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What is political correctness really?

Filters are good. They stop us from saying what we shouldn’t when we are cut off in traffic — especially when there are kids in the car. Ideally, they remind us that we should look up the facts before we spout an opinion. They discourage snap decisions rooted in bias rather than knowledge.

They make us pause before we tweet.

Filters are bad. They obscure truth. They encourage spin. They reward the non-answer over the transparent one.

As a journalist, I believe both things can be true.

We loved the video from drones that took us inside the destruction wrought by the Nepal earthquake. The scope was shattering. We loved the bracing debates on view during the compressed British elections, because they seemed so much more urgent and truthful than anything we see in our years-long campaigns.

And in politics, we say we value the plain talkers who seem to be telling us what they truly believe, whether you agree with them or not. We often call this being politically incorrect and cheer its blunt force.

On the other hand…

What is political correctness really? Is it being aware of someone else’s sensitivities? Is it being respectful of an alternate point of view? Is it applying a salve of respect to unnecessary and unenlightening friction?

See there? Now I am arguing for filters. Gauze has its place. The key is to decide when it softens, and when it simply obscures.

It helps to know this in advance as you watch candidates for president roll onto the stage in a rush of plainspoken, populist messaging.

Is Hillary Clinton just another grandma? Or is she a multimillionaire with a gift for the non-answer?

Is Mike Huckabee a former folksy small town preacher from rural Arkansas? Or is he a former Fox News host with a mansion in Florida and a taste for serial campaigns?

Is Ben Carson a gifted neurosurgeon with God’s hand on his shoulder? Or does he so hate politicians that he devalues politics?

I can, of course, go on. Carly Fiorina: anti-Hillary in a good way or a bad way? Marco Rubio: a young man in a hurry or – a young man in a hurry? Jeb Bush: a man bound by his family or enhanced by it?

Beware the filters. There will be plenty of them this year. Sometimes you get all the way to Election Day before you discover how little you know about what kind of president these people might be.

Remember: It’s not up to the candidates to tell you what you need to know. Their job is to tell you what they need you to know. It’s up to you to search out and press for the answers for clarity and transparency.

But beware what you ask for. As the debates begin and the attack ads start to roll out, you might be grateful for a hefty roll of gauze to take the edge off.

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