A Leftist Critique of Political Correctness

As a longtime libertarian and an avowed egalitarian socialist, I've struggled with the concept of "political correctness" for as long as I've had a political awareness. I went through a neoliberal democrat phase in the 90's where what many denounced as PC simply looked like good manners to me. Don't get me wrong; some of it was just that: the attempts of well-meaning people to navigate a culture permeated with deep-seated privilege and oppressive features. And yet, just as much polite talk is not exceedingly honest, I always had a nagging suspicion that politically correct habits were something more than mere social graces.

So this essay has been a long time coming for me, as I try to figure out where I fit in on the Left. My heart is in the struggle for an egalitarian, enlightened, peaceful world. But I don't consider leftism a religion, and the impulse of many to treat it as such -- to codify and regulate the behavior of people according to its tenets -- too often looks like a movement going through the motions instead of genuinely challenging the human condition. Indeed, my argument is that political correctness, far from being an expression of genuine compassion and anti-bigotry, has transformed into a cosmetic substitute for authentic radicalism legitimating authority and privilege while hampering our efforts to change our condition. The goal of this essay is to start a conversation within the Left about our means, not our ends.

What Is Political Correctness?

The biggest problem with challenging the hegemony of political correctness is distinguishing the valid critiques from the abundance of bogus critiques. Among the bogus critiques I count the whining that comes from the Right whenever they say something insensitive and rude. This raises the question of what political correctness actually is, since it seems silly to conflate rudeness with institutional oppression.

I define political correctness as the societal and cultural side-effects of authoritarian institutions' attempts to keep pace with accelerating social change through top-down policy. In my theory, it doesn't matter whether politically incorrect behavior is being addressed for the right or wrong reasons. What matters is that it is a way to shore up privilege instead of abolishing it.

Consider the example of your typical right-wing bigoted talking head who says something they'd defend as merely "politically incorrect". They've said something that some subsection of the population finds offensive -- it could be a racial minority, an oppressed ethnic group, even a historic out-group such as homosexuals. What they generally mean when they label their comments "politically incorrect" -- at least, my sense of their strongest argument -- is that "the establishment" has set rigid and sweeping rules about what is an acceptable opinion. The implication is not that they are being "censored" so much as called out for offending a social norm they would claim is inorganic and artificial, created not by society at large but by its elite through its institutional force majeure.

My point is not that, therefore, they are somehow off the hook for their comments. Their claims could be incorrect -- after all, while I'd hardly say anti-gay bigotry is wiped from our society, most of us live in social circles where anti-gay language would be considered rude and uncomfortable. It seems to me that claiming there's a grand conspiracy to create a taboo on anti-gay language is a bit ridiculous (and certainly in the Right's wheelhouse).

However, both explanations need not be mutually exclusive. These two propositions can be true simultaneously:

  1. Bigoted comments are generally looked down upon in our society.
  2. The establishment has rigid, sweeping, and artificially constituted rules for acceptable speech in our society.

For these right-wing types, it's the perfect cover -- anytime somebody criticizes them for genuinely being offended, they can pretend that the real criticism arises from violating the establishment's rules. And this is what is so insidious about political correctness: it dillutes the power of legitimate moral sanction in our society. People can credibly claim they are victims of the elite, instead of victims of their own bigotry.

Yes, saying racist shit sucks -- it is hurtful to social conviviality as well as certain individuals, and it has the potential to perpetuate narratives and prejudices that hold us all back. But given that the channels of media are controlled by an elite few corporations, the piling on and blacklisting that follows such an utterance is out of proportion with what the organic social sanction would entail. While we may not care about the feelings of the bigot, we may not immediately see how the media's use of these incidents serves their interests -- programming, articles, interviews, and other opportunities for increased attention and advertising revenue -- over our interersts, which involve genuine healing, understanding, and contrition.

There's also a political danger when we allow institutions to be the arbiters of bigotry. If you can label people racist, or anti-gay, or sexist, or whatever, you have a mechanism by which you can enlist society in supporting your blacklisting, censorship, or other authoritarian act. This can be used as a back door to oppressing people who say other inconvenient things -- such as politically subversive, seditious, or disruptive things.

While society might disapprove of the politically incorrect behavior and sanction it on their own without involving authorities, it would do so in an informal, decentralized, and more deliberative way. This is a perfectly legitimate means of social discipline; indeed, our society changes authentically through few other mechanisms. That's not political correctness as I understand it; it's merely social norms, which always exist (both good and bad ones). The problem with political correctness arises from a society so dominated by institutions with their own agendas that they can co-opt this social dynamic for their own ends.

