What's wrong with political correctness? A few observations from a mansplainer.
A conservative wades into an intra-liberal war
Political correctness has never hurt me. Strangers on the internet have never started a hashtag campaign to shame me or deprive me of my livelihood. I’ve never been “called out” by the more politically correct. No one has ever tried to teach me how I can be a better ally to marginalized groups. Apparently, no one on the identity-politics left sees any point arguing over political orthodoxy with me.
Translated into the Calvinist religious terms of the Canons of Dort, I am reprobate and beyond saving. My conservative political convictions manifest my status as one among the living damned, doomed from eternity to “the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves.” I can’t help being an oppressor.
I mostly enjoy being left alone to the anarchy of my thoughts, prejudices, and biases. But a debate has broken out among the left about political correctness, and whether it is good for the left or oppressive. Like Milton’s Satan, I thought I might offer an outsider’s observations on the scene.
The politically correct have a great knack for naming social interactions. Like my fellow reprobate Joseph Lawler, I’ve searched my conscience and found myself guilty of “mansplaining” things. Subtle, plausibly denied identity-based insults do seem tidily packaged by the term “microaggression.” Perhaps a genius satirist could come up with better terms for these, but credit where it's due. Naming things well leads to better understanding.
Political correctness encourages the invention of new (and spurious) identities/marginalizations. If we award platforms to the different and the marginal, you’re going to get new identities and new oppressions. At last count, there were 71 gender identities available on Facebook. I doubt anyone has actually thought through all the politics of making “safe spaces” for 71 flavors of gender, and so the goal of social justice disappears over an ever-receding horizon. Worse, spurious claims to marginalization have led to the bizarre phenomenon of hoax hate crimes on college campuses.
Conservatives can get in on the identity-politics game, too. The reprobate may be damned, but we’re not stupid. If statistical underrepresentation is likely evidence of subtle institutional bias, or of cultures that exclude some as a "bad fit," or of networks that discourage the "other" from even seeking entry, then academia must have a “statistically impossible” bias problem against Republicans and Evangelicals. Conservatives pretending to want in on an identity-spoils system is partly a way of calling the P.C. bluff. It asks the left to admit that there are some identities that don’t deserve a safe space. Otherkins, yes.
Political correctness can hurt or distract from broad left-wing goals. I apologize in advance for conservative-splaining liberalism to you, but the left succeeds when it creates solidarity among broad groups. For all its protestations about good allies, the demands of political correctness seem to act like an acid on solidarity. This may be why leftists who are concerned primarily with redistributing economic power get tired of the kind of infighting, back-biting, and jockeying that is inherent to this style of politics. Political correctness talks about solidarity, but performs itself as expressive individualism. Everyone is micro-aggressed and silenced in their own special way. Solidarity-liberalism helps people communicate across divides, and trains leaders to speak for mass groups. Political correctness tells us that no, your communication is problematic.
Political correctness conflates normal slights, sincere disagreements, thoughtless cracks, and the verbal miscues of the uninitiated with actual oppression. In extremely crude terms, political correctness engenders (or really, embodies) extreme sensitivity to status. The victims of historic oppression were accorded a low status by their oppressors. Imposing a low status on a group is a way of granting yourself permission to abuse its members. And so some of the normal rough and tumble of human interaction can be mistaken (or willfully misconstrued) as an attempt to replicate the very hierarchies that cause oppression and genocide. A real “P.C.” blowup leaves one person crying and feeling misunderstood and “othered,” while it leaves another person feeling both defensive and offended that the crying person appears to be trivializing real oppression.
Political correctness looks like grasping aspirational privilege. Related to the above. The right not to be offended, or the ability to punish those who offend your finely tuned sensibilities, is a form of privilege. Without having conducted a detailed sociological study, my anecdotal impression is that “politically correct” styles of engagement are most popular among a class of people that is in a similar position to the old petite bourgeoisie: college students and strivers whose primary class consciousness is not their relative privilege over, say, Appalachian whites or people in the developing world, but their lack of power and status compared with the haute bourgeoisie, which is composed of everyone from crass GOP-affiliated lax-bros that want to go into finance to the polished and tamed “liberal” graduates of Sidwell to the real inheritors of privilege like the Bush twins.
It is joyless, unempowering, and unattractive. Political correctness instills a narrative of defeatism, doubt, and anxiety. Because it so zealously ferrets the political dimensions of everyday social life, it provides a sense that many or most social occasions are a confrontation with a pervasive tyranny. Do you want stories about people rising above their circumstances, or cowering in fear before a bizarre statue of a vulnerable man sleepwalking? As Freddie DeBoer pointed out, the social left’s new form of political correction informs young liberals that everything they like and enjoy is poisoned in some way. It is a left-wing version of Dana Carvey’s church lady. “Could it beeeee…… Patriarchy?”
I understand the instinct to not only listen to victims, but to venerate or sacralize them. And I wonder if this almost Christian reflex is kicking somewhere within the drive for political correctness. The victim’s bruised body and wounded dignity testifies to us of a broken social order, even a broken human nature. Transcendence is found in turning the event of their martyrdom into the locus of a new redeemed social order, where the hierarchies are reversed and the spotless Victim reigns.
Somehow I doubt that the creeds of political correctness will build a Chartres, inspire a Mozart’s Requiem, and pervade the prose of an Evelyn Waugh. In fact, I doubt political correctness can foster the growth of workers unions, change the distribution of economic power, or help us to be decent to each other. But I would, wouldn’t I?