seize their right to be offensive should not be shocked that others take offense.
But name-calling is not conducive to debate. All serious arenas of conflict -- legislatures, courtrooms, athletic contests -- have rules against this. That is necessary because holding opposing goals and debating actual issues require treating opponents with respect.
Yet even that has been perverted by some of the proponents of political correctness. An aggressive form of what calls itself sensitivity -- and yet attacks people for perceived slights when clearly none were intended -- is, itself, insensitive to the point of rudeness.
Miss Manners is particularly discouraged when such people try to extend the ban on bigotry to cover topics they might find upsetting, even for reasons of private experience. This would reduce meaningful discourse to universally approved issues, presuming that such things existed.
What these critics and proponents of political correctness have in common, besides an ugly presumption of ill-will in others, is an inability to imagine, much less strive for, a civilized society in which sincerely held differences can be safely aired.
The resulting confusion is that many people deplore political correctness when they only mean to declare that they support the principle of free speech and dislike arrogance disguised as sensitivity.
That blanket condemnation puts them in the position of defending cruelty, vulgarity and bigotry. So she suggests that everyone take a look at the content of what is said in the name of eschewing political correctness -- is it expressing something nasty? -- and judge political candidates accordingly.