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Words, Tweets and Stones in the "Political Correctness" Wars

Conservative critics accuse political correctness of promoting a censorious closure of public debate

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Last year, a friend alerted me to an opinion article which included the unusual story of Tim Hunt, a Nobel-Prize winning chemist.

At a conference in Korea, Hunt ventured regrettably outside of his expertise. He complained that having young women in the lab was a distraction. Older men like himself tended to fall in love with them. Moreover, Hunt claimed that girls could not take criticism without crying.

For a great chemist, we see, Hunt makes an awful social commentator. What is striking about the story is what happened next.

The story, as they say, went “viral” on social media. Someone tweeted the remarks, or uploaded the video online. The next thing he knew, Hunt was being stood down from his role at UCL, Nobel-Prize-notwithstanding.

I found myself reminded as I read this of another unlikely story: the first novel of the Czech author Milan Kundera, The Joke. In this story, the main character vents his discontents with a Stalinist indoctrination camp in a mocking postcard to his girlfriend:

Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.

The Party censors intercepted the postcard, and did not find it amusing. Instead, Ludvik gets expelled from university and forced into military service in the mines.

To be sure, the comparison of the two stories is not perfect. Hunt was not sent to a labor camp, and the position he lost was honorary. So, unlike Ludvik, his material wellbeing and that of his family was not directly affected—only his good name. Hunt was also not joking, as far as anyone could tell.

Tim Hunt, the chemist stood down by UCL for his comments about women and laboratories.

Nevertheless, Hunt’s story is far from singular in the age of social media.

All around the world, stories of academics, media figures or employees being stood down by their employers after having been subjected to a kind of instantaneous prosecution by social media seems to be one of the signs of the Neuzeit.

For critics on the Right, Hunt’s and comparable stories show the dark, illiberal heart of what they call “political correctness”: a censorious culture preventing people speaking their minds on anything to do with matters of race, religion or gender. Many of these same critics (and, on the other side, Bernie Sanders) have also pointed to Mr Trump’s ostentatious disregard for such “political correctness” as one explanation for his 2016 catapult to power.

So what’s going on behind the increasing frequency of cases like Hunt’s: of people losing their jobs for what they have said alone—even, as in Hunt’s case, when the words in question neither reflect his professional expertise, nor target any particular individual? Are we entering a new period of social censorship, with dark historical precedents and echoes?

And what is rumbling away beneath the deep sense of grievance that underlies conservative commentators’ strident charges of “political correctness” against their opponents?

One role philosophy can play in such divisive debates is to try to clearly show each warring side “the reasons of the adversary”, and the paradoxes and problems within their own. Such, at least, is what Albert Camus proposed in the midst of the Algerian war in 1956. Camus’ attempt “to restore a climate that could lead to healthy debate” might today be tweeted with the hashtag: #tell-him-he’s-dreaming.

But not all dreams are bad for being illusory.

All’s fair …

For people labelled by conservative commentators as “politically correct”, their position looks quite different than the polemical tag implies.

What the Right calls political correctness describes the championing of a series of positions associated with the New Left. These positions hinge on the observation that the modern ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are imperfectly enshrined in countries like Australia, the UK or the US.

Behind the advertised equality of all to trade, real material inequalities are produced and perpetuated, leading to deep divisions of class.

Behind appeals to equality of opportunity, gender inequality hasn’t gone away. Its deep bases are revealed, amongst other places (continuing pay differentials also leap to mind) by the gendered nouns in public documents that for a long time simply excluded women from the franchise— as in “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal …”

Beneath the same language of equality, all-too-real inequalities exist between different ethnic and religious groups within pluralist societies like Australia. Lesbian and gay men and women for a long time faced laws that actively prohibited their forms of sexuality.

The New Left argument is that the cultural, economic and social discrimination against women, LGBT and non-anglosaxon members of our communities targeted them specifically on grounds of their belonging to those groups.

