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A Defence of Political Correctness

PsychologyPosted by Nico Metten Wed, May 21, 2014 19:46:50

Libertarians seem to hate Political Correctness (PC). A lot of them see it as a statist ideology that needs to be fought. Certainly, PC has become a political tool for censorship. There are now laws in place that punish people for speaking out politically incorrect thought and for discriminating against the wrong people. This is without any doubt a very bad development and indeed needs to be fought.

However, does this mean that everything about PC is bad? Does it mean that a Libertarian has to be anti PC? First of all one has to say that the term is not very clear. Different people mean different things by it. It can range from 'taking care of your choice of words' to being synonymous to an egalitarian political agenda. The latter can certainly not be defended by Libertarians. However, I think there is an important idea in PC that I find attractive and that is compatible with Libertarianism. That is not to say that Libertarians have to be PC, but they certainly can be. Here is what I like about PC.

I would like to live in a society that is polite and peaceful. In principal we can of course think of a libertarian society in which people hate each other, but nevertheless leave each other alone. However, if people really hate each other, the peace within that society would certainly be fragile. Besides, I personally simply do not find such a society attractive. I would much rather live in a society in which tolerance and mutual respect is the norm.

How are we going to get there? In social situations, humans, like many other mammals are normally playing tit for tat strategies. That means that you always tend to reap what you sow. If you are nice to people, people will be nice to you. If you are hostile, you will get hostility back. Of course, I am not naïve enough to believe that this works with every single human being. There are certainly truly bad people, social predators that will hurt you no matter what you do. Those people need to be avoided under any circumstance and if possible, removed from society. But there are not many of these people and there usually is a brought coalition across cultures and races against them. They should not concern us too much here, as they are not a vital part of society. The vast majority of people, everywhere in the world is basically decent. They don't want to hurt you, even if they would get away with and profit from it. Ok, maybe if you make the incentive high enough, that changes. I would not necessarily trust every stranger with a suitcase full of my money, but for all practical circumstances this seems to be a good assumption.

However, if it is a good assumption, then how come people often end up in conflict with each other? One of the biggest sources of conflict is of course the fact that we live in a scarce world. One way of dealing with that situation is to start fighting over who is going to be allowed to use these resources. However, as David Friedman writes in his book 'The Machinery of Freedom” this is such a primitive solution that it is only being done by small children and great nations. A much Better way of dealing with it is of course capitalism. The division of labour and accumulation of capital has reduced the scarcity of all essential resources to a degree that no one needs to fight for it anymore. Or at least no one would need to fight for it anymore, if only politics was staying out of it.

Another big source of conflict seems to be intolerance. There are two countries in Europe that have developed real freedom in the past. One is Switzerland, the other is England. Both of course in very different ways. However, what I find interesting about it is that both countries have developed similar ideas about politeness. From a German point of view, the English rules of politeness are probably the most confusing thing to deal with, when coming to this country. German politeness is fundamentally different from the English one. Of course, different parts of Germany have different mentalities. The Rhineland around Cologne is much closer to the english mentality then say the one from Bavaria or Berlin. But none is really close to the english.

Before I came to this country I of course did some research on it. I asked people who had spend some time here, how they liked it. I got confusing answers. Half of them really loved it and could imagine living here. The other half however was the exact opposite. They really hated it and told me I could not trust the English. The picture that they draw was the picture of a country of liars and crooks. Very confusing. How could these two extremes be explained? When I came her to study a Masters degree, I got an idea where these differences in opinion came from. One half understood english politeness the other one did not.

Germans have a very direct mentality. Honesty rules. The concept of telling white lies only exists in extremes. If you ask a German for his opinion, he will most likely tell you exactly what he thinks. And if you don't ask him, chances are he will tell you anyway. In his criticism, he will most likely start by telling you what he does not like. I guess the idea is to prove that one is honest and trustworthy. “Look, I am not some slimy salesman trying to sell you a used car. You can trust me and to proof that to you, I am going to tell you the full nasty truth, because you deserve the truth”.

The English on the other hand seem to perceive direct criticism as a personal attack. Of course, the direct criticism of the Germans is an attempt to change things. Honesty might sound good at first, but what this is really all about is to put pressure on people to conform to a certain standard. Individualism and non-perfectionism is not welcome. The only way to escape this constant stream of brutal criticism is to do as everyone else does and to not make mistakes. A very humourless exercise.

