Sunday, March 1, 2009

Beliefs as status markers

The so-called political correctness phenomenon has two elements. One is a wish to promote a certain sort of civility in talk and writing. That one does not utter or write words or phrases whose meanings diminish or attack someone’s humanity due to their membership of some group, whether based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and so on. This is not only a matter of the emotional impact of words, but also a self-conscious precision in language about how people are: particularly so as to not ascribe blanket features, beliefs or behaviours to the aforementioned groups.

The changes to the use of language involved in this push also involved changing public notions of how the social world is. Naturally, both have been contested.

Moreover, concern to not attack or diminish someone’s humanity can be taken as a requirement not to offend. A form of evangelical niceness. To the extent of, as Matt Ridley has pointed out, deriving is from ought—“claiming that because something ought to be, that it must be”. But the claims of good manners are never absolute: neither against the truth nor against freedom of speech and thought. A line from Nietzsche—“Niceness is what is left of goodness when it is drained of greatness”—seems apposite.

But political correctness has a darker side. The basic principle of tolerance in general is to separate respect for people from respect (or not) for ideas. To hold that people have an inherent moral standing-as-persons that is not trumped by ideas they may or may not hold. A sentiment famously expressed in the ringing words with which Evelyn Beatrice Hall paraphrased Voltaire’s sentiments:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
The reverse idea—that ideas matter more than people, that error has no rights—leads to burning people alive for heresy, shooting people with “counter-revolutionary ideas” and so on: the whole panoply of murder and repression. If freedom means anything, it means the right to be wrong.

Which is the great mis-step that the racism, sexism—bigotry in all forms—is The Great Evil approach to politics makes. If the Great Evil is ideas people may have or express, then one has, in fact, abandoned the first principle of tolerance: that people have an inherent moral standing that is not trumped by ideas they may or may not hold. That one has abandoned this first principle is obscured by the overt concern for (certain sorts of) harm done to others. But abandon it one has, and down that path lies nightmares. Of which the destruction of civility in public life is just the first—though important in itself—step.

For the “political correctness” phenomenon has a related meaning to which the overt concern for public civility gives public cover, even endorsement: the notion that, by adhering to its precepts, one is a member of the club of the morally decent. Even more than that, that one displays a certain wise understanding about the world and how it works. It shows one is a member of the club of the wise, knowledgeable and conspicuously virtuous. For a belief can be a marker of status in the world: a sign of one’s superior wisdom, insight and moral understanding. Which is to say, it can be a moral asset: a marker of one’s membership of the club of the conspicuously virtuous.

Such status is, in economic terms, non-rivalrous (it can be shared by all folk who have the correct opinions) but excludable (it can be denied to folk with the wrong opinions). In other words, it is a club good.

It immediately creates a powerful selling point for said opinions—one can, with such ease, join the club of the conspicuously wise and virtuous. All it takes is to use the right sort of language and espouse the approved opinions. Such effortless virtue is an easy sell.

But, of course, a club has more status the more exclusive it is. And the sins of racism, sexism, etc are sins of the existing society: the more they are, the more morally urgent it is to take action against them. So, the outlook naturally leads to asserting a notion of moral and intellectual superiority against the surrounding society so that virtue comes from critiquing it (and thus vice from defending it). The more aware of the flaws of said society one is—particularly by parading one’s knowledge and appreciation of other cultures—the more one is a member of the conspicuously virtuous. Unlike all those poor, patriotic peons out there sadly over-impressed with the virtues of their society. Sociologist Katharine Betts—whose work the above draws on—puts this as the divide between the cosmopolitans and the parochials.

Academics in particular can feel morally superior by being insulated from the “polluting” touch of commerce—the “ivory tower” as bastion of moral cleanliness. Hence humanities and social science academics produce reams of text on just how morally polluting commerce (i.e. “capitalism”) is, though the intellectual effects of such status-mongering extend well beyond anti-capitalism. Joining the club of the conspicuously virtuous by espousing the approved outlook is certainly a lot easier than learning Latin or Greek, or the other rigours of a Classical education, for example. The outlook is very attractive to teachers generally and can cause problems for their students. (As, for that matter, can any strong belief system among teachers.)*

(* Dr Mark Lopez’s Little Black School Book provides strategies for students to deal with teacher prejudices and predispositions so as to get high marks.)

The mindset also generates a profound intellectual intolerance. Intellectual tolerance requires some separation of respect for persons from respect (or not) for ideas. Any such separation fundamentally contradicts the notion that beliefs-maketh-the-person which ideas-as-status-markers works on. Ideas do not grant superior status unless (1) adherence to them are marks of superior character and (2) dissenting ideas are patently wrong and a sign of inferior, indeed malignant, character. So the status-positive ideas grant more status the more wrong—indeed, malignant and evil—the dissenting ideas and the more such ideas are a sign of the evil, stupid and ignorant malignancy of the adherents of said “evil” ideas. (The same applies, of course, to differentiating activities, such as not engaging in grubby commerce.) If critiquing the surrounding society is the mark of virtue, then defending it is a mark of evil, of moral and intellectual insufficiency: hence the use of ‘conservative’ as not only a “boo” word—and its application to anyone who happens to think that Western civilisation has quite a lot going for it—but as a sign of a lack of moral and intellectual quality and capacity.

