On Political Correctness

It’s been another busy month, but there has been no shortage of good stuff to link to.

One article that has been doing the rounds is Jonathan Chait’s piece on political correctness. Chait defines political correctness in the article as:

[A] style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate … Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach.

Chait provides examples of speech and conduct that have been suppressed, dismissed and/or aggressively dealt with because they offend or are otherwise at odds with certain beliefs and ideals held by the left.* These beliefs and ideals often revolve around identity, such as gender, race and sexual orientation.

Broadly speaking, an animating goal for the left is equal treatment and respect for all groups. In particular, this entails advocacy on behalf of certain groups who have historically been marginalised, oppressed and deprived of power—for example, women, non-whites and LGBTs.

Chait makes the point that in their strident efforts to attain this goal, there are those on the left that act in ways that are decidedly antithetical to liberalism. This is not merely an intellectual problem—it is also detrimental for the left if people sympathetic to the movement do not provide self-reflection or criticism for fear of backlash, and those the movement seeks to appeal to are driven away by the coercive and overbearing culture.

Even if you don’t agree with everything (or anything) that I just outlined, keep an open mind and go read the piece.

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I’d like to add two observations in response to the article.

Firstly, it was both remarkable yet unsurprising that many of the heated disagreements with Chait settled on ad hominem attacks on his own (‘privileged’) identity. Chait even pre-empted this in his original article:

I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind … If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.

Rather than engaging with Chait’s examples and arguments, these critics basically proved his point by going straight for de-legitimisation based on his identity.

The broader observation to be made here is that, psychologically speaking, we all tend to see in and ascribe to others our own sensitivities and fears.

For certain people on the left who spend a significant amount of time and energy advocating for leftist issues, they tend to see the world in terms of oppression, grievance and identity. Criticism from an outsider is just another instance of illegitimate use of power. Any attempt at engagement by those in ‘privilege’ positions (white, male, hetero) can be dismissed as ‘whitesplaining’/‘mansplaining’/ ‘straightsplaining’.

Secondly, I think that this whole hubbub can be boiled down to one of priorities.

For the people Chait describes, the illiberal means justify the ends. The worthy goal of promoting an equalist agenda may entail the silencing of people opposed to that agenda. (For an example that I’ve written about, see the Brendan Reich episode).

Chait sees this as deeply problematic:

Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.

For Chait, his first priority is a commitment to a “free political marketplace” where an open exchange of ideas can take place. One can argue about the extent to which this is possible in practice given existing biases, power structures, etc., but I would side with Chait and consider that it is nevertheless a crucial goal to be striving for.


Finally, I want to point to an interesting response from Ross Douthat to Chait’s piece. Douthat argues that, contra Chait, political correctness is often not self-defeating and actually achieves the aims of its wielders. Indeed, “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?”

Douthat answers his own question by pointing to a deeper question—it is not just about who wins and who loses, but rather, even in victory, is the idea right or wrong? I think it’s a great analysis that is well worth quoting at length, with emphasis added:

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. If you just say, “I believe in free debate because I’m certain than in free debate the good and right and true will eventually triumph, and I know that coercion will ultimately backfire,” you aren’t really giving the practical case for coercion its due. 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.”

The problem with political correctness, in this sense, isn’t that it necessarily hurts the causes it claims to advance; sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it just helps them win. It’s that like most systems of speech policing (which of course held sway in traditional societies as well) it excludes the possibility that those causes might be getting big things wrong, and thus it hurts the larger cause of truth.

I don’t think Chait would disagree with this, but I think it’s a slightly harder argument for him to make than me, because even though he’s (per his critics) a white male neoliberal sellout he’s also still basically a political progressive, with a Whiggish view of history somewhere in his bones. And then it’s a still-harder argument for him to address persuasively to those, further to his left, for whom the possibility that capital-H History might not be with them on all fronts strikes at the very heart of their self-conception and worldview.

Hence the easier-to-pitch claim that P.C. just doesn’t work, that it alienates potential allies, that it poorly serves its own ideas. Which indeed it does, at times. But when it doesn’t, when it works, the deeper problem remains: Sometimes the ideas themselves are wrong.

* For other examples, see this piece by Freddie deBoer, who is not a Chait fan.