Karel Dujardin (Dutch), Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles or Allegory on the Transitoriness and the Brevity of Life (1663), National Gallery of Denmark.

There’s a myth that liberal people in places like Berkeley exist in a bubble, ignorant of how “real” Americans think and live.

Bullshit. Although I do have one or two local friends who claim not to know anyone who voted for Trump, the overwhelming majority of us have friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances who not only voted for Trump but hold so-called traditional values and live so-called normal lives. We are exposed to their views every day, if not through contact with them then through interaction with the larger society.

That said, I was surprised during last year’s presidential campaign when many of the “real” Americans I know told me their primary motivation for rejecting the Democrats and voting for Trump (or someone besides Hillary Clinton) was political correctness. It was such a common attitude that I started examining it more closely, asking a few people I trusted not to end the relationship over politics to explain what they meant by the term.

Turns out they couldn’t explain it. For them, political correctness was like pornography for Potter Stewart: they knew it when they saw it. Or, rather, felt it. What it usually came down to was that if someone on the left called them racist, sexist, or homophobic for their views, that was political correctness.

I sympathize. Not even Jeff Sessions wants to be called a racist, sexist, or homophobe. (Okay, you’re right, I don’t know that for sure.) But let’s look at this concept of political correctness more closely.

Based on my own study (necessitated by work), political correctness is a conflation of two phenomena. The first is a demand for respect from people in groups that have been historically disadvantaged. I have no problem with showing that respect, and I suspect most Americans don’t. It’s what we were taught to do from an early age, it doesn’t take anything away from us, and to the extent it causes us to reconsider our assumptions about society, all to the good.

Black Lives Matters seemed a particular sore point for my “real” Americans. I deplore the tactics Black Lives Matter used locally, such as blocking freeways. That’s not how you gain allies, and if your goal is to succeed politically (as opposed to just throwing a public tantrum), you can’t piss people off that way. On the other hand, I have no problem acknowledging that black lives matter. And I don’t understand why other people feel compelled to respond that all lives matter or blue lives matter, or require black people to stop killing one another, before acknowledging that black lives matter. Why so begrudging, especially in the face of mounting evidence that in difficult situations, police are quicker on the draw with black people?

The second aspect of political correctness is the demand for safe space. Progressives obsessed with their group identity insist not just that they be respected, but that they go through life without hearing, seeing, or experiencing anything they don’t like — and if that means violating other people’s right of free expression, so be it. This aspect of PC is way out of line, and I condemn it too. (Go ahead and enjoy your bagel around me; I promise I won’t hold you guilty of cultural appropriation.) And I’m not alone; the great majority of left-of-center Americans, including college students and Barack Obama, agrees that the demand for safe space goes too far. It’s simply not the controversy the “real” Americans I spoke with made it out to be.

So in one form, political correctness is something people of good will should have no problem with, and in the other, it’s something liberals and conservatives should agree on. Which leads me to conclude that political correctness is really just the latest buzzterm invoked by the right wing media to stoke outrage. Remember the gay agenda? Isn’t it interesting how the political correctness bugaboo rose as gay marriage became legal, the world went on as usual, and that imagined agenda lost its power to provoke?

That in turn leads me to question who is living in the bubble. If you don’t routinely interact with people different from you, if you reject science and empirical evidence, if you trust only Fox News, talk radio, and Breitbart for your information, or if you base your political opinions on fear, anger, and resentment, how in touch with the real world are you?

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.