Some describe political correctness and its institutionalized efforts to make people believe or only express party line or popular or mythical "non-offensive" viewpoints, as a "witch hunt." It's an interesting comparison. On the one hand of the comparison is the historical witch hunt where state power led to the murder of innocent people (to include Americans), and on the other hand of the comparison is the hyper political desire to root out some fuzzy and ill-defined conception of politically incorrect topics.
One of the more famous witch hunts, at least to us Americans, happened on American soil in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1690s. What started as a rumor became an accusation, a ball started rolling and people in positions of power could not be on the wrong side of accusations and so legitimacy was given to claims that one person or another was turning themselves into diabolical creatures and taking on the form of animals and engaging in ritual with the Devil and engaging in black magic. The hysteria built and soon it was out of control. Even those in positions of power were accused, and accusers also found themselves accused, and what started off as rumor quickly became a wildfire leading to the deaths of many innocent Americans who, in fact, had not taken the form of a cat or communed with what Al Qaida cave dwellers (and others stuck centuries behind in their development) refer to as a literally existing Devil. Mass hysteria ensued, and one writer from the time, Robert Calef, discussed the events as:
And now Nineteen persons having been hang'd, and one prest to death, and Eight more condemned, in all Twenty and Eight, of which above a third part were Members of some of the Churches of N. England, and more than half of them of a good Conversation in general, and not one clear'd; about Fifty having confest themselves to be Witches, of which not one Executed; above an Hundred and Fifty in Prison, and Two Hundred more accused; the Special Commision of Oyer and Terminer comes to a period.
It's interesting that those who just "played the game" and confessed to being witches in the face of idiot accusations, were sent to prison rather than killed. But those with integrity who refused to lie in response to the accusations of the irrational-superstitious who found themselves in a position of power, were simply executed. Those who denied the claims were murdered. Those who said "you got me, I'm a witch" were spared. It's a power issue and woe to the person who is right and has integrity and who challenges stupidity with their "smart" mind, and who always has to get the last word in claiming their innocence in the face of accusations. Death!
In the modern world, we know that such ghosts-and-goblins accusations, politically powerful and effective as they were at the time, were ridiculous and the product of irrational, or insane, or opportunistic immoral minds. And yet people who should have known better, went along with these accusations and major injustice occurred on American soil.
So why is a desire to enforce "politically correct" speech so often described as a "witch hunt?" Certainly in the military, we have rules and regulations that spell out proper and improper conduct. It is also true that our regulations often leave a massive gray area to allow commanders to punish a wide variety of conduct using administrative & non-judicial (key phrases, as in "non-due-process") punishment. What exactly is "good order and discipline?" What are the elements of "conduct unbecoming an officer?"
It seems to me that part of the comparison, as it refers to the military "I'm Offended By That" Culture has to do with the lack of due process (at least for administrative & non-judicial punishment) that characterized the Salem Witch Trials. Reasoning and evidence do not matter. An accuser need not rationally or reasonably explain anything. All that matters is an accusation and people in power positions not wanting to be on the wrong side of an accusation (ie they didn't want to get accused of defending a witch). This leeway and punitive discretion is necessary for commanders to run their units without being bogged down by due process requirements at critical times, but it does present a framework where political correctness can grow like a cancer unchecked by common sense.
Due process simply means that a fair hearing is required, where the accuser presents evidence of the crime and evidence of the damages and the accused can defend him or herself. Due process is guaranteed to Americans by our Fifth Amendment, and this guarantee is without a doubt informed by the Founders' understanding of religious persecution both in Europe and on colonial soil. The "witch hunt" label conjures up (pardon the pun) the idea of lack of evidence and reasoning. The offended need not explain why they are offended, or what damage their inability to remain un-offended has caused anything, but rather they simply need voice their personal dislike of something by using the magical O-word. They can mask personal vendettas or religious discrimination or political differences in a veneer of validity by choosing the right buzzwords. Those in power positions in a politically charged and/or religious environment take note of the climate, and do not wish to be accused themselves of harboring or defending a witch or an "offense giver." As in Salem, their allowance of hysteria not only hurts the common folk but also puts themselves at risk despite their attempts to hedge their political bets. The official nod certainly turns the whole town into a bloody mess.
The main factors of the Salem Witch Trials, according to one essayist, "were politics, religion, family feuds, economics, and the imaginations and fears of the people." I believe these same motivations are often employed in our own Jimmy Kimmel-Super Bowl half-time show-day-time soap opera-Chris Rock watching society to target others one person simply doesn't like, by justifying their dislike with the diabolical crime of "giving offense" via mundane comments. Otherwise a time machine would have to exist, which leaves behind our modern world of neon lights and President Obama's great comments on self censorship and modern sitcoms, and lands itself back in late 1600s Massachusetts.
It's an odd time machine for sure, that serves some among us who have all the trappings of modernity and yet mentally appear to be transported from time to time back to the value system of a superstitious Taliban-esque cave dweller who still stares at fire with a puzzling look and thinks it's magic. We must realize that hysteria and irrationality and stupid ideas (which can quickly turn to evil on a massive scale) are still alive and well among us sane people today. iPhones and genetically grown ears and 3D printers do not change the fact that these weakest-links live among the rest of us and "feel" things and want to impose their unenlightened feelings on others, and yet can't provide a rational, let alone persuasive, argument why.
