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.