We’re living in strange times.
Trigger Warnings emerged from the victory of Donald Trump, an election that exemplified the weird inversion of ideas traditionally associated with the right and the left.
On the one hand, Trump was a boorish billionaire, a man famous for living out crass fantasies of conspicuous consumption. Many of his policies simply crystallised the racial, gender and religious prejudices expressed in Fox News and elsewhere, voicing — more or less openly — xenophobia, misogyny and Islamophobia.
On the other hand, Trump’s supporters understood their candidate as a radical, even a revolutionary: a champion of the underdog, gamely speaking truth to a hostile political class. In particular, Trump was said to be the representative of a working class suddenly finding its voice.
The result in the 2016 presidential election paralleled similarly unexpected outcomes in Britain (with Brexit) and in Australia (with the revival of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation).
In all of these upheavals, a resurgent right proclaimed its hostility to ‘political correctness’.
But what exactly did that mean?
The former NBA basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar expressed a perspective shared by many liberals when he described so-called PC as simple politeness, a worthy attempt to overcome the everyday manifestation of historical oppression. Yes, he said, sometimes it could be silly or annoying but, in essence, what the right dubbed ‘political correctness’ was a matter of common decency, embraced by well-meaning people trying to make the world a better place.
Abdul-Jabbar’s argument illustrated the difficulty that many progressives faced when analysing the shape of politics in 2016. If PC was merely politeness, how could the right build such a constituency by raging against it?
To answer that question — to understand how the right could present itself as radical while painting the left as conservative — it’s necessary to look back at history and to trace the strategic shifts made by progressive social movements since the 1960s.
That’s the project of Trigger Warnings — an excavation of a deliberately-obscured past, without which the current moment makes very little sense. The conservative attack on ‘political correctness’ invariably asserts that the historical struggle against racism, sexism, and similar ideas has gone too far, in ways that alienate ordinary people. Trigger Warnings makes a very different argument: namely, that the backlash against PC shows that such movements need to recover their original radicalism.
Trigger Warnings: political correctness and the rise of the right will be in stores Monday 1 October.