Social elites have always defined themselves—and justified their elite status—by their manners. I think we must have forgotten this since the word “uncouth” became, well, uncouth. Originally meaning “unknown” or “unknowing,” the word was in common use by the eighteenth century to indicate someone who was unfamiliar with the manners of what was once called “polite” society and therefore at best a doubtful claimant to membership in that society. There was no point to calling peasants or tradesmen uncouth unless they aspired to join, or deal on an equal footing with, the elite, when unfamiliarity with the latter’s ways advertised unfitness for their company. The manners of the postwar American elite do not admit of any such overt exclusions, which are now seen as wrong and undemocratic. But the elite would not be an elite if it did not retain some means of excluding the uncouth—something that it has accomplished in our time by turning its manners into morals.
This is what so-called “political correctness” is all about. Now we are meant to show our fitness for membership in the elite by knowing that you must refer to “people of color” but never, ever “colored people,” a locution which, dating from the benighted past, is deemed to be racist and offensive—as bad as saying “Negro” rather than “African-American,” or “oriental” when you mean “Asian.” You will go to your dictionaries mostly in vain these days if you seek precise definitions of words which have lately become less precise—for instance “lie,” which can now be used to mean a mere mistake—or for formerly “correct” usages which have not been moralized and therefore are routinely debunked as not being “correct” at all. But the dictionaries would not be doing their job if they did not warn you off committing such social faux pas as these and others with the discreet notation: “Considered offensive.”
Offensive, you may wonder, to whom? Not necessarily to the members of those minorities towards whose feelings the dictionaries have become ostensibly solicitous. You may be sure that The Washington Post’s recent discovery that the term “redskin” is not considered offensive by 90 percent of the American Indians it surveyed will not be taken into account the next time the dictionaries are revised. That is because the feelings that matter are not those of the minorities alleged to be offended but those of the elite who have moralized our linguistic manners so as to be able to exclude the unwanted and the uncouth—that is, those who do not signal their fitness for inclusion in it by adopting the elite’s vocabulary. Lacking the means of excluding such people merely on social or aesthetic grounds, the elite must turn the social and aesthetic into the just and ethical so as to be able to exclude them on moral grounds.
This, you may have noticed, is more or less the story of the media’s behavior to Donald Trump over the past year. He is a man who has taken little care over whom he offends because, up until now, he has had no need to cultivate the favor of the elite. In this, he is unlike those conservatives who, resisting cultural ghettoization, have adopted elite ways and elite vocabulary—not that that has prevented them from being called “bigots” and “racists” on a more or less regular basis. The Trump candidacy has provided these conservatives with a heaven-sent opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the elite by joining in their chorus of abuse directed at the bouncing billionaire and so adopting the moralistic approach to political life that has so often been used against themselves.
Imagine their frustration, then, when they find not only that Mr. Trump is unscathed by their anathemata but that their bid to join the elite coincides with a popular reaction against the elite. Unsurprisingly, they don’t know what to make of it and only redouble their accusations against “the Donald” of bad faith and bad morals as if—by repeating them often enough, they could teach his supporters to care about such things, even though they have shown over and over again that they don’t. The opportunities for amusement among those who can see what is going on are frequent. This morning, for example, Chris Cillizza of The Washington Postasks in all seriousness if it isn’t a problem for Donald Trump that he isn’t “empathetic.” He, of course, is using the word in its standard elite meaning of “showing sympathy for those of approved victim status.” It never occurs to him that it is precisely his empathy with those to whom the elite has denied victim status that is the key to his success. And they recognize the empathy from the fact that he is as uncouth and as unwelcome among the elite as they are.