In the thirteenth chapter of the Analects, a disciple informs Confucius that the ruler of Wei wants Confucius to run the government. “What will you consider the first thing to be done?” asks the disciple.
Confucius answers, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”
The callow disciple mocks Confucius and demands to know why such a concern would be paramount.
After admonishing the disciple to show a “cautious reserve” in unfamiliar intellectual terrain, Confucius explains that “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” (I’m using the James Legge translation.)
About a century later, at the other end of the Eurasian landmass, Plato was contemplating the uses and abuses of argumentation. In Book VII of The Republic, he distinguishes between the dialectician, “who is seeking for truth,” and the eristic, “who is contradicting for the sake of amusement.” (Benjamin Jowett’s translation.) The eristic’s argument lacks merit because its goal is not to arrive at truth, but to refute an opponent and thereby preserve adherents’ ignorance. In the Phaedrus, written at about the same time, Plato delves into rhetoric, the art of argumentation and persuasion. He likens rhetoric to health care: just as a doctor must use scientific principles to determine the right medicine and food for a patient, so must an advocate use “the right application of words and training” to produce a desired conviction or virtue.
So the preoccupation over what to call things and how to properly discuss them didn’t first arise ten or twenty years ago among so-called social justice warriors, who then invented political correctness. It is a foundational concern of civilized societies.
American political correctness has long been conflicted. Despite the “all men are created equal” aspirations of the Declaration, the Constitution explicitly denied full citizenship to African-Americans, and prior to 1920, almost all states denied women the right to vote. Women and African-Americans comprise close to sixty percent of the population, yet they didn’t truly begin their journey toward equality in the community and workplace until the 1960s.
Some people weren’t able to handle that change, and developed their own, coarse brand of political correctness, which also predates the origin of social justice warrior PC. As a kid in the late 1960s, I remember their bumper stickers and signs, which read “America: Love It or Leave It.” Even at that age, I knew that was code for “shut the fuck up about civil rights and Vietnam or move to Russia, you weaklings.”
That brand of political correctness reared its hideous head again yesterday, when the president of the United States held a celebration for a football team without the football team. None of the Philadelphia Eagles had protested the national anthem during the season, but they exercised their right to object to the president’s conflation of patriotism with standing for the anthem, and to his suggestion that players who stay off the field for the anthem — a literally out-of-sight protest! — shouldn’t even be in the country.
Under this definition of patriotism, devotion to national symbols — flag, anthem, etc. — is more important than devotion to national principles, such as the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (Or, in this instance, to not assemble.) No wonder this president, his lawyers, and his base can so easily entertain the notion that “by virtue of his position as the chief law enforcement officer, [his actions in connection with the Mueller investigation] could neither constitutionally nor legally constitute obstruction because that would amount to him obstructing himself.” They seem to have forgotten the reasons for the American Revolution.
If we’re going to retain any semblance of democracy, the first thing we need to do is rectify names. Let’s start with what Donald Trump calls patriotism. Its real name is authoritarianism.