What Kind of Political Correctness Do We Want? PC culture has become a problem, but jettisoning all political correctness is untenable

Am doing some thinking regarding political correctness and other phenomenon (identity and dog whistle politics, snowflakes, virtue signalling, tone policing etc) with a view to understanding how these are practised by both the right and left. One article that caught my eye at this stage:

We can easily think of many obsolete expressions, particularly slurs, to which thoughtful people have rightly said, “good riddance.” It’s a sign of progress that we can no longer use such speech in polite company. But it’s worth noting that the project of sensitizing language is open-ended, lacking any natural end point.

Language can always be made more sensitive, though it’s not clear it always should be. If the norms become too restrictive, or are enforced too severely, important discourse will be suppressed — especially when the norms are ideologically charged. How we should strike the balance between sensitivity and freedom in language is a central theme in debates about political correctness.

What is “Political Correctness”?

The term “political correctness” was once used unironically to describe the kind of orthodoxy good comrades in the Soviet Union and Maoist China were supposed to live by. George Orwell refers to this notion of political correctness in his “Principles of Newspeak,” the appendix to 1984.

In the 1980s, conservative intellectuals adopted the term as a hyperbolic description of a new kind of speech control on the left. The use of “political correctness,” or “PC,” in that sense persists today. A Google search turns up a good definition:

The avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

This definition allows that political correctness isn’t inherently extreme; sometimes it may be appropriate. It also allows that conservatives may be PC enforcers; some of the recent criticism of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for remarks perceived as anti-Semitic may be an example. However, not all efforts to control expression in order to avoid giving hurt qualify as PC, since not all are primarily concerned with marginalized groups. Criminalizing the burning of the American flag would be censorship, but not political correctness.

Finally, note that opposition to perceived excesses of political correctness does not entail condoning bigotry. It’s perfectly consistent to be opposed to racism and sexism and to be concerned about the excesses of anti-racism and anti-sexism. By way of analogy, there’s no contradiction in saying that disease is a bad thing, but so is obsessively washing your hands hundreds of times a day. The worst aspects of the left’s anti-racism and anti-sexism fervor are obsessive in this way, except that the concern is mostly with washing other people’s hands.

Why does “Political Correctness” Matter?

Not long after the term’s reintroduction and popularization, “political correctness” became a major cultural fault line in American politics. In 1993, economist Glenn Loury wrote that political correctness “has replaced communism as the primary locus of partisan conflict in American life.” According to a study with over 8,000 participants described in The Atlanticlast year, 61 percent of self-described liberals, 97 percent of self-described conservatives, and 80 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “political correctness is a problem in this country.” Even 30 percent of progressive activists agreed.

Skeptics see “political correctness” as a distraction that serves the interests of right-wing politicians. Unsurprisingly, politicians will capitalize on whatever resentments exist. The charge that people who reject political correctness are bigots also has, in many cases, a grain of truth. That is why online platforms that advertise themselves as anti-PC, such as Gab or 8chan, quickly attract extremists (see also here). But it’s hard to believe that all of the antipathy toward political correctness, including from avowed anti-racists, stems from bigotry first and foremost.

Conservatives exaggerate the peril of certain aspects of the PC problem — such as “no-platforming” un-PC speakers on college campuses. Sometimes, a person invited to speak at a university is prevented from doing so by threats of violence — and sometimes actual violence — or pressure to disinvite him or her. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) maintains a database of all disinvitation efforts since the year 2000 that have come to its attention. Although these episodes contribute to political polarization, they are relatively rare, and generally don’t impede discourse in a serious way. If Ben Shapiro is no-platformed at the University of California-Berkeley, he can still address millions of people on his podcast the next day.

But subtler manifestations of political correctness turn out to be more sinister. As Glenn Loury writes:

For every act of aberrant speech seen to be punished by the “thought police,” there are countless critical arguments, dissents from the received truth, unpleasant factual reports, or nonconformist deviations of thought that go unexpressed, or whose expression is distorted, because potential speakers rightly fear the consequences of a candid exposition of their views. As a result, the public discussion about vital issues can become dangerously impoverished.

People are reasonably risk averse when it comes to their careers and reputations. Hence the visible punishment of a few people for deviant views may induce many people to keep quiet, distorting public dialogue. In his essay, “Why People are Irrational About Politics,” the philosopher Michael Huemer observes:

The problem of political irrationality is the greatest social problem humanity faces. It is a greater problem than crime, drug addiction, or even world poverty, because it is a problem that prevents us from solving other problems. Before we can solve the problem of poverty, we must first have correct beliefs about poverty, about what causes it, what reduces it, and what the side effects of alternative policies are.

