Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jonathan Chait's recent cri de coeur on the resurgence of "political correctness" is a bit muddled about its subject, alternating between complaints that it's too extreme, that it's too identity-based, and that it's too repressive of others' free speech rights.  Needless to say, he's being pilloried from both the left and the right, the former for his treason and the latter for his hypocrisy (he's allegedly committed at least some of the crimes of which he accuses the "PC police"). 

And some of those criticisms are quite valid.  For example, complaining that "political correctness" is dangerous because it's too extreme, or otherwise wrong and terrible, is a red herring.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion regarding what is extreme or wrong or terrible, whether they are to Chait's left, to his right, or in perfect alignment with him.  I happen to agree with Chait that the ideas he's ridiculing are ridiculous, and when people who adhere to them decide to admonish me for ridiculing them, I typically laugh them off as fools, rather than warn darkly of the danger they pose.

In particular, racial, ethnic or gender essentialism--the idea that an argument's merit depends on those innate properties of the arguer--is certainly most worthy of criticism.  In many cases, it's tantamount to outright bigotry.  (See my comments on white privilege, for instance.)  But it's also pretty transparently stupid, and reasonable people shun such arguments, including Chait, myself and many others.  Lumping the purveyors of such crackpot ideas together as a dangerous movement seems a tad overwrought.

The point at which these ideas really do become dangerous, though, is the point at which they sneak their way into official or de facto policies applied by organizations with real power.  It's here that Chait's misunderstanding of the history of "political correctness" sends him badly off-course.  In Chait's telling, "political correctness" enjoyed a bit of a heyday during the 1990s on college campuses, then disappeared for a while, only to reappear lately both on campus and on Internet social fora.  In fact, the political correctness campaign of the 1990s was a coordinated effort by campus radicals and liberal college administrators to effectively purge or silence all political conservatives on most major college campuses.  The purge having largely succeeded, the campaign died down, only to heat up recently, with the same campus radicals (or their successors) attempting this time to ally with newer, more left-leaning college administrators to purge moderate or centrist liberals.  It's this new purge which has Chait, a fairly middle-of-the-road liberal despite his sometimes-incendiary rhetoric, so up-in-arms.

Some non-academic circles, particularly the journalism and entertainment industries, have also mirrored this same sequence of purges.  As Chait himself tells it, his colleagues are now loath to express opinions that might run afoul of his own circle's equivalent of campus radicals, for fear not only of rebuke, but of real loss of stature in the rather close-knit community of "mainstream" opinion journalism (overwhelmingly dominated, of course, by liberals).  And cases such as Brandon Eich's and Maria Conchita Alonso's show that enforcement of politically correct orthodoxy is not confined to college campuses alone.

The problem, therefore, is not actually "political correctness"--neither the opinions themselves nor their aggressive advocates--but rather the institutions that have been captured by those advocates and purged of opponents.  More precisely, it's that several important social institutions have repeatedly proven themselves vulnerable to such capture and subsequent purging.  Unsurprisingly, those institutions also enjoy a cartel-like non-competitive position that allows them to be co-opted without losing their social influence. 

The solution in each case, then, is not to attempt to counteract the influence of politically correct infiltrators--let alone to purge them--but rather to remove the institution's protected status, and subject it to the kind of competition that makes internal enforcement of a repressive political orthodoxy untenable.  When accredited universities and cable-carried news channels are no longer dominated by a single political outlook, and students and viewers are free to choose options they're comfortable with, then the iron grip of political correctness will inevitably fall away.  As for Chait's own field--well, perhaps he's working for the wrong type of magazine...

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