Is the enforced conformity of PC different from that of traditional society?
Those who seek to dismiss the criticisms of political correctness sometimes argue that political correctness means any enforced conformity to a social consensus. Since all societies are based on some degree of enforced conformity, it follows that the alarm about PC is overblown. The defenders of PC will further argue that the really dangerous kind of PC comes not from liberals, who are at worst misguided idealists, but from the critics of PC themselves, who in their nasty charges of political correctness are trying to demonize and silence liberals. (Even when they are denying the existence of political correctness as a distinct phenomenon, it seems that liberals can’t resist using a politically correct double standard.)
Notwithstanding the incoherence of the argument, the question raised by the liberals is a valid one. What is it that makes political correctness different from other forms of social conformity, particularly traditional morality? Here are some preliminary thoughts that come to mind.
The most obvious factor that distinguishes political correctness from other types of social conformity is the radical, and radically false, nature of the beliefs to which it demands allegiance, for example, that there are no sex differences that matter, that there are no race differences that matter, that blacks consistently “lag” behind whites in intellectual performance because of white discrimination against blacks, that saying anything about the link between illegitimacy and poverty is “hate speech,” that terrorists attack us because we haven’t made a sufficient effort to “understand” them, that homosexuality is completely normal and acceptable, that all cultures are equally assimilable into America, and so on and on and on. The common premise in all these assertions is that human inequalities and differences are artificially produced by some negative force that needs to be overcome and eliminated.
The second thing that distinguishes political correctness from more traditional forms of belief is that it is part of a utopian program to reconstruct all human institutions, from sexual relations to the family to religion to the nation, to bring about an inclusive world in which no concrete inequalities or serious differences of belief or loyalty separate people from each other.
Unlike traditional forms of belief, which have some basis in nature as well as in custom, the radical egalitarian beliefs and programs that constitute political correctness are radically at odds with human reality and are manifestly threatening to normal people, therefore they tend to be resisted as soon as there is any undisguised attempt to put them into practice. Because the beliefs of political correctness cannot be successfully defended in free debate and in normal political intercourse, rational discourse about them—politics itself—must be forbidden.
However, under the regime of PC, the fact that critical discussion is forbidden is itself hidden from view. To an extent greater than any other type of authority, political correctness conceals its own power. This is because political correctness, unlike traditional belief systems, claims to oppose inequality as such, and therefore must condemn power, since power always makes some people more powerful than—and substantively different from—other people. Since it claims that power is bad, the politically correct regime must pretend not to have any. By contrast, traditional forms of society are self-identified in terms of the substantive beliefs and loyalties they hold in common, the things they approve and the things they forbid, the scale of values by which they distribute rewards and punishment, and so on. To use a contemporary liberal term, power in traditional societies is transparent. A traditional Christian society, for example, will not allow expressions of atheism. A traditional middle class society will frown on sexual license. An earlier, fiercely patriotic America would kick anyone out of town who was openly unpatriotic. Such traditionally based societies are founded on common beliefs and loyalties—and common prohibitions—which all or most of its members believe to be based in truth, and which are embodied in respected, institutions, symbols and customs.
Liberalism, by contrast, denies that it is based on any common loyalties or truths. Liberalism claims that it is equally open to all truths, that it is tolerant and pluralistic. The liberal belief in equality presents itself not as a belief in any substantive truth but as a tolerant disbelief that any one substantive truth or value can be superior to any other. Because the liberal system denies that it adheres to any particular truth and instead claims that all truths are equal, because it denies that it has power and even says that its purpose is to abolish all power relations and all politics, therefore its power—specifically its power to control debate—remains invisible, unaccountable, and largely unopposed. Political correctness is the one form of power that denies that it has power. It is therefore the hardest to understand and resist. And that makes it the most powerful.
The rhetorical methods used to enforce political correctness will be in keeping with its underlying dishonesty. For example, any dissent from the politically correct system will be denounced as hatred and anger, or as an attempt to impose one’s power on society—a charge that is leveled by the politically correct system even as it is concealing its own power. Or, as I suggested at the beginning, liberals will say that the critics of political correctness are the ones who are really being politically correct, while the supposed political correctness of liberals is overblown or mythical.
Quite right. Modern Political Correctness is defective because it is (usually) false and overreaching, not because it proposes that certain things should be beyond discussion.
There is some overlap, though, between modern PC and what a traditional “PC” used to look like. For instance, the prohibition of most forms of “sexual harrassment” in the workplace is merely asking men not to behave like animals.
The intent of liberalism was clearly to remove traditional forms of restraint for male behavior, tainted as they are with patriarchy and chivalry, and replace them with restraints that are untainted, non-creedal, fluid, and “evolving”.
But I’ve noticed in my own workplace that most men have interpreted the new rules in a chivalrous way, and most ladies in the workplace seem to be accepting that to some degree. So perhaps PC will backfire in this case …Posted by: Jeff Culbreath on July 8, 2002 11:23 AM