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In GOP race, a campaign against political correctness

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If there’s anything Donald Trump supporters love, it’s their candidate’s embrace of the politically incorrect.

They are happy — eager — to denounce what they see as hypersensitivity about race and gender, especially by the political left, “elites,” and the media.

Trump’s unapologetic bluntness has drawn coverage from reporters at the expense of his GOP competitors, and it has helped him rise to the top of the Republican field. He’s also used it as a defense against charges of sexism and racism.

“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump said, after a now-famous debate episode when he was asked about unflattering statements he’d made about women’s looks. The audience cheered. He went on to say that he doesn’t have time for “total political correctness.”

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Trump’s emphasis on not being politically correct has his competitors struggling to catch up. As a result, in the early months of this season’s Republican campaign, candidates are as likely to rail against political correctness — or even revel in their own “incorrectness” — as they are to beat the drum against taxes or the Affordable Care Act or Hillary Clinton.

Consider:

■  Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, blamed political correctness on criticism he received after he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he would “not advocate that we would put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” Two days after the interview, he said that “P.C. culture says that whenever you’re asked a question, it has to be answered a certain way.”

■  Ted Cruz agreed with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who suggested that “political correctness” was to blame for his limited screen time during the Sept. 16 GOP debate. Cruz, O’Reilly suggested, was victimized because he is a “hard-right guy.”

■  Rand Paul blamed political correctness on what he viewed as the Centers for Disease Control amd Prevention’s reluctance to talk about the potential for an Ebola outbreak in the United States.

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■  Jeb Bush dismissed critics of Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley after O’Malley caught grief for saying, “Black lives matter, white lives matter, all lives matter.”

“We’re so uptight and so politically correct now that we apologize for saying ‘lives matter’?” Bush asked during a stop in Gorham, N.H., according to the Washington Post.

But what is political correctness, really?

Though the term had appeared earlier, it emerged in the 1980s “as a sarcastic characterization of the attitudes and language expected of a good citizen in the modern multicultural society,” writes Herbert N. Foerstel in his 1997 book, “Free Expression and Censorship in America: An Encyclopedia.”

Conservatives of that era “rejected the preachiness of liberal do-gooders,” Foerstel writes.

The dynamic is similar today, as conversations about race, gender, and sexuality provoke a tug of war over what words are acceptable and who gets to define those, such as “anchor babies” or “Black lives matter.”

Guy Benson, coauthor of “End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free and Fun,” said the emphasis on political correctness comes at the expense of a meaningful exchange of ideas.

“It’s an epidemic of assuming the worst about the motives of whom you disagree,” he said.

Michael Jeffries, associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College, agreed that it can shut down debate in a harmful way — but also said anti-PC sentiment is rooted in a resistance to societal change.

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“People who apply the charge of political correctness are those who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy,” he said.

The popularity of candidates who are not part of the political mainstream, such as Trump, Carson and Carly Fiorina, is part of the same dynamic that makes political correctness detestable to some voters, said Iva E. Deutchman, professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

“I think what people are attracted to is they’re not the traditional politician,” Deutchman said. “The idea is that because you aren’t one of them, you’re free to speak your mind.”

For Republican voters, this is appealing.

In a national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sept. 28, Trump and Carson lead their GOP opponents, garnering 21 percent and 20 percent support, respectively, among Republican primary voters, while Fiorina, a former chief executive at Hewlett-Packard, and Senator Marco Rubio were tied for third.

For these candidates, the determination not to be politically correct, and to have their defiance captured by the media, means being resolute in the face of calls to apologize.

This was on display when Mike Huckabee refused to apologize for a joke he told in February about transgender people, in which he said, given the choice, he would have liked the opportunity to shower with girls if he “felt like a woman” when he was in high school.

Jeffries, a sociologist who studies race, gender, identity, and politics, argues that the damage of this kind of campaign rhetoric is broader than just the potential insult to marginalized groups. Inflammatory speech leads to bad policy, he said.

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For example, Jeffries said, Trump’s August speech in which he mocked Chinese accents (“They say, ‘We want deal,’ ” he told the crowd), could create diplomatic difficulties.

While Benson, a conservative commentator, thinks an obsession with political correctness has negative effects on public dialogue, he does not think it should not be used as a defense against making racist or sexist statements, or as an excuse for people to treat others differently than they want to be treated.

“We make it very clear — this is not a pro-rudeness treatise,” Benson said of his book. “Being needlessly provocative and rude . . . these are not American values, these are not conservative values.”

At least one candidate says he understands this.

During an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Carson said he appreciates the difference between political correctness and being courteous.

“In no way do I advocate, you know, saying mean things about people,” Carson said. “That has nothing to do with political correctness.”

Jill Terreri Ramos can be reached at jill.ramos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jillterreri.