Having been a free country, England on the other hand has developed a real sense of privacy. This might sound a bit ironic, giving that this country is by far the worst surveillance state in history. But on a personal level, people do respect privacy. That is why direct criticism is considered so rude. It is simply none of my business to criticise you, unless you explicitly ask me for it. Interestingly, although Switzerland is a lot closer to Germany, both geographically and culturally, it has developed independently a similar idea of politeness. In Switzerland privacy matters and German directness is unwelcome.

What does this all have to do with PC? It shows that tolerance is essential for a free society. In order to reduce conflict and make a peaceful society possible, people in England are willing to constantly outright lie to each other, whenever the truth becomes a bit inconvenient. They are not just willing to do this, but they are put under big pressure to do so. People who do not comply with these politeness rules are facing social sanctions. I have experienced this myself, by loosing some customers for being too direct with them. In my German mentality I thought, when someone hires me to fix the sound on a film, it would be best to start analysing what is wrong with the sound so that it can be fixed efficiently. Why waste time pointing out things that are already good. But starting out with negative criticism before saying anything nice was perceived as a slap in the face and they never came back. This, in my view is a good example of where politeness goes to far. It is just time and resource consuming. But that is the way it always is with social norms. They are usually simplistic and unable to differentiate between different situations.

Today we live in a very unequal world, with huge differences between poor and rich countries. These differences set in motion big streams of people of different cultures and races moving from unproductive to productive areas. That means inhomogeneous, multicultural societies will be the norm. In my view this is a very welcomed development. But even if you look at this with a bit of worry, it is clear that only states are powerful enough to reduce these streams in any meaningful way. Supporting these states is nothing Libertarians should have an interest in doing. We will need to find a peaceful solution to potential problems. The only way to make this work is by practicing some tolerance. You leave me alone and I leave you alone. We both don't antagonize each other.

PC in my view can be seen as an extension of politeness from protecting the privacy of individuals to protecting the dignity of cultures or races. If we make it acceptable for people to spread hostility towards other people for being different we will saw more hostility. Once started, these hostilities can escalate more and more and turn into and outright war. Some might say we already are in the mids of such a war. I would disagree, but even if this was true the answer would be tolerance. Everything else would escalate this war and that is certainly in no ones interest.

I see two big problems with PC as it is today. The most obvious one is that PC is more and more enforced by the state. If the state was to enforce politeness it would turn into a nightmare. Sometimes negative criticism is necessary. Only individuals can decide where the line between being honest and being polite is. The same is true for PC. Sometimes differences between groups matter and need to be addressed. When an employer does not have the right to pay his female employee less for the real risk of her becoming pregnant, then PC has gone too far. Only state laws can enforce this nonsense.

The second problem of modern PC is that it is unequally applied. Only certain groups are shielded from criticism while it is open season on others. A PC like that will lead to power imbalances and a force for bad. So in a way, we are not PC enough.

A voluntary PC that restrains unnecessary, open criticism of groups via social pressure is a good thing in my view. I don't think that this idea should be part of Libertarianism itself, but personally I find it very hard to imagine a free society without these forms of social rules. There is a reason, why similar ideas have emerged in both England and Switzerland. And I expect them to see in future free societies.

  • Comments(8)

Posted by Nico Metten Mon, June 23, 2014 20:57:49

"Why do you feel it is distinct?"

Because that is not how most people use the word. Most of the time, when i hear someone talk about political correctness he means that this is offending some minority group. He does not necessarily try to make the point that something is against the law. But even if what you are saying is right, then the better strategy is to use the word in a more libertarian way instead of trying to fight it.

"It strikes me that what you might favour is not PC at all but rather a freer Social Correctness, Nico, or good manners with no laws to goal or to fine offenders"

It strikes you? I think I said very explicitly that that is what I want. And that is how most people I meet use the word PC. That is why I am in favour of a certain PC. You are the only one I have met that uses the word as a synonym for egalitarianism. It is very confusing. So why not use the word egalitarianism, if that is what you mean.

Posted by David McDonagh Mon, June 23, 2014 19:44:24

I apologise for the lateness of my reply, Nico. I got carried away preparing the talks on GW and Butler.

PC is exactly egalitarian statism, Nico. Why do you feel it is distinct?

You are right that if the law fails to back the PC mores up, to actually privilege them, as Lee sees it does, then the mores, or the attempted more making, is harmless enough and not illiberal; but that is not now it has been on race and sex since about 1960 in the UK. The first laws backed up the media mores on the phenomenon that we now call Political Correctness came in the UK around 1962.

It strikes me that what you might favour is not PC at all but rather a freer Social Correctness, Nico, or good manners with no laws to goal or to fine offenders. I would not bother to oppose that. It would not be political in the usually anti-social sense.

