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How Ben Carson became leader in war against ‘political correctness’

Both Ben Carson and Donald Trump have attacked political correctness on the campaign trail. But for Mr. Carson, it's a core political goal. 

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    Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks during a rally Friday, Oct. 30, 2015, at West Memphis High School in West Memphis, Ark.
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Donald Trump prides himself on saying what he thinks. Mexico is sending rapists and other criminals into the United States? Check. John McCain isn’t a war hero because he was captured? Check. Carly Fiorina’s face and voice make her unelectable? Check.

Mr. Trump has spent his entire presidential campaign making one politically incorrect – or to some, offensive – statement after another, and retains a solid base of support. That’s just Trump being Trump, his defenders say. It’s part of what makes him “authentic.”

But in Trump’s case, violating conventions of public discourse is ancillary to his main selling point: that he’s very, very rich, and knows how to get things done – big things that will “make America great again."

With Ben Carson, fighting political correctness, or the “PC police,” is central to his philosophy. In the latest Republican debate, the soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon turned a question on same-sex benefits into an attack on the idea that because he believes marriage should only be between one man and woman, he’s a “homophobe.”

This is how the left tries to “frighten people and get people to shut up,” said Dr. Carson. “You know, that's what the PC culture is all about, and it's destroying this nation.”

Conservatives’ rejection of “political correctness” is nearly as old as the concept itself, but the 2016 campaign cycle is breaking new ground in how relentlessly leading candidates are pressing this point.

“We haven’t seen it in front-running presidential candidates before,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

PC: A tool of the left?

The term “political correctness” entered the American lexicon in the early 1990s, when campuses began adopting speech codes barring language deemed racially offensive. To proponents, the goal was to protect diversity and instill basic civility. To critics, such boundaries on word choice and discourse signaled intolerance – “a McCarthyism of the left.”

Today, Carson doesn’t just oppose political correctness, he has a well-developed philosophy around the issue, and has become the lead warrior in the cause to expose its perceived ills. Now, with Carson topping national polls for the GOP presidential nomination, the light is shining more brightly on his views. In his 2014 book “One Nation,” the doctor devotes an entire chapter to political correctness, tracing its roots to Saul Alinsky, a left-wing community organizer in Chicago in the mid-20th century. The comparison is seen as a subtle dig at President Obama, who began his career as a Chicago community organizer.

A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson holds his book 'One Nation' as she waits for an autograph during a campaign event at Cedarville University in Ohio on Oct. 22. John Minchillo/AP

Carson’s breakout speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, with Mr. Obama sitting nearby, also took aim at political correctness, as he laid out an alternate vision for health care and taxation. His was a plea for diversity of opinion and the freedom to express a point of view that may be unpopular outside one’s political group.

“What we need to do in this PC world is forget about unanimity of speech and unanimity of thought, and we need to concentrate on being respectful to those people with whom we disagree,” he said.

Trump’s approach to political correctness is less philosophical and more practical. In a recent interview on NBC, he said he could say “fewer things about certain things,” but he wasn’t willing to be so careful. 

"Being politically correct takes a lot of time,” Trump said. “It takes a lot of effort. We don't have time in this country. Our country is really in trouble.”

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg says that those who invoke political correctness are in effect granting themselves permission to say whatever they want.

“It’s a license to say things that at one time would have branded you as a boor or a bigot,” says Professor Nunberg, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information. “Whenever you’re charged with those things, now you can respond by invoking political correctness. That invests the criticisms with a political meaning, and suggests they’re merely the self-indulgent concerns of an elite that’s out of touch.”

Candidates get controversial 

Since his formal entry into politics in May, when he announced for president, Carson has made one controversial assertion after another: He has compared Obamacare to slavery (because it “robs you of your ability to control your own life.”) He has questioned the science around climate change. He has said that the Holocaust could have been prevented if the German public had been armed.

At times, Carson apologizes for his remarks, as with his comment that "a lot of people who go into prison go [in] straight and when they come out, they're gay.” 

But more often than not, he stands by his views.

In addition, Carson gets a pass on some comments because of his race, says Professor Jamieson. “You get a license to speak about slavery when you’re African American that you do not when you don’t have an identity linked to that historical tragedy,” she says.

Perhaps voters should be glad that they are so honest about their views, because at least the public knows what they really think. Inevitably, though, some voters are offended.

“That’s what politeness is – a form of hypocrisy,” says Nunberg. “Civility means often not saying what you think.”

There are also gray zones, some of them very large. Jeb Bush ran into the PC police in August when he referred to “anchor babies” – a shorthand for children born to noncitizen mothers in the United States. Under the Constitution, most such children have a right to US citizenship. The term “anchor babies” implies that the parents will use their US-born children to gain legal status here.

College campuses, too, remain hotbeds of controversy over what constitutes acceptable speech. Just this week, an Israeli academic trying to begin a lecture was shouted down by pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Minnesota. At Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., a student-run group recently canceled a talk by cultural critic Suzanne Venker, after angry reactions from students. Ms. Venker posits that the feminist movement has harmed women.

Not all charges of political correctness are aimed at the left. In his book “One Nation,” Carson writes about conservative politicians who “have also adopted the strategy of feigned offense,” such as when critics blame the second President Bush for the nation’s economic problems. “Hypersensitive conservatives sometimes see bias where it doesn’t exist,” he writes. 

But in the main, it’s liberals – on campus or off – who are slammed for wearing the hat of “PC police.”

What voters think

Many Republican voters applaud Carson and Trump for fighting political correctness – even if certain of their comments are still seen as out of bounds or just plain rude.

“I’m tired of being PC,” says Connie Schmett, a Republican activist in Des Moines, Iowa. “I think we should all just be ourselves, and say what we think.”

Still, Ms. Schmett’s embrace of the anti-PC stance doesn’t extend to the specifics of some comments. She calls Trump’s comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly after the first GOP debate and his criticism of Carly Fiorina’s appearance “very disrespectful” and “not presidential.”

Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina pose before the start of a debate in Boulder, Colo., on Oct. 28. Rick Wilking/Reuters

Perhaps, then, invoking “political correctness” is more about the phrase itself, and less about the specific content – a kind of “dog whistle” that gets conservatives to perk up their ears.

“The idea that the political left and the media are both enamored of political correctness is a stock line of argument in conservative talk radio,” says Jamieson.

And maybe unkind comments (such as Trump’s about Ms. Kelly and Ms. Fiorina) aren’t about political correctness at all. Maybe they’re simply bad manners.

As for Carson, it’s possible that many voters haven’t tuned in to his hit parade of political incorrectness. In a focus group Tuesday night of Republican-leaning “Walmart moms” held in Bedford, N.H., Carson was likened to a “teddy bear,” and described as “nice,” “soft-spoken,” “gentle,” and “caring.” None of his controversial comments came up.

In a separate focus group of Democratic-leaning Walmart moms in Des Moines, Iowa, one woman who is leaning toward Hillary Clinton said she might “switch over” and go for Carson.

“He seems to have integrity,” said Annette, who is middle-aged and works in sales. “He’s more calm than Obama. I don’t see him getting riled up.”

Again, none of the Carson controversies came up.

“I still read a lot of the support for Carson as an anti-politics vote,” says Martin Medhurst, an expert on political rhetoric at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Here’s a guy, whatever his weaknesses may be, who’s not like the rest of them.”

It may be too soon to say that this presidential cycle is rewriting the paradigm for political communication, in which top candidates typically avoid flouting PC conventions. But, Professor Medhurst concludes, “it certainly will if either Trump or Carson were to get the nomination.”

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