As such, it makes sense that a society which would redress these wrongs needs to legislate forms of “positive discrimination”, likewise targeting these groups specifically.

We should also educate for and enshrine new norms, attentive to the linguistic and other forms of discrimination that for far too long went without saying.

Given this reasoning, people of the New Left are likely to respond with outrage to the imputation that what they are promoting is a new form of waspish, quasi-Stalinist groupthink.

Their question is more likely to be: who could reasonably oppose these reforms, except people who still harbour older forms of prejudice, or feel threatened by the new forms of inclusivity the New Left has championed?

Camus held that philosophers could explain the reasons of adversaries in heated disputes, reopening possibilities of dialogue.

In love and war

There can be little doubt that many people who oppose progressive social reforms like marriage equality do so out of unavowed or avowed hostility to different minority groups.

Some of this group almost certainly are sympathetic to deeply illiberal political positions on the farther Right, and opposed to many of the social and immigration reforms that Australia has undertaken since the 1960s.

But not all people who contest these issues can fairly be so categorised. Many are deeply offended by any imputation that they are unreasonable, sexist, homophobic, racist or Islamophobic for defending conservative causes. Many base their positions on religious traditions with which they deeply identify.

And so we come to the first register of the “political correctness” charge. The argument goes something like this.

The impulses underlying forms of positive discrimination towards disadvantaged groups may be generous. Their flipside is a paradoxical intolerance towards everyone who disagrees with proposed policies or reforms.

This intolerance, critics allege, is manifest in a tendency to pathologise opponents: arguing as if they were all, equally and deeply flawed or bad people: racists, sexists, fascists, etc.

Rather than arguing the case against opponents of their positions, the “politically correct” silence them, critics claim. Or, in the age of social media, they spark campaigns that publicly shame them, even when their offences are not grave.

Enter Tim Hunt and company, if not Milan Kundera.

Certainly, there is a touch of the pot calling the kettle black about these complaints. For to call your opponents en bloc “politically correct” is hardly to celebrate their supple rationality and intrepid independence of spirit.

It remains true that any political sides’ demonising its opponents is a poor substitute for defeating them in open debate, predicated on a minimum of shared respect for the rules of the democratic game.

And so, the critics of “political correctness” point to cases on American campuses where activists have not let speakers from the Right speak at all, as opposed to engaging them in debate. For these critics, these shut-outs bespeak a “campus craziness” that threatens to close the universities to conservative viewpoints altogether.

Student rally against Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopolos’ scheduled talk at Berkeley earlier this year.

The same critics point to the idea which has currency on some American campuses of “trigger warnings” surrounding potentially upsetting content for different potential audiences. Such warnings, and the attempt to create “safe spaces” in which no one could be “triggered” by upsetting contents, do not promote the free and open exchange of ideas on divisive issues, the critics charge. Debate is not won (or lost) this way. It is shut down before it can begin.

And this, the critics continue, is to give way too much power to words—which are not sticks and stones, even in the culture wars. It is also to under-rate the capacity of people to confront and debate difficult content, instead encouraging a culture of victimisation and ultra-sensitivity to verbal and vicarious harm.

Supporters of trigger warnings reply that it is very easy for privileged white males to decide what should and should not be open to free and open debate. They’ve been doing this for centuries.

It is surely for the people whose identities are at stake in potentially disturbing material—for people of colour, for example, in a text on racial violences—to decide what is and is not disturbing to them.

Lefts and rifts, old and new

This last response points to the deeper philosophical fault-lines underlying the “political correctness” wars. The positions of the New Left can, and do, take two different kinds of justifications with very different philosophical credentials and histories.

For one, the defence of equal dignity for all persons, no matter from which ethnic, racial, class or gender they hail, is justified precisely by appeal to what is shared between them, regardless of their differences.

Martin Luther King’s famous line expressing the hope that one day, in America, his children will be judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, is a powerful expression of this kind of justification of civil rights reform.

