Saturday, January 31, 2015

Notes on Political Correctness

Ross Douthat has an interesting take on Jonathan Chait’s critique of political correctness. (Via Maggie's Farm.)

For an enlightened post on the discussion see mine, entitled: “Saving Liberalism from Political Correctness.”

Douthat argues that people use political correctness to shut down free expression because the strategy works. Instead of debating the merits of an argument, leftists have shunned and shamed those who disagree, making it far too costly for the average individual to reject the party line.

In Douthat’s words:

If you look at the place where the left has won arguably its biggest political-cultural victory lately, the debate over same-sex marriage, you can see an obvious example of this dynamic playing out. In the recent examples of ideological policing around the marriage debate, particularly the high-profile case of Brendan Eich, we aren’t watching a cloistered circular firing squad whose actions are alienating most Americans; we’re watching, well, a largely victorious social movement move to consolidate its gains. Was there a time, in a more divided and socially conservative America, when the P.C.-ish pressure on Mozilla to ease Eich out, and other flashpoints like it, would have backfired against gay activists? No doubt. Do we live in a world now where making an example of a few executives and florists and blue-state colleges is likely to lead to backlash against the cause of same-sex marriage? I very much doubt it; it seems to that the cause has enough cultural momentum behind it that using taboos to marginalize its few remaining critics is likely to, well, work.

And homosexuality and same-sex marriage really are cases where what once seemed like hothouse ideas and assumptions — an expansive definition of homophobia, a dismissal of traditional arguments as sheer bigotry — first took hold college campuses and then won over the entirety of elite culture. The mood and norms and taboos around these issues that predominated when I attended a certain prominent Ivy League college back in the early 2000s are the moods and norms that now predominate just about everywhere that counts. So even if they’re mistaken about how to apply the lessons of their victory, I think it’s very natural for left-wing activists, on campus and off, to see that trajectory as a model for how other cultural victories might be won.

If your goal is to produce groupthink, the strategy works. Or better, it keeps all opposing arguments out of the marketplace of ideas. This does not, of course, mean that the ideas disappear, or that the people who are pronouncing themselves in favor of same-sex marriage really believe what they are saying.

They have simply learned to keep their views to themselves.

Douthat suggests that political correct zealots got their idea from society’s general rejection of anyone who mouths anti-Semitic or white supremacist thoughts.

If it worked there, it ought to work for other causes:

The reason some on the left look to our present taboos around anti-Semitic and white supremacist speech as models for how other issues around race and religion and sex and identity should (or shouldn’t, more aptly) be debated is precisely because those taboos really are powerful, really do work. Not always and everywhere, sometimes they backfire and encourage people to act out and rebel … but mostly they create very strong incentives to tread very carefully around anything that might be construed as a racist or anti-Semitic foray or idea.

As it happens, anti-Semitism is far from dead. In fact, it is undergoing something of a revival, for the most part by Muslims and those on the radical left.

Douthat should also have mentioned that the thought police are practicing pogroms, the better to rid society of cultural products that they consider to be alien to their values.

Finally, he observes astutely that people who shut down opposing points of view are absolutely convinced of the correctness of their position.

So if you feel absolutely certain that you have a similar justice on your side on other issues, if your primary mission is to ensure that your definition of “expanded freedom” triumphs, why wouldn’t you use the levers of coercion available to you? If you know that your opponents are in error, and that their errors are at least on the same continuum with the errors of segregationists, why would you want to give them oxygen and space?

This form of ideological zealotry contradicts the basic premise of scientific inquiry, namely that all scientific truths are subject to doubt. It also contradicts the basic premise of the marketplace of ideas: namely that no one holds a monopoly on the truth.

Douthat makes the case for doubt:

The strongest answer, as I’ve tried to suggest before in debates about pluralism, has to rest in doubt as well as confidence: In a sense of humility about your own certainties, a knowledge that what looks like absolute progressive truth in one era does not always turn out to look that way in hindsight, and a willingness to extend a presumption of decency and good faith even to people whose ideas you think history will judge harshly. 

Better to say: “I believe in free debate because I know that my ideas about the good and right and true might actually be wrong (or at least be only partial truths that miss some bigger picture), and sometimes even reactionaries are proven right, and we have to leave the door open to that possibility.”

To be fair, it’s more than over-confidence that causes people to shut down debate and to try to destroy people who do not think as they do. The condition more closely resembles a delusional belief. They are convinced that their opinions are more valid than reality.

If it was really as self-evidently true as they think, they would not have to force people into assenting to it.

In truth, the zealots who use political correctness to shut down debate do not believe in the marketplace of ideas or in any other free market. Seeing themselves as sole possessors of the truth, they believe it their sacred mission to save humanity from error by forcing everyone to think as they think.

True enough, they lack humility and many other civic virtues. But it is also true that they are among the most profoundly bigoted people around. They are bigoted against anyone who does not think as they think. 

Today they are bigoted against white males because they blame this group for everything that has gone wrong with the world since the Garden of Eden. And they are certainly bigoted against any minority group member or any women who does not toe the party line. In many cases they are also bigoted against Jews… as in the Boycott Divest Sanction movement.

Wasn’t it Nietzsche who said that the worst conflicts were over ideology? You cannot know when someone is just echoing your beliefs because he fears the retribution that will befall him if he doesn’t. You cannot know whether someone really believes what the politically correct zealots want him to believe or whether he is just saying so in order to get a good grade.