It is the actual politics or the gratuitous coercion that I oppose as anti-liberal as well as anti-social. But then politics pretends to be most social and to be even friendly to one and all but in reality it bosses people about, or attempts to do so.

I agree that all the state touches becomes illiberal. It is set against liberty, quite institutionally, such that most people simply do not see it as coercive. How many people realise that a vote is a vote against other people, that it is gratuitous coercion against them? It may be more like a feminine slap than a masculine punch but it is proactive coercion even if it is mild. But this is institutional rather than personal, so voters need not feel even one bit hostile; and they usually do not.

Do you truly feel 1962 is only recent, Nico? Or is it that you did not know that the PC laws in the UK go back to the early 1960s?

Yes, some street attackers might be bored or bad and others may just be what the PCers call racialists. I think the motivation does not matter but that it is illiberal not to let others pass in the street, no matter how much you might hate them. The hatred is harmless enough but not the street abuse.

I stand by what I said last time on hatred. I have seen lots of fights but not one began by hatred that I know of. As with love, most hatred seems to result in no action at all. It is shyness with love but it seems to be a sort of apathy with hatred.

Most people I have met seem to be apolitical. Aristotle seems to have got it utterly wrong on the idea that man was a political animal. If he was keen on politics, as many are, say, on football, then liberalism might be given way more consideration.

If one group is considered inferior to the other then that tends to make the inferior group easier to tolerate, all things being equal. A superior group will, by contrast, be feared.

Censorship is clearly illiberal, Nico. We all have to tolerate all those things, freedom of association, rejection or acceptance, as we all seem to know when boy meets girl. There we are all social liberals, as literature and song has educated us all so very well over the centuries when boy meets girl. We have all given that sort of meeting way more attention.

Posted by Nico Metten Fri, May 23, 2014 22:21:46

Exactly the state is the problem not PC. PC without state involvement could not get too far. People would not go along with it. So let us not oppose PC but the state. If you start opposing PC itself, then you risk overshooting in the opposite direction. Then people will start thinking they will have to be racist to not be PC and that essentially would make racism acceptable again. So the good and important aspect of PC, which is tolerance will be opposed. I have seen this. People who think that PC is evil, very often start being more racist just to make a point.

It is like with a lot of prohibitions. People who oppose drug prohibition for example often make the mistake of playing down the dangers of drugs instead of simply opposing state interventions. I have seen people starting smoking, just because the state is fighting cigarettes. They saw this as some kind of act against statism. Stupid!

Posted by Lee Waaks Fri, May 23, 2014 21:12:37

Thank you for your reply. If PC is understood as politeness and respect for liberty, then I am all for PC. In addition, I see no need for gratuitous insults against various racial/ethnic groups. Like you, I am adamantly opposed to fanning the flames of hatred. However, I think David's understanding of PC is correct: privileging one group above another, (including in debate). It is this privileging that makes arguments based on racial inferiority so popular. For example, when a white neighborhood feels threatened by e.g. an influx of blacks in the face of anti-discrimination laws, one justification for keeping them out will be that they are more crime-prone. So, it is primarily the state that gives a boost to policy discussions that revolve around real or alleged racial differences. (Of course, if blacks are more crime prone, then they are ipso facto less polite too!).

Posted by Nico Metten Thu, May 22, 2014 15:17:35

David, you are using PC as a synonymous for egalitarian statism. Certainly those type of people are using PC as a power instrument. But in the hands of the state everything becomes poisonous. Look how many horrible things are being done in the name of freedom. Most people I know are PC. Not in an egalitarian way, but simply in form of politeness. PC only quite recently started to be implemented into laws.

I am talking about political conflicts not street fights. Indeed you get people liking violence out of boredom or because they are simply bad people. As I mentioned, there are some people you just need to avoid. Political conflicts on the other hand do have something to do with people hating each other. This hatred is usually due to misunderstandings and then escalate easily. To avoid these conflicts, there needs to be an agreement that spreading hostilities is a bad thing. What good can come out of a debate that blacks are inferior to whites or vice versa, even if there was factually some truth to it? Nothing, it just plays people against each other, so lets not have them.

Posted by David McDonagh Thu, May 22, 2014 14:55:15

PC is protectionist, concerned with privileging favoured groups and thereby under-privileging other groups, to make up for imagined harm that earlier such groups suffered or inflicted that Romantic history cooks up, as does sociology and psychology; all three PC paradigms most of all. Equality is the ideal of PC, which it seeks to enforce by law.

