Saturday, December 26, 2015

Political Correctness

I can still remember the first time I heard the term "politically correct," on a bus in Chapel Hill in 1991. It sort of stood out as a term with a lot of suppositions behind it, and I wondered if this was a phrase that people used, or did it just pop out of a lady's mouth spontaneously.

Political correctness has emerged now, two decades later, as, apparently, America's greatest enemy. To hear some tell it, political correctness is preventing honest, clear-thinking citizens from telling the truth about things.

As an aside, the one thing you can get me to argue about on the Internet is whether anybody has really told you "you can't say Merry Christmas" any more. Nobody has told you that. (And Merry Christmas to George Leventhal for his Facebook post saying the same thing.)

Let me suggest a way to understand the concept.

Some things are morally good. Kindness and love are good. Forgiveness is good. Fairness, good. Telling the truth is good, and extra points when it's hard or goes against your own self-interest. Helping people is good, being cheerful and grateful for the beauty of the world are good. These things are "right."

Some things are morally repugnant. Killing or hurting innocent people is repugnant, whether in crime, terrorism, or war. Lying for your own gain is repugnant. Insulting people needlessly is morally repugnant. Cheating and greed. Keeping another person from obtaining something they need is morally repugnant. Vanity, egoism, unwillingness to take another person's perspective. These things are "wrong."

The ability to tell right from wrong is considered a fundamental criterion of mental ability, it is the question that determines whether a person is competent to stand trial, for instance. Granted, there is usually no straight shining line. All situations in the real world contain some ambiguity, where maybe you have to violate a principle in order to support another one. It's Christmastime, I will go out on a limb and say that peace on earth and goodwill to men are good things. War and conflict and mistrust, greed, violence get you a lump of coal.

So here is the thing with political correctness: some people do not approve when you say things that are morally repugnant.

There is a little bit of social pressure being applied, I understand, it is a little uncomfortable when people look at you as if you are a jerk. When you say something about a group of people, for instance, implying that all Muslims are terrorists or that Mexican immigrants are rapists, even if you can't see people's faces you know in your heart that they are thinking you are a jerk. You can sense that they are judging you, and that is one of the innate social mechanisms that keeps a society orderly and healthy. We strive to be evaluated positively and feel discomfort when we fail at that.

Normally, we call this feeling "conscience." Your conscience is your sense of whether what you are doing is morally good or repugnant. Political correctness is your conscience speaking.

Why is this "political?" Huh, good question. Politics is the art of getting people to vote for you, and people don't feel comfortable voting for a jerk. If you say you are going to enact policies that make life harder for poor people and easier for the rich, if you say ignorant prejudicial things about foreigners and women and gay people and declare war on random foreign countries, then at some point your unkindness, your unfairness, your moral repugnance might cost you votes. And if you don't win the election you have nothing, as a politician. So in that sense morally repugnant statements are politically incorrect.

The word "correct" in the term is ironic or sarcastic, it is there to deflate the repulsiveness of ugly statements by implying that some group is claiming the authority to define how "we" should think. Thus a statement may be correct in the sense that all Muslims really are terrorists, but politically incorrect because some people have decided you should not say that, maybe because it would hurt a Muslim person's feelings. The implication is that the people who have decided this, for instance people who believe most Muslims are honest people who want to take care of their families and live in peace, are laboring under some sort of delusion, and are manipulating "our" beliefs to serve their own misinformed agenda.

It gets a little more complicated than that: morally repugnant people feel vindicated by numbers. Hate thrives once it infects a majority. It is as if, for some people, right and wrong are a popularity contest, and the fact that a lot of people believe something makes it good. Hatred and other forms of moral repugnance find justification in the agreement of others, and this can be an accelerating process, as a greater majority is able to influence even more people.

We now have leaders of a major political party who assert that their morally repugnant statements are simply truths that some weak people don't want to face. Their rallies are getting raucous, and common sense is getting drowned out. The morally repugnant mob is arming itself, organizing political campaigns, their opinions are being adopted by the press, what was "frankly unthinkable a year ago" is now mainstream.