If you say that white males are disqualified on ethnic, racial and gender grounds, you are also saying that your own ethnic or racial or gender identity validates your ideas.

Obviously this is bigotry, straight up. 


Ares Olympus said...

I find it interesting to see the words "Liberal" and "Libertarian" hold the same root. Libertarians are certainly better liberals than the Liberals.

What I most love about the Libertarians is their "Political compass" which identifies Liberty and Authority as a polar axis perpendicular to the Left and Right:

So this makes it obvious that you can have Liberal Left and Authoritarian Left and Liberal Right and Authoritarian Right. I know its weird given everyone now thinks left is liberal and right is conservative.

So when I see such a clear map, I get curious to see that in general the more responsibility you feel, the more your desire for Authoritarian power to get something done.

So if you see a systemic problem like the collapse of the family system, you're going to panic and wish for authoritarian controls, whether carrots to reward the virtuous people who are acting within the moral necessity, or sticks to punish or refuse recognition for unsanctioned expressions of human affection that don't serve the whole.

And on the left, if you see the excesses of capitalism as leading us down a road of future poverty when undesirable consequences of burning fossil fuels make the earth less livable, or because exponential population increases eventually exceed our ability to exploit one time resources for our use, or because our oil ends up under someone else's sand or whatever limit we find.

So both arguments are fear-based, seeing moral decay caused by a lack of individual discipline and virtuous action.

If I was gay, I might argue my gay marriage doesn't harm anyone else's hetrosexual marriage, so I'm not the problem. And if I was a billionaire with my private jet, I can argue my consumption is still less than a 10 millionth of the total consumption of humanity, so I have a right to consume whatever I want and it makes no difference in the bigger picture.

And both rationalizations are categorically wrong in the sense that what you do affects what others do, and to the degree your vices encourage other people's vices, then there is a multiplier effect AND the authoritarians against you MAY have a point you should consider.

Sam L. said...

Conservatives are what the term Liberals used to mean. Liberals today claim conservatives have made Liberal a bad word (because they will not see that it's what they've done that makes Liberal a bad word--conservatives merely pointed it out.)

Dennis said...

Imagine my surprise at being a classical Liberal for years and then finding that academe had pushed everything to the right so they would not seem radical Leftists which they had become. They pushed it so far to the right that, especially given I have not change too many of my ideas, I found myself being a neo-con and in some instances a conservative.
How can one call themselves a Liberal when they are for big government and are statists to boot? A Liberal wants the government out of their life not controlling what they think or do. A Liberal loves free speech whereas academe love speech zones and controlling what students are allowed to say or hear. No market place of ideas in academe.
The biggest puritans we see today reside in academe. Academe is the biggest supporter of the state for that is where their grants and money come from. Academe is the handmaiden of the state.

Ares Olympus said...

Speaking of the weird world of politics, "trade liberalization" is something all Libertarians approve of, but Liberals don't like because its one more way to makes it easier to export jobs.

So at the moment "Radial Liberal" Obama is siding with the "Conservative" GOP against the "Liberal" protectionists.

Or I mean unless you're Cuba, and then "conservative" GOP become authoritarian protectionists, convinced if we can keep trade sactions up for another few years that the people of of Cuba will form a pro-capitalistic revolution, after which we can reinvite them to the human race.

Well, I admit the TPP country list doesn't look so offensive "US, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Canada, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan and potentially Korea" Not China?!

On the other hand, Conservatives are supposed to like national sovereignty, and you might think trade deals are dangerous that can allow foreigns courts to overrule the will of Congress or the people.

I suppose the argument in favor of TPP is that if we end up not liking the results of the agreement, we'll just fire the kangaroo court and install one that will see things our way?

And this is why Obama can be a free market capitalist with no fear of political downside.

So the real moral problem is when both sides are seduced by power, and two ideological positions coincide:

So in regards to --> "This form of ideological zealotry contradicts the basic premise of scientific inquiry, namely that all scientific truths are subject to doubt. It also contradicts the basic premise of the marketplace of ideas: namely that no one holds a monopoly on the truth."

So here the Left and the Right are equally seduced by power, and we're all good at pretending "fairness" in the marketplace of ideas: "Heads we win, tails you lose." is how to play the game.

So the real question is why "conservatives" the other countries are not concerned about whether we will honor the treaty given our long history of broken treaty agreements?

My inner conservative predicts we're approaching the end of an era, and chaos is coming, and global trade is going to collapse into a sea of distrust of sovereign debt defaults, and all these treaties are going to be starting over from scratch, and without the U.S. dollar and U.S. military making the rules.

If that's true, job-protecting conservative/protectionistic "Liberals" are right in the long run.

If only we could guarantee the coming chaos is not going to bring senseless war. War seems very authoritarian anyway, but maybe is how we create order that allow liberals thair playground.

Dennis said...

Suffice it to state that most of these titles have little to do with the definitions that were early used. A close reading of Russel Kirk should demonstrate that fact. NOTE that kirk was highly critical of republican militarism.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan probably is rolling over in his grave given how liberalism is currently defined.

One of my favorite democrats:

Each of these individuals would not recognize the terms currently ascribed to people and their politics. Further most of us may have central beliefs, but we may differ on various other issues. said...

As a psychoanalyst type, I found the article by Howard C Schwartz, Psychodynamics of political Correctness most interesting. It "revolves around a primordial conception of the mother."