The Paradoxes of "Political Correctness"



If someone is whining and complaining about "political correctness," it's usually a good idea to stop listening to them.  They rarely have anything interesting to say. Saying that "political correctness" is bad is such a cliche, so boring, such a rerun of a million blowhards, passed from one brain to another without the slightest critical thought, that when you hear someone complain about "political correctness" you can usually be sure that that person is a total conformist who is utterly driven by popular opinion and incapable of having any independent ideas.

In fact, what you never hear is someone being bold enough to defend political correctness.  That is so rare that it almost doesn't exist.  (Almost.*)  To hear someone give a full-throated cheer for political correctness, no matter how wacky and incongruous and seemingly impossible that argument would have to be, would be a breath of fresh air.  It would be such a treat just for the sheer novelty and creativity it would take for someone to come up with it.  What kind of mental gymnastics would they have to perform?

This essay won't quite be that, but it will come close.   After all, to me, something smells a little self-defeating about defending political correctness, if not in theory, then at least in practice.  Those who demand that unpopular speech be banned tend to make themselves quite unpopular.  Those who call for guillotines often find their own necks on the chopping block.  The critics of democracy and free speech tend to get silenced by the majority, as Socrates knew.

So instead, I want to have a different take on this issue, one that you won't find anywhere else, as far as I know.  I merely want to point out that the other side of this issue is just as paradoxical, just as filled with ironies, as the one that I've just mentioned.  That is, the opposition to political correctness is just as incoherent as political correctness itself.

At the heart of this issue, as I see it, is a fundamental ambiguity in what we mean by "political correctness".  The problem is that, although of course I reject "political correctness" in one sense, one interpretation of the term, at the same time I have to insist that I wholeheartedly believe in another meaning of "political correctness."  And these two meanings are so different that they're almost opposites.  Most of the confusion on this issue stems from the fact that, in the course of a conversation, or lecture, or book, or blog, or youtube video, people will shift back and forth between these two meanings of political correctness, usually without realizing it, rendering their arguments into a confusing mess.

In short, the tension here is between the idea that one should not impose political correctness through brutal coercive practices like censorship - which I agree with - and the idea that political correctness per se is wrong, i.e., that there is no such thing as being correct about politics - which is an idea I find confusing and half-baked.

People use the term "political correctness" often in conjunction with phrases like "moral relativism" and "postmodernism," usually to signify a perceived general trend in culture, especially in the so-called "West," especially among the young, especially in academia.  But these terms are not at all equivalent, and even the tiniest first glance of a passing thought on the matter would have to rather decidedly conclude that something called "relativism" is directly opposed to something called "correctness."  Correctness presupposes that there is only one one correct viewpoint, whereas relativism means at the very least a consideration of multiple viewpoints.  And if by "postmodernism," we mean (as Lyotard would have it) a skepticism toward overarching metanarratives, this seems take any kind of political correctness right off the table.  Postmodernism is opposed to political correctness.  They are opposites.

This brings me to my point, so let me address those who criticize the very concept of political correctness head on: if you don't believe in political correctness, does that mean that nothing is correct to you?  Do you think that there's no difference at all between being correct and being incorrect?  These terms are completely meaningless for you?  Does that mean there is no right and wrong?  Is there no truth and falsehood?  Or is it that you think that ideas like "right" and "wrong" and "truth" and "falsehood" don't apply to politics?  Politics is, for you, a kind of area that has been scrubbed completely free of all of that - a totally sterile environment, clinically devoid of any human contaminants of desires or meaning or anything else - a pure politics - a power, and a pursuit of power that no longer bears any relation to the truth...?  Wouldn't even the prerogatives of strategy presuppose that some strategies are better suited to a particular political environment than others, and therefore that some political strategies are more... correct... than others?  Doesn't it seem that if we have to throw out the very idea of anything being more correct than anything else, then we will be lost in a universe of infinite madness?

Now: one thing that I can fully understand is the desire to analyze politics and economics from a non-moral framework.  But what gets me is how, when a lot of people rail against "political correctness," they do so with such self-righteousness, and so much of what Nietzsche would call ressentiment.  

To put it in a nutshell: if you think that political correctness is wrong, doesn't that mean that you think that it is... incorrect?

But if you think that political correctness is incorrect, that implies that you think that something else is correct.  So, our politics should be guided by that other thing, which is... politically... correct.  So, it turns out that you do believe in political correctness, after all.  We might disagree on what is politically correct, but we what we both believe is that something is correct, politically speaking.  

Or we could look at it this way: do you think you have any rights?  Let's say we have two people, call them Ara and Ben.  Ara believes deeply in the right to free speech.  Ben believes in the right to healthcare.  What does that mean?  If you believe that someone has the right to something, then you think that it is right that the person should get that thing.  So, for instance, Ara thinks that it's right that a person's freedom of speech should be protected.  Or, to put it differently, Ara thinks that it's correct that a person's freedom of speech should be protected.  Since we are talking about political rights here, we are talking about what is politically correct.  Now, Ara and Ben might disagree about what's correct - Ara might say, "A person has the right to free speech, but not to free health care," or vice versa.  But what they have in common is that both of them believe that something is right, that something is correct, politically - and, necessarily, this implies that something else is wrong, incorrect.  Of course, it's possible that Ara and Ben are both correct.  Maybe people have the right to free speech and free health care.  But if you're saying that you don't believe in political correctness at all, what you're saying is that you don't have any right to free speech, or to health care, or any rights at all, and no one else does either.  In other words, you're saying it's a matter of complete indifference whether anyone is allowed to speak, or indeed whether they live or die.  Very well.

But if you believe in any political rights, then you believe in political correctness. What "politically correct" people are doing - wisely or unwisely, effectively or ineffectively, as the case may be - is fighting for the rights of people whose rights have been trammeled upon.

(Now, this sends us down some rabbit holes: what is politically correct?  How do we know what is correct?  What rights do we have?  How do we know that we have them?  Where did they come from?  All of these are important questions, and they should all be pursued in due course.  I, for one, think that they can be answered along the lines of Desirism.  But that is all for another time.  For now, I merely want to establish that you probably already believe, implicitly, that some political principles are correct.)

Sometimes I think that the real problem here is aesthetics.  I think people have a problem with the word "correctness."  I get it.  It's an ugly word.  It doesn't even seem like a word, but it is.  It conjures up an image of a school teacher, with a ruler in their hand.  When we hear it, we feel like we're in trouble.  "Political rectitude" is another possibility, but I don't like the aesthetics of that word either, because it makes me think of a rectum.  Another word for this might be "justice."  We can argue about the aesthetics of that word, too.  I also think people dislike moralizing and nagging - and I agree - mostly because moralizing and nagging are so ineffective.  Nobody wants to be a goody two-shoes.  It's so boring and unattractive.  Even better than justice is coolness, because everybody wants to be cool.  Let's start an era of political coolness.

* = I can only think of one example** of a serious intellectual actually defending political correctness, which will be the subject of a forthcoming article.  Stay tuned.

** = Well, maybe two.  But that second example... you're going to have to wait even longer for that one, because it's a whole complicated thing.


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