This is why Keith Preston calls political correctness "totalitarian humanism": it is cultural progressivism pressed into the service of the ruling class's interests. It's why the U.S. can justify imperial expeditions as humanitarian interventions and get away with it. It's why things like greenwashing and token minorities on corporate boards are attempted and work so often. It's why we get our asses beat on the street when we protest and the cops can claim it was for our own safety. It's why kids are suspended from school for merely drawing a picture of a gun. Political correctness co-opts radical change to prop up and empower conservative institutions who only understand policy.

Indeed, while "political correctness" as a term is centuries old, it emerged in modern times as a way for New Leftists of the 60s counterculture to call out attempts to institute an orthodoxy in all sorts of liberatory movements. Orthodoxies and heresies are always thought-limiting constructs that should be hateful to academia and thinkers of all stripes. So it is rather ironic that much of the totalitarian humanist agenda was created on academic campuses, as an extension of the 60s movements success on campuses. Many activists became professors and sought to institute their progressive changes through the schools' administrative policy apparatuses. These experiments set the stage for the implementation of this approach on a wider scale.

The Institutional Ends of Political Correctness

It should go without saying that this essay is hardly an attack on egalitarian and just social change. Rather, I attack political correctness because it subverts the organic change society is constantly engaged in. When the positive trends of society are co-opted for the benefit of institutions that are inherently unegalitarian, they tend to delay the emergence of a consensus in society that can heal old wounds of oppression and privilege.

Affirmative action is a great example of this. Nobody can deny that serious inequalities between racial minorities and whites existed at the time such policies were enacted. But the method in which they were enacted was not designed to address the deep seated psychology or cultural norms that made racism possible. No, being diverse was touted as the goal -- instead of simply being merely one metric of racial justice among many.

Not only that, quotas and other rote legal requirements became ways that institutions seek to indemnify themselves against charges of inequality and discrimination. Taking affirmative action as an example, it didn't matter that no minorities were in positions of power, or that a culture of harassment might have persisted, or that whites simply took their bigotry to lunch instead of openly proclaiming it. Most of all, the hierarchical nature of the institution which allowed it to dictate morals to its personnel in the first place was never questioned. What mattered was that the institution -- the business, or government agency, or school administration -- had taken some "affirmative action" towards correcting a 400 year old problem (at least).

Of course, these policies did effect some desirable ends. It's not that hiring more minorities isn't a good thing despite all that, just as criticizing the bigot in the previous example wasn't a good thing in its own right. It's that such policies are designed to serve the purposes of institutions primarily, not to help us overcome our social ills. If they serve the interests of justice, it is a secondary concern. The primary purpose is allowing the privileged to piggyback on a movement that should be working to depose them.

Hierarchical and authoritarian institutions like corporations, governments, and schools are inherently artificial and top-down. They do not have consciences and moral compasses in and of themselves. They exist in our society through legal fiat, and they simply cannot participate in the debate and consensus of civil society that drives social change (whether they're legally considered "persons" or not). Because they are abstractions of human behavior patterns, they maintain their integrity through disciplining the people that comprise them. This is accomplished through prescriptive means like policies, charters, directives, rules, etc. to maintain their integrity as an organization. To the extent they allow people to act on their conscience, they cannot achieve the discipline necessary to coordinate personnel actions as a whole -- meaning those at the top commanding those at the bottom.

In other words, institutions are conservative by their very nature -- they cling to old norms and accept new norms only with some expenditure of effort. Those instances where society organically and spontaneously evolves new norms will surely catch the leaders of these organizations off guard. The changes are often subtle enough that they evade the notice of individuals, let alone the bureaucratic programs of the human resources staff. The ever accelerating trends of social justice and egalitarianism that have swept society for decades challenge their institutional legitimacy and destabilize their integrity. Therefore, institutions need a way to conform to these trends without disturbing their inherently authoritarian command structure.

I believe what we call "political correctness" results from the attempts of the institutions that so dominate our society to acknowledge changing social norms by implementing kneejerk, often draconian policies. These policies rarely in and of themselves solve the underlying problem. However, they do preserve the institution's legitimacy and integrity, and this is their purpose.

In addition to propping up unegalitarian institutions, there is another, perhaps worse aspect of political correctness: it subverts the narrative of the social change in question. When the institutions of society proclaim a particular policy or law or rule as a response to this change, people tend to consider the matter settled. Changing the law, such as passing the Civil Rights Act, becomes the whole point of the struggle instead of (at best) one side-effect of the people's rising up or (at worst) a way to pacify the people. These responses tend to bookend, rather than promote, the momentum for social change and make us more dependent on the mediation of elites rather than seeing their intrusion as part of the problem.