Political Correctness as an ideology pretends to be about politeness, but it is very clear that PCers are out to be offensive, and that they are quite clearly offensive in all that they say and do. Politeness is the cover for the sheer intolerance of the PC paradigm.

The pet hate of PC is discrimination, of any sort, but discrimination is vital to any choice, so it is really choice that PC hates.

The next thing it hates is free speech. It bans it completely on historical topics and lately on global warming/climate change too, as well as free speech on race and sex.

As pristine liberals favour liberty, free trade, free speech, and choice then it is not hard to see why many of the liberals are against PC, for it is anti-liberal in its drive for the protection of favoured groups, in its drive for ever more totalitarian laws as to what we are free to say, in its drive for regulation about equality, it is against freedom of association or choice in elementary civil liberties.

If PC kept out of politics and the aim of more and more statutory laws it would not be so bad, but then its whole aim is to increase the laws still further. It glories in state regulation as its acme.

On some other topics touched on by Nico.

The norm is not for people who hate each other to fight. They rarely do and I have not seen it, even once. But I have seen thousands of fights, and had many myself in my first 13 years. Hatred has next to nothing to do with fighting; indeed maybe nothing at all. It is more like sport than hatred. Fighting is an end rather than a means with most fighters.

War is the end, too, with crass politics in almost any case if not in every case.

In politics and war I have seen hatred expressed, but rarely in muggings or street violence. It is dominance or sheer fun for the muggers but rarely hatred. The victims may feel hatred in the aftermath, of course. But most of the victims that I know are very PC and forgiving. But then most of the mugged people that I know have been Labourite women in their 60s or older. And they have been badly battered in most cases.

Scarcity has nothing to do with it. Muggers clearly want to hit others rather than to rob them.

The state too has an acme of war. It is not often a mere means. It is not fighting to defend the nation/culture or the other things often explicitly said. They motivate the troops but they are otherwise not one whit germane to most wars.

Posted by Nico Metten Thu, May 22, 2014 10:26:40

“My understanding of PC -- and the reason why I adamantly oppose it -- is that it carves out certain views as unworthy of discussion or debate”

Yes, it is that aspect that I am defending. It should be a taboo to say certain things. Not a crime, I am not arguing in favour of any state intervention. I am an anarchist. Of course you are free to associate with whoever you want. PC has never been that strong to prevent people from doing that. That is why that state had to introduce laws against certain discriminations. People don't go along with it voluntarily.

But a taboo that states certain subjects are naughty to debate is useful. Just like it is useful to have rules of politeness that makes saying certain things rude and therefore not acceptable. Normally what is not acceptable to say under rules of politeness is factually true. You don't go around telling people that they are ugly, even if it is obviously true for many people. But if you did that, you would cause a lot of conflicts that have a negative effect on society. That is why these politeness rules have been developed and you find them in all true civil societies.

I see no benefits of opening an open debate about whether black people are more or less conscientious than whites. Even if it was true, if a black person heart that, he must get the impression that there are some hostilities going on against him. And therefore the reaction will be that he will react hostile back. You reap what you saw. Racism is not a new idea. It has been debated and tested with bad results. So lets learn from that. We did not start with PC, we started with racism. PC if a reaction to the bad results of that.

That is at least my opinion. I am not saying you have to share it if you want to be a libertarian, but I advertise it in the hope that people will follow.

Posted by Lee Waaks Wed, May 21, 2014 22:34:50

My understanding of PC -- and the reason why I adamantly oppose it -- is that it carves out certain views as unworthy of discussion or debate. In addition, the state enforces PC rules and creates a culture of fear. Your talk on immigration (very good, btw) illustrates this process very well. A few people in the audience raised questions about untrammeled immigration in the face of PC rules about discrimination. For example, some people view e.g. blacks as less conscientious and, therefore, more likely to commit crimes. Granted, we shouldn't violate property rights because of this fear, but at least we should allow those who are concerned about increasing crime in their neighborhoods to exercise freedom of association without interference from the state. In the U.S., for example, there is a phenomenon of "white flight" when blacks encroach upon their neighborhoods. Of course, it is quite possible those neighborhoods would have been abandoned anyway due to upward mobility, but if the state enforces anti-discrimination laws, it means the costs imposed upon whites are simply ignored given that we do not know what would have happened in the absence of anti-discrimination laws. PC actually inhibits conversations/debates such as this and endangers livelihoods -- and, occasionally, lives. Of course, racial differences (alleged or real) do not mean we should abandon politeness or cooperation. Far from it. But we should resist our own version of Lysenkoism.