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'Political Correctness' A Factor In Shielding Police From Accountability, Colby Professor Says

Fred Bever
Maine Public File
One professor argues that some long standing institutions, such as the police themselves, are the beneficiaries of P.C. thinking.

There have been many conversations about "political correctness" - what it means, how it's used, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. Political correctness is often characterized as a left-leaning pretense criticized by those unsympathetic to a position. For example, some have dismissed calls to ban certain racial epithets or certain racist symbols as P.C. But one professor at Colby College argues that some long standing institutions, such as the police themselves, are the beneficiaries of P.C. thinking. Joining Maine Public's Jennifer Mitchell to talk about that was Aaron Hanlon, assistant professor of English at Colby College in Waterville. Hanlon recently wrote a piece in The Washington Post on the matter and started off with an examination of how police benefit from political correctness.

Hanlon: So the main argument is that political correctness shields police and police departments from public accountability and public scrutiny.

Mitchell: Can you give some examples, perhaps, of political correctness regarding the police, especially as we're in this era of renewed calls for racial justice, and there's quite a bit of anger out there?

Yes. So this is something that I think goes back decades. One of the first CDs that I ever bought was from the LA-based rap group N.W.A. There was such a panic about that record, particularly the song "F--- tha Police," which was a protest song about - I mean, it wasn't all just profanity and violence - it was a protest song about racist policing. And it was considered so dangerous to have that record and to listen to that record, to the point where the FBI assistant director actually sent a letter to the record company complaining about the song. And police unions throughout the country when that song came out were passing notes about the lyrics and trying to urge the local precincts to prevent or shut down N.W.A. performances when they were on tour.

The music really touched a nerve with people because it was about violent retaliation toward police for racist policing, and it really crossed the line. And I think we see manifestations of that same kind of attitude in the way that police union heads and personnel have been speaking lately about the protests, as well as the way politicians have been speaking lately about, you know, how it's kind of un-American to criticize the police in the scenario because their jobs are so dangerous that we shouldn't criticize them. We have to walk on eggshells around them.

Do the police have a point, though, that some of the statements that get made, or some of the calls to action - you know, what makes that different than, perhaps, hate speech, you know, that wouldn't fly with another group?

And that is a really good point. And there is a way in which I'm I am sympathetic with some of the responses we've seen from police, verbal responses, talking about being disrespected, and so on. The problem is that the backdrop of those kinds of pleas is widespread video footage of, you know, what looks awfully like unprovoked police violence against people who are trying to exercise their First Amendment rights.

We need to get to a point in this country where we can have a more honest conversation about the value that our police are providing to our societies, into our communities, where we don't have to worry about maybe being called un-American, or, like the Attorney General said recently, insinuating that if you criticize the police, they might be justified in not protecting you. I think we need to get to a point in the conversation where we can talk frankly about those things without that kind of threat looming over people who criticize the police.

And what you just said there about the charge of un-Americanism - I think that's been used in regard to protesters for a long time, whether it's the Vietnam War or conscientious objectors in years past, and you know, a great many things as well. So does it seem fair to say then that you're using "politically correct" in a way that maybe a lot of other people won't think to use it? Their understanding of what P.C. means might be slightly different, and that, in this case, it could be applied to all kinds of other folks like military veterans, for example, or first responders - maybe even nurses in the time of COVID-19. And maybe, you know, in response to certain events, whether it's a pandemic or 9/11, for example, that certain classes of people are afforded more careful, respectful speech because of the challenges that they've been under and the service that they render. Does that sound fair to say?

Yes, absolutely. Political correctness is also something that we have seemingly decided to put on a political spectrum and count as a kind of left-wing thing. We don't examine so much, let's call them the pieties or the preferences of the political right. And I think this idea that police, soldiers, first responders need to be kind of protected in discourse, and protected from public criticism, is a form of right-leaning political correctness that doesn't get a whole lot of attention. There is this feeling that it's kind of distasteful to criticize people who are in a really dangerous or stressful situation if you yourself have never been in that situation. The problem with that thinking is it can end up letting people off the hook in situations where they owe the public better conduct.

Aaron Hanlon, Assistant Professor of English at Colby College in Waterville, spoke with Maine Public's Jennifer Mitchell.