PC excesses matter because they have the potential to derail rational discussion, which remains our best hope for dealing with the problems we face.

Worrisome Manifestations of Political Correctness

Instead of giving a roll call of recent PC flare-ups, I will mention three types of incident that encourage self-censorship.

1 — Politically motivated firings or coerced resignations
In 2006, Lawrence Summers stepped down from his post as president of Harvard University. In 2013, Brendan Eich resigned as CEO of the Mozilla Corporation. In 2017, software engineer James Damore was fired by Google.

Summers’s resignation was largely due to the backlash against a 2005 speech he gave arguing the idea that the underrepresentation of women in some fields may be explained in part by different distribution of cognitive skills. Damore had written an internal memo that criticized Google’s diversity policies (in response to a request for input) and similarly emphasized sex differences as a factor in the shortage of women in tech jobs. Eich had come under fire for donating a few thousand dollars in support of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, a few years earlier.

Each of these men articulated mainstream views. Barack Obama was officially opposed to same-sex marriage for a few years after Eich made his donation; Summers and Damore cited peer-reviewed scientific research in support of their views. These episodes signal that it’s possible to lose your job for expressing views, or endorsing causes, that are out of step with the micro-culture at your place of work. Even CEOs and presidents of elite universities can be punished for deviance; indeed, their high status might even make them more attractive targets, politically.

Political firings thus encourage self-censorship and groupthink in some of the world’s most powerful institutions. Moreover, these episodes invite a kind of populist backlash we should be worried about. Why shouldn’t conservatives be skeptical of elite institutions if they realize that no one who agrees with them is allowed a place at the table? Why shouldn’t they be skeptical of academics’ conclusions about climate change, or anything else, if they perceive that dissenters can be defenestrated on political grounds?

2 — Blacklisting
Katja Thieme, professor at the University of British Columbia with over 4,000 Twitter followers, retweeted a tweet harshly critical of Quillettemagazine, adding: “YES. If you’re an academic and you publish in Quillette, we see you. We fucking see you. And we are looking right at you” (three emoticons of eyes added effect). Another professor, Terry Bridges, commented on the thread: “It would be nice to have a list of Canadian academics who have published in that shitrag.” This prompted a strong reaction from many Quillette writers and fans.

Presumably, no one would say “we see you” three times in succession, or talk about drawing up a list of names in this context, for idle purposes. Interpreting this as a threat against academics who write for Quillette seems reasonable. Some of Thieme’s defenders pointed out that conservatives also make lists of names of academics they don’t like (e.g., Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist). The main difference is that conservatives aren’t in a position to dominate hiring searches and promotion decisions in the way that progressive professors are.

Thieme’s defenders responded that there’s no evidence that any anti-Quillette blacklist actually exists. But Quillette writers don’t know that such a list doesn’t exist, or that it won’t soon be created. There’s also precedent for this kind of behavior. Transgender activists in the U.K. were recently accused of creating a secret online list shaming professors who disagreed with their views on gender identity. The Times of London reports:

The online forum, seen by The Times, also revealed that members plotted to accuse non-compliant professors of hate crime to try to have them ousted from their jobs. Reading, Sussex, Bristol, Warwick and Oxford universities were among those deemed to have “unsafe” departments because they employed academics who had publicly disputed the belief that “trans women are women” or questioned the potential impact of proposed changes to gender laws on women and children….

How this encourages self-censorship among academics should be obvious.

3 — Twitter Mobbing
There are many forms of social media mobbing, but one subgenre seems especially noxious: online “social justice warriors” getting their hands on advance copies of young adult novels and denouncing them for various forms of bigotry, triggering a pile-on. Often, these attacks target debut works. Four such recent controversies have involved The Black Witch by Laurie Forest, American Heart by Laura Moriarty, Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao, and A Place For Wolves by Kosoko Jackson.

Although the complaints often have little substance, publishers, reviewers and authors seem easily intimidated. Kirkus Reviews apparently changed a review of American Heart, removing a star and adding a line about identity concerns, after Moriarty was accused of promoting a “white savior narrative.” Moriarty said in an interview that her publisher, Harper Collins, nearly dropped the project as a result. In response to the social media campaign against The Black Witch, Kirkus published an essay by editor Vicki Smith that ostensibly defended a positive review of the book but spent an inordinate amount of time acknowledging the critics’ concerns.