Then or now, there is no real explanation of what items are offensive or bad or evil that you're not allowed to say, and the clergy of the Order of the Offended still maintains that they shouldn't have to make a list and staple it to your chest for you to know, and they don't wish to engage in a rational discussion on what is verboten or why. But as is said by the wise man in the link above, a list does you no good, because it's always somebody else's list that you're not given that is the "problem" and even their list changes from day to day.
In the military we have an official list. Our regulations spell it out. No discrimination, no sexism, no racism, no homophobia. But others are not satisfied with that list, and want to enforce on others their own secret and undefinable list. If you don't know that list, then you lack common sense and if you don't get it, they can't explain it to you. You are expected to read their minds and know what they don't like and tailor your words to make them personally happy. That mirky list of "bad" words and subjects that the Offended refuse to share with those who offend them, is their sacred and secret text. Were they to share the list then others would change their behavior and they would lose out on their prized ability to claim offense and watch others tremble in response.
In our service such irrational hysteria feeds on the fears of people who are unwilling to take an unpopular stand, and it only degrades the mission. Self censorship as President Obama discusses, beyond the limits presented by our UCMJ and regulation (and there is no regulation that prohibits military members from offending others), degrades morale and trust in an organization and prevents out-of-the-box brainstorming of solutions to difficult problems. What starts off as one person making an accusation in a To-Kill-A-Mockingbird fashion, ends up with injustice for individuals and destroys the ability of a military organization to carry out its mission. It destroys the basic trust and morale required for real combat operations (notably real combat units do not suffer from culture of offense hysteria), and it does not offer up hope for resiliency. Folks fearing that something they say might cause career destroying "offense" to a person (perhaps one competing for a school slot with them) and lead to an unreasonable and unsubstantiated complaint that simply rests on the claim "I'm offended," does not further the defense of our nation.
Such a self-censoring situation is the nightmare scenario of Crew Resource Management (CRM) which concerns itself with mission accomplishment and boasts the need for a thick skin and free information flow. CRM demands members across ranks and positions not self censor.
Until recently, and some may claim it's the same today, American warfighters were renown for having thick skins. How could it be otherwise in an organization that literally disintegrates humans and blows their arms and legs off from the air? But that may change with a hysterical wave of political correctness. As an article in the American Conservative, Tyranny of the Offence-Takers, relays from Christian theological writer, Alastair Roberts:
One of the immediate effects of the culture of offence is to encourage the thinning of skins, and the raising of sensitivities. Persons are trained to be suspicious to the point of paranoia of all differing viewpoints, a suspicion that enables them to put the worst possible construction on the words and actions of their opponents and critics. Far from representing a triumph of critical thinking, these hermeneutics of suspicion tend to reproduce the same threadbare analyses that have been applied on a myriad previous occasions and create a sterile groupthink…
We would do well to stamp out such irrational, unsupported accusation-is-all-it-takes hysteria from our organizations whenever we see it. Fortunately our service has done so in one very interesting area.
Sex. The most taboo of subjects.
The official Air Force website linked above includes an article, "Summit Prepares Airmen to Talk About Sex" and states:
The president and founder of the Date Safe Project spoke frankly about sex at the Sexual Assault Prevention Summit Jan. 14, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Mike Domitrz conversed with the 150 Airmen in attendance about how to talk authentically and effectively about sex...
For the paradigm shift to take place, Airmen must become comfortable with the subject, and be willing to speak authentically from their own experience. The way Airmen talk about sex matters. People like to talk about sex when it is positive, Domitrz said. “What if our number one priority is mutually amazing intimacy?” Domitrz asked. “How would that shift the conversation and education?”
While the problem shows up in the culture, the change will occur at the individual level. Domitrz challenged the audience to take every opportunity to provide others a tool that could change their life. Every person you try to impact is their own human being, and it is important to start by at least laying a foundation, Domitrz said.
The once irrationally taboo work place discussion of sex has been replaced with mandatory and regular training where those in the service are required to be part of a group conversation about sex (whether they choose to speak or simply to just listen to others talk about sex in their presence, at work, in a large meeting and in smaller discussion groups). What about sex is good, when is it not good, lines and continuum, what is consensual, what is okay and what is not okay. It's an uncomfortable subject for some in the service to discuss depending on their level of maturity and life experience. Training appears to mandate that the "you may be uncomfortable" disclaimer be presented at the beginning of the recurring SAPR training. Still the training is required.
That would have been unthinkable decades ago at the hands of the Offense Takers. It's just not appropriate to talk about sex at work, they would say, and they might tell you that if you don't understand it then they can't explain it to you. You should just know why.
The correct response to such people is... Grow up. We don't need children in the business of providing airpower to protect America. Perhaps a paper route or a lemonade stand would better suit you.
Good on the Air Force. This is a positive development and it's a maturing experience that allows service members to become more adult, despite the challenges they might bring from their personal upbringings, and it allows more mature professionals to better tackle real issues that plague our service including the very real issue of sexual assault and abuse of power.
Except, perhaps, in the minds of the "I'm Offended By That" Culture. We're not 1690s Massachusetts anymore, and we should be happy about that.