A second kind of justification for New Left positions is very different. This justification is not based in an appeal to common or putatively universal values.

It argues that the modern West’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity have, in their history, been used to justify such horrible intolerance and violences against Others that these ideals themselves can no longer be reasonably defended.

Indeed, it is to the extent that particular groups, different from the mainstream, have been unjustly excluded from the communities propounding these ideals that they should be celebrated, and their claims supported.

The preceding opposition, roughly, charts the difference between liberal or socialist, modernist forms of Leftist politics, and post-liberal, post-socialist forms of Leftist politics (roughly, “post-modernism”).

The modernist’s appeal to what different groups share is vulnerable to the charge of what Stanley Fish memorably called “boutique multiculturalism”. The boutique multiculturalist tolerates and defends the rights of minorities only insofar as their ways of living do not harm and discriminate against any others’.

The moment that this other culture asserts discriminatory claims or practices illiberal rites (like female circumcision, for instance), this kind of multiculturalist’s tolerance runs out, and turns into its opposite. Why any of this implies that proponents of this position are in a boutique, Fish does not argue.

The second, postmodernist form of multiculturalism, which defends difference for difference’s sake, also has its own endemic paradoxes. If we support all different or Other groups on grounds of their difference, without further conditions, we soon find ourselves committed to supporting groups who are different from us, truly—but who express their difference by deep hostility to the kinds of toleration we are extending to them.

Stanley Fish, who coined the contentious term ‘boutique multiculturalism’

At this point, we either recoil back into a modernist position, inconsistently; or consistently bite the bullet and end up by supporting deeply illiberal, difference-hostile cultures.

Needless to say, the conservative commentariat have made hay over the last several decades by pointing up examples of this latter paradox, and its potentially disturbing corollaries. They have pushed it at times into extremely contentious claims about the New Left’s supposed support for forms of Islamic fundamentalism, and the like.

This is also where sweeping neoconservative claims about the New Left enshrining an “adversary culture” opposed to the entire “Western civilization” have made their way into magazines and opinion pages around the globe.

Inter alia

Let me finish by squaring the circle, and by highlighting that all opponents of “political correctness” do not identify as on the Right, although almost everyone on the socially conservative Right today probably identities themselves as being opposed to “political correctness”.

In fact, leading Leftist philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have both presented scathing criticisms of the postmodern valorisation of difference and Otherness as a dead end for the Left.

What differentiates Žižek’s criticisms of “political correctness” from those on the Right (I am going to be generous to him here) is that he thinks that, in several senses, political correctness doesn’t go far enough.

Political correctness, Žižek charges, puts the cart before the horse, when it promotes codes of speaking and a series of polite, symbolic gestures respecting the Other which are not matched by real social changes.

Before we attend so closely to what people say, Žižek contends, we should first redress the real living conditions of disadvantaged people. Only then will what critics call “politically correct” ways of speaking no longer seem artificial and constrictive (as he thinks they do seem), and become the natural reflection of an expanded social contract.

Liberal American critic Mark Lilla, in a recent piece, has differently called for a “post-identity liberalism”. To win majorities in democracies, Lilla argues, the Left has to appeal to shared values. To build a platform around celebrating differences ends by dividing without conquering. This is what Hilary Clinton’s Democrats learned the hard way last year.

If the Democrats are to win back power, after four or eight years of Donald Trump, the “politically correct” attention to differences sans phrase will need to give way to a new language of shared struggles and ideals.

Stanley Fish might see such an opposition to postmodernist identity politics as a reversion to “boutique” liberalism. For Lilla, it is a matter of mathematics and hard-minded realpolitik.

The ConversationDisclosure

Matthew Sharpe works at Deakin University, which is holding a public debate on "Political correctness, free speech in the age of Social Media" on the evening of 23rd February, featuring Peter Baldwin, Adam Bandt, Edward Santow and Maria Rae.

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