Jackson’s case was ironic, since A Place for Wolves had been promoted under the Twitter hashtag #OurVoices and was supposed to be a model progressive novel. Jackson had even participated in the earlier mobbing of Zhao. Nonetheless, dominoes fell quickly after an anonymous review on Goodreads claimed that Jackson had, among other transgressions, focused excessively on privileged characters and made the villain a Muslim terrorist. A few weeks later, Jackson posted an apology, and announced that he had decided to cancel the release of his book, thanking his attackers for enlightening him. Zhao had issued a similar apology, though she has since reversed course and announced that she will publish her novel. A Slate article on the Jackson episode observes:

…we’ve gotten an increasingly toxic online culture around YA literature, with evermore-baroque standards for who can write about whom under what circumstances. From the outside, this is starting to look like a conversation focused less on literature than obedience.

It’s worth pondering whether J.K. Rowling could have published her Harry Potter novels in this environment. Who knows what worthwhile projects are being abandoned by prospective writers, perhaps at the advice of rattled agents, in anticipation of backlash.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A tempting response to these excesses is to simply say: “To hell with political correctness!” A lot of people feel this way, which may partly explain Donald Trump’s political success. But, though hyper-woke Twitter mobs is not where we wanted to end up, there’s a reason we started down this road. We need norms of speech that preserve the enlightened aspects of political correctness while mitigating against its excesses. The following is a non-exhaustive list of suggestions:

1 — Objectivity
Violations of our speech norms cannot merely be a matter of the “victim’s” feelings.

This is not because feelings don’t matter; all politeness presupposes that feelings matter. But we can’t adjust our behavior according to standards that aren’t based on publicly available reasons. We need know what categories of behavior will be regarded as reasonable cause for offense, e.g., “He repeatedly draws unnecessary attention to his coworkers’ racial and/or sexual characteristics.”

2 — Consistency
Political correctness as it now exists seems inconsistent. Whites are cautioned against trying to be “racially blind,” but can also be called out whenever differential treatment isn’t well-received, even if it is clearly well-intentioned. I once heard a professor opine in a lecture on racism that too many whites enthusiastically thanked him after his lectures; he doubted their sincerity.

The casual denigration of white people, especially white men, in “progressive” discourse also seems inconsistent with norms against racist speech. For example, The Daily Beast ran an article titled “The Starbucks Music Store Under Howard Schultz Was Painfully White.” It’s hard to imagine anyone who considers himself a progressive describing any music store as “painfully black.” I see no reason for thinking that differences in “social context” should nullify our general concern about racial sensitivity when it comes to whites.

3 — Proportionality
The punishment of un-PC speech is often disproportionate to the crime. For example, Megyn Kelly lost her show on NBC for asserting without elaboration that some Halloween costumes featuring blackface can be acceptable. Maybe she had in mind a white seven year old who wanted to dress as Black Panther. This opinion is certainly not more foolish than what commentators regularly say without being made to issue an on-air apology, as Kelly was, and then being fired regardless of the apology.

Virginia governor Ralph Northam faced, and resisted, pressure to step down when it came to light that he had appeared in a photograph from the 1980s featuring a person in blackface and another in KKK garb (it’s still not clear which is Northam). It’s unlikely that there would have been such calls in response to almost any other form of immoral-but-legal behavior he could have engaged in during the 1980s. Why should someone be punished more harshly for racist speech than for transgressions like adultery, lying, or verbally abusing one’s children?

Free speech in its First Amendment sense — the absence of government restraints on, or legal penalties for, expression — is important, but ultimately it’s only a means to an end. Legal free speech matters because a culture of open discourse matters; the absence of formal penalties for deviant speech is moot if all of the other mechanisms of society conspire to silence dissenters. What comfort is it that you won’t go to jail if speaking your mind means losing your job, being on the receiving end of shaming, and enduring severe ostracism? For most people, the threats of these things are sufficient to enforce silence.

This is why the excesses of political correctness are worrisome. Though they don’t — yet — compromise “free speech” narrowly construed, at least not in the U.S., they degrade the culture of open discourse that free speech exists to protect.

Our response should not be to reject political correctness altogether, which would be damaging to public discourse for different reasons. Instead, we should think about what kind of political correctness we should want to have. At a minimum, these norms must be objective, consistent, and punished proportionally.

Source: What Kind of Political Correctness Do We Want? – Arc Digitalarcdigital.media › what-kind-of-political-correctness-do…

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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