Image: Paul Lachine / NewsArt.com

Image: Paul Lachine / NewsArt.com

One more GOP debate and I swear I’m deleting my Facebook account. Every time the Republican presidential hopefuls spar on stage, the gap between the conservative crowd I grew up with in Tennessee and the progressive organization where I work in Washington widens.

In the first debate, Donald Trump’s declaration that “the big problem this country has is being politically correct” somehow opened a Pandora’s box of vitriol all over my news feed. It’s as if the brash real estate developer’s statement doubled somehow as a license to vent overtly racist and xenophobic opinions without any self-consciousness or restraint.

A couple of weeks after Trump lashed out at political correctness, one Facebook “friend,” a former volunteer in my middle school youth group, posted a meme. Alongside a picture of a young Arab soldier were these words: “Remember, their kids are training to kill your kids. What are you doing?”

After the second GOP debate, I woke up to comments from a church friend’s buddy. “I will not be forced to learn a foreign language to accommodate illegals in my country,” he said.

Let’s get two things straight. Political correctness isn’t destroying America. And choosing to be respectful isn’t impeding progress, as many GOP candidates and their supporters have implied.

Somehow this pesky term, “political correctness,” has been misconstrued as censorship. On the contrary, political correctness is the careful, intentional language used by people who believe in basic human decency and equal rights. Unfortunately, our considerate behavior is now being used as a weapon against us and as a scapegoat for our country’s problems.

What passes in our society as PC is about more than jettisoning offensive speech. It’s about tolerance and respect.

It’s a social responsibility for those who claim to care about humanity to push back against words and phrases that are not only hateful but extremely dangerous. When I hear Trump say, “I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either,” I hear, “I can’t be bothered with addressing my own racism, sexism and xenophobia.”

Trying to stamp out political correctness strikes me as a front for justifying prejudice. When people with power use hateful speech, even on social media, horrible and destructive things can happen.

Maybe if Trump hadn’t labeled Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, two brothers in Boston wouldn’t have mercilessly beaten and abused a homeless Hispanic man, citing his name. “The people that are following me are very passionate,” Trump said in response. “They love this country, they want this country to be great again.”

Maybe if he stopped writing off women because he doesn’t approve of their looks, The Donald could focus instead on real women’s issues, like access to health care or harsher penalties for violence against women. We don’t need a sexist president who not only objectifies women but also thinks assault is an inevitable result of enlisting women in the military.

It’s not just Trump. We don’t need a racist president who thinks that black people need “free stuff” as motivation to vote, as Jeb Bush did. Nor do we need an Islamophobic head of state who sees, as Ben Carson does, “a huge gulf between the faith and practice of the Muslim faith, and our Constitution and American values.”

Demonizing tolerance by equating “political correctness” and censorship is a copout for presidential candidates. Rather than propose real immigration reform that might actually work, they prefer to feed hate by portraying undocumented Americans as criminals and outsiders who are less than human.

They would rather malign Mexican babies as anchors, and — as Chris Christie suggested — track immigrants like Fed-Ex packages than work on applying citizenship birthrights to all people in this country, regardless of the color of their skin.

Trump is just flat out wrong — political correctness isn’t killing America. And if candidates and Facebook addicts alike want to be viewed as champions of the American people, they need to embrace a little tolerance and evolve.

Emily Norton directs the Next Leaders program at the Institute for Policy Studies.