Subverting the Bottom-Up Society

If this stunted view of bigotry stayed safely in these institutions -- if we only had to deal with it when we were at school, or work, or reading the newspaper -- then perhaps it would not be so bad. When these dynamics leak out into the consciousnesses of ordinary people, however, it becomes truly nefarious. Real damage is done when we internalize these rigid, superficial rules and reproduce them in our interactions with others. The honest dialogue necessary to address privilege through bottom-up means gets tangled up in these rules, and people become fearful to open up.

Civil society functions because it allows people to establish trust and human connections on their own terms. Mass society would be an even more horrible, alienated place without those opportunities we have to connect with individuals. We need the rich particularism and frankness of our relationships on a small scale; it's just primate psychology. It's the place where we can be ourselves and integrate feedback on a conscious and subliminal level.

To the extent that institutional society forces us to obey arbitrary rules and stifles our "unacceptable" thoughts, it hampers our sense of self and our ability to grow that sense. If we then take these rules and mindsets and reproduce them in our relationships, or screen new relationships through this orthodox filter of politically correct ideas, we experience a much less rich and more alienated human condition. Such a condition will not be as likely to allow the cause of anti-privilege -- or any cause -- to draw upon our need for freedom and dignity.

Indeed, we will be more likely to reflexively critique each other when we inevitably step outside the strict confines of political correctness. Instead of seeking to understand one another, we will identify with the rules and play up our sense of offense when the rules are broken. Instead of delving into aspects of privilege and oppression and learning to heal ourselves and each other of the wounds we inflict and sustain, we will focus on code words and symbolism as proxies for the authentic dialogue needed. Substance must be banished because it cannot conform to the narrow boundaries of political correctness.

When the parameters for dialogue are so utterly narrow, thoughtful persuasion becomes less likely to occur. If you cannot abide certain kinds of disagreement without responding with outrage, you cannot effectively argue your point of view. You're more likely to scold than persuade. Political correctness weakens our ability to address competiting ideas. And without the practice of challenging our views, we become more dogmatic in promulgating them instead of more thoughtful.

This dynamic is especially apparent in the radical activist community, where shallow outrage has been elevated to a place of predominance. Being in our movement becomes a matter of articulating matters with the proper taste, instead of with the necessary frankness. We cannot be strategic if we have become unable to emotionally handle competing values and visions. We cannot prefigure a society without privilege if the effect of our work is merely to set arbitrary rules for conduct, since that encourages the totalitarian mindset of privilege and reproduces authoritarian organizational structures within our movement.

My point is not that it is always and ever wrong to feel outrage. It's a human emotion that we feel when personal boundaries are overstepped, and we're going to have some boundaries. Rather, the culture of political correctness urges conformity to a degree where, on the margins, those boundaries are more likely to be rigid and unable to tolerate heterodoxy. Instead of understanding why we maintain these boundaries, we are encouraged simply to enforce them. So our mentality becomes one of policing one another for heterodox ideas, and in such a situation we are deterred from forming more honest and intimate relations with one another.

If that ongoing dialogue is part of civil society, part of the way in which society advances morally towards more egalitarianism and less bigotry, then politically correct behaviors cripple the bottom-up society. Not only are we conforming to institutional dictates that hamper our personal growth, but that translates to less pressure on the institutions that promulgate authoritarianism and hierarchy in our society. The entire feedback mechanism becomes poisoned, and people worry more about being orthodox than being real.

Papering Over Privilege

This is exceedingly unfortunate, because the historic bigotries of mankind inevitable require more thought, debate, and attention, as destabilizing as this can be for the powers that be. These politically correct institutional responses are almost universally superficial, failing to address the deep-seatedness of bigotry in our psyche and culture. By stigmatizing the bigotries beyond the normal social sanction, these responses actually work against the kind of tough social intercourse that could promote progress towards a better, more balanced condition for everybody.

In an attempt to arrest people's ability to do or say offensive things, these policies end up arresting their ability to learn from legitimate social feedback. By encouraging outrage and scolding rather than dialogue and persuasion, biases and bigotries tend to be sublimated instead of challenged. The less conscious we are of these biases and bigotries, the harder they will be to face and correct. We should expect the struggle against these dynamics in our condition to be painful, disruptive, and difficult. Privileged people must listen to the stories of marginalized people in order to understand how the systems we all exist in actually behave holistically. But if the only effect of the struggle is to flip the tables on out-groups, so that now those who disrespect the former out-group become themselves the new out-group, then genuine healing cannot occur. We simply have a superficial change in the social taboos, and those taboos still take energy to maintain -- energy we could put into more thoughtful and engaging dialogue among individuals that can bring out the best in everybody. The kind of pro-forma egalitarianism engendered by replacing old stereotypes and generalizations with new ones is shallow and unsatisfying whether it occurs within institutions or in the greater civil society.

