For the last month or so ‘political correctness’ – the term – has been bugging me. Perhaps there’s been a slight uptick in usage on conservative sites and blogs, due to some combination of Cliven Bundy, Brendan Eich and Donald Sterling. But really the problem is chronic.
Why did ‘political correctness’, which is so … Dinesh D’Souza circa 1991 … become an evergreen right-wing complaint?
Conservatives might say: because Bundy, Eich, Sterling – plus Paula Deen and that Duck Dynasty guy. There is one grain of truth to this. A couple posts back I remarked that, if MLK came back from the dead, he would find it weird that that there is – oh, for example: lots of school segregation. Yet rich old white people can get in a ton of trouble just for using the n-word in private. What a crazy old world it’s shaped up to be. This situation is so crazy that you get conservatives deducing the non-existence of racism, generally, from Sterling’s case: “His ugly remarks are proof, as I’ve said before, not that racism is alive and well in America, but rather that racism is on its last leg. The man has been publicly branded a pariah. The American people have made him an outcast. You think any of that would have happened if we really were a racist nation, as some would have us believe?”
But the obvious upside-down and backwards character of this argument just goes to show why these sorts of cases don’t work at all for purposes of alleging a climate of ‘political correctness’. Reason: even the people who are arguing that these sorts of cases are ‘political correctness’ run amok don’t think it’s acceptable to be racist or even homophobic, these days. The real puzzle, then, isn’t why using the n-word is considered unacceptable, given the consensus that being racist is unacceptable. The puzzle is why school segregation is considered fine. Or maybe the puzzle is even: why is racism still considered unacceptable, if school segregation is fine?
In general, there will always be things it is considered unacceptable to say, not for some weird, arbitrary, linguistic reason, but because it is always considered unacceptably bad to be an unacceptably bad person. If you say or do things that make people believe you are a horrible person, people will believe you are a horrible person. (People are illogical, sure, but not usually that illogical.) There is no society in which being an unacceptably unacceptable person is considered perfectly acceptable, hence politically and socially acceptable. Of course, what is considered acceptable changes … but being unacceptable is always unacceptable. It doesn’t seem like we need the term ‘political correctness’ to label the fact that there’s a little Lemongrab in everyone who isn’t a strict moral relativist.
The puzzle, with regard to conservatives, is not that liberals are tying their tongues with arbitrary linguistic bans. The puzzle is why they voluntarily wear an Overton Straightjacket. Conservatives are almost always about one inch from saying something that conservatives themselves agree is totally unacceptable to say. That’s why they often end up saying totally unacceptable stuff. I have my own theories about that. Let’s stick with political correctness.
The problem with the term – ‘political correctness’ – is that, at least since it was born as a right-wing term of abuse, it’s never had to do a day’s honest work in its life. (It’s the semantic equivalent of wingnut welfare.)
So I’m thinking: maybe we could offer it an honest job? Then maybe the good could drive out the bad, in time? (It’s a dream.)
‘Political correctness’ is, in fact, a pretty good name for a highly specific form of fallacious, motivated reasoning that has no accepted name. It’s not, per se, partisan thinking, or tribalism (although these feed it.) Kahneman writes about the general phenomenon of ‘substituting questions’ (not a very snappy name) when we confront a question or problem that’s just too complex or hard.
If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, System 1 [fast thought] will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another substitution.
I also adopt the following terms:
The target question is the assessment you intend to produce.
The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answer instead.
Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 97)
Anyway, let ‘political correctness’ name the following slip. You are asked to judge the likelihood that P is true. You have no way to do that, with anything like epistemic responsibility, so you substitute: what is the prospect of getting some class of people (possibly your tribe, but perhaps a larger set) to proceed, politically, on the basis that P. You thus get a slider of possible degrees of political acceptability of P, which you fallaciously read as degrees of probability that P. Anything politically unacceptable is treated as false; anything it is politically obligatory to accept is treated as true; anything somewhere in between is treated as some degree of maybe, per its degree of likely acceptability.
This might seem circular, because it effectively reduces ‘political correctness’ to ‘political acceptability’, which might be a synonym. But I hope it’s clear that I’m getting at something non-circular. You are treating the likelihood of being able to induce belief in P, and action on the basis of P, in some group Q, as an index of the probability that P, independent of all that.
Political partisans engage in this sort of thinking all the time, of course. If their side isn’t prepared to act on the basis of the truth that P, it can’t be true. But not all partisan thinking is irrational in this way. You may refuse to give P the time of day, not because you don’t think it is possibly true, but to avoid offending someone in your coalition. Pragmatism is not always irrationality, even though it often involves tolerance for irrationality – or at least touchiness – in others.
Even some irrational partisan thinking is not irrational in quite this way. Not all partisan irrationality is so sensitively crowd-minded as the fallacy I am outlining. Mine is a fallacy for those who think they can pick winners in political horseraces, and mistake this for a more fundamental attunement to reality.
From which it follows: some not especially partisan political thinking will be highly ‘politically correct’.
Politics is the art of the possible. My fallacy is the inadvertent art of mistaking degrees of political possibility for degrees of truth. Not all artful politicians are party loyalists. Hence, moderates and trimmers are just as likely to commit the fallacy of political correctness as fanatics and partisans. Punditry as a whole will have an innate weakness for political correctness.
Just to get us started, here is a piece by Ryan Cooper, arguing that Clive Crook is blinded by political correctness. Crook has no way of judging the degree of risk posed by the threat of global warming. He’s no expert. But he has a way of judging the degree of likelihood that belief that global warming will have serious consequences can be made the basis for political action. The answer is: the likelihood is low. Crook, not noticing that he has bait-and-switched his own question, downplays the risks of global warming, in effect on the grounds that the risks of anyone doing anything about the problem, whether it is serious or not, is low. Which obviously makes no sense.
As Cooper puts it:
Any position called “moderate” with respect to climate science would, at a minimum, engage with the evidence and predictions, which leads straightforwardly to a need for extremely aggressive action as soon as possible. But Crook’s position is political moderation — that is, simply picking a point somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum.
Political moderation on climate change is many things, but perhaps the most important one is that, as we’ve seen, it is incredibly risky.
To conclude: ‘politically correct’ is currently a term with no meaning, but regular use. I propose my definition as a meaning that will enable the term, henceforth, to acquire at least occasional, more respectable employment. Conservatives are, of course, perfectly free to seek and find examples of leftists engaging in politically correct thinking, on this new, solider semantic basis. I’m quite sure it’s quite common. People are often inclined to conflate judgments of the factual likelihood of P with the likelihood that some political faction, or coalition, could be induced to proceed on the basis that the factually of P is likely.