Take gender equality policies for example. The norms that promoted patriarchal, discriminatory behavior against women are not merely some matter of misunderstanding or meanness. These are biases that have existed deeply embedded in our culture for millennia. To expect us to sweep them away through some crafty rule changes is more than disingenuous; it smacks of outright bait-and-switch. We need reflection, discourse, and compassion to work through these issues -- not the implementation of a new, reciprocal bias to correct the old bias. Kneejerk rejection to bigotry often leads to new political alliances and the mere shifting of institutional power structures rather than a decomposition of net power in society. It doesn't promote the individual's evolution of conscience to create new rules to mechanically follow.

When I say that genuine social change comes from the bottom up, that means it comes from individuals -- from each person's sincere and trying process of searching his or her heart and arriving at a different configuration of morals and ethics than the one previously held. It is an exercise in vulnerability to challenge deep-seated beliefs and identities. This intimate and delicate journey only becomes socially noticeable when it reaches a critical mass of individuals.

Institutions cannot participate in this uniquely human process. They are naturally hostile to the self-consciousness and enlightenment that it can promote. When we adhere to institutions' prescriptive and proscriptive policies, we frustrate that personal, individual process and make the journey lonely and anti-social -- if it occurs at all, because simply toeing the line is safer and less vulnerable.

It is the height of elitism and thoroughly anti-egalitarian to believe that people must be bullied into enlightenment. Institutions hold this mindset because they gain their existence from organizational discipline, but in reality society at large leads them in positive directions, not the other way around. It is crucial, therefore, that we maintain an open society where people are free to hold hateful and bigoted ideas, because to suppress this behavior through authoritarian means only ensures it will pop up again in some worse, more dangerous or perverted form. A dialogue that effectively calls out these ideas can only exist if the ideas themselves can be apprehended without self-censorship.

Privilege needs honest dialogue to identify, for it is quite deeply buried in our minds and hearts. Dictating that people shall no longer exercise their privilege simply cannot work because it does not address the root causes. Empowering institutions to execute such a strategy does more for the institutions, and the privileged people who control them, than it does for the oppressed -- at least in the long run. Privilege must be addressed, not simply sublimated.

A New, New Left

I suggest that the Left begin to orient themselves and their activism towards anti-institutional ends for this very reason. To the extent the Left has accepted institutional remedies to social ills, they have acclimated themselves to hierarchy, privilege, and elitism. This is the sliver of truth in the right wing's denouncement of the "liberal elite". If anti-privilege is just going to be used to justify more privilege, why would you be convinced to support it?

We need an approach to privilege and oppression that can both call its perpetuators out while providing them with alternative approaches to adopt. Hostility to bigotry is natural, but simply acting on that hostility is not judicious. Instead of making fun of, or outright attacking, people whose ideas offend us, we would do our cause better to go in a more contemplative route of sharing stories. The model of the truth and reconcillation commission is a good example of this, as well as the active listening techniques for conflict resolution. In Occupy Richmond, workshops were used to simultaneously deescalate hostilities while promoting listening, and I've witnessed the power of this approach firsthand. However, all of these approaches require us to discipline our emotions and avoid simply lashing out at injustice, suggesting perhaps that we have a project within ourselves to which to attend, one that can complement our project in the world at large.

To oppose political correctness means to uphold genuinely liberal principles like freedom of speech, assembly, and press -- especially when they are uncomfortable. The key is not to defend KKK rallies, or bigoted jokes, or offensive behavior of any kind, but to understand that they cannot be combatted through countervailing oppression, as expedient as that may at first seem. Rather, they can only be genuinely addressed through those mechanisms readily available to us that require neither authority nor privilege. As the saying goes, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house".

However, let's be clear: this new, new Left would have to be truly anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchy. It is to be found most purely not in modern liberalism but in the anarchist movement. Anarchists can be some of the most politically correct because their radical sensibilities can lead to dogmatic behavior, but they also have a long and powerful tradition to draw upon that can inform their path back to consistent egalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism. Indeed, when political correctness is understood for what it is, it will finally be abandoned in favor of something more radical, more effective, and more human.

The words of my hero Robert Anton Wilson seem to capture best why the politically correct orthodoxy of insitutional society is inherently a dead end for radicals:

I see anarchism as the theoretical ideal to which we are all gradually evolving to a point where everybody can tell the truth to everybody else and nobody can get punished for it. That can only happen without hierarchy and without people having the authority to punish other people.

Let's fight privilege, not by creating a new taboo and a reformed ruling class, but by promoting a more honest dialogue and reflective society.

Written on Tuesday, June 12, 2012 | Tags: leftism, political-correctness, active-listening, institutions