If one’s sense of identity, status and virtue is at stake in this way, dissent is not mere difference of opinion, it is an evil to be driven out of the public arena. (It also becomes more unpleasant for those who disagree to work in organizations where such ideas become dominant, facilitating the takeover of institutions.)

Furthermore, it is an outlook that generates some tendency to depart from reality, since a large barrier is created to any inconvenient truths that undermine the status-marker ideas. (Jokes about the only believing Marxists being in Western universities play on this.) Hence the pattern of, in Charles Krauthammer’s words (and using American political terms)
Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.
Those in the liberal-conservative camp believe progressivists ignore certain sorts of basic facts that matter (about human nature, how institutions work, the motives of non-Western movements and states); while liberal-conservatives have ideas that progressivists take as markers of evil (and of ignorance and stupidity) because they contradict their own markers of goodness (and wisdom and knowledge). Hence the latter’s particularly notable tendency to cherry-pick moral imperfections to make much play of: even engaging in startling segues from one deemed moral imperfection to another when awkward facts are brought up.

Similarly, liberal-conservatives** are usually comfortable treating all humans as full moral and causal agents—since that tends to reflect well on the West—while progressivists tend to be less keen to do so, because that tends to reflect well on the West. Hence the tendency to wildly inflate the causal significance of Western actions and to insist that our first duty is to criticise fellow-Westerners (on the notional grounds that that is where we have the biggest impact) because such focus on Western sins feeds the status game. (And regardless of relative moral significance or whether it distracts from understanding what works and what does not.) Much of the appeal of Edward Said’s meretricious Orientalism can be put down to the formulaic moral ostentation it offers of precisely this type.

(**Americans would talk of libertarian-conservative "fusionism".)

It is also an outlook that can have some problem being more widely persuasive, given its inherent tendency to so hostilely discount perspectives and concerns which do not fit its framings of what matters and how language is to be used. But any such failure is self-affirming, since it reinforces the sense of belonging to a cognitive elite. If marker ideas do become widely accepted on some issue—so that they no longer operate as status-markers—that creates a need for new markers of cognitive superiority. Hence the pattern Thomas Sowell noted of:
If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labelled a radical 50 years ago, a liberal 25 years ago, and a racist today.
More generally, ever-widening scepticism about anything that is a support for the surrounding society is inherently attractive since it further reinforces the sense of being a member of the cognitive elite. Conversely, any scepticism about anything that is a status-marker for the club of the conspicuously virtuous is treated as patently malignant (e.g. global warming “denialism”): hence the curious conjunction of moral absolutism about the evils of Western racism, sexism etc with moral relativism about everything else.

So, when you are arguing with someone who seems terribly pc, remember that you may be arguing about how the world is, or is not; how it works, or does not. They, however, are also defending their moral assets and sense of virtue and identity and will resent you saying anything that undermines that sense of virtue and identity or threatens to devalue their moral assets. So they will show the emotional heat one would expect when so much is at stake for them.

Not that these patterns are a monopoly of the politically correct: much the same dynamics may be experienced in arguing about homosexuality with a social conservative. After all, despising homosexuality and homosexuals is effortless virtue for heterosexuals, who can feel all virtuous for not doing what they do not want to do anyway. Indeed, that is central to the appeal and evil of bigotry: that it offers easy benefits to (typically a large or powerful) group and major costs, even intense suffering, to (typically a small or less powerful) group. Does that mean the club virtue aspect of political correctness is a form of bigotry? Of course it does.


  1. Lorenzo

    If you were to compare the university undergrad course outlines in 1985 and 2005 in say, sociology, history, anthropology, and - to the extent they existed - all the 'Studies' course called 'New Humanities' you would find a marked move away from issues of economics and class to an almost pathological obsession with race. This is particularly weird as the racial cosmopolitanism, diversity, and quite successful integration in Australia simply did not exist in 1985.

    I think what has happened is that left-wing ideology was basically built on Marx, and its political project was socialism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Left was without a messiah, a structure, or a project. But rather than behave like psychologically-adjusted adults, and shrug their shoulders saying, "oh well, we were wrong" they merely substituted a white/non-whites dialectic for the bourgeois-proletariat dialectic, and haven't looked back. That is why we see these blogs seething with anger and threads with hundreds of ranting posts at every pick-up of even a whiff of an "offensive racial slur". They're nuts!

  2. There is a certain shared well of deep rage indeed: but the shift from class to obsessing over various forms of ethnic, racial and related notions of identity is part of what happens when the radical Enlightenment retreats--the Counter-Enlightenment advances, as I note here.

    Of course, why is one so desperate to define oneself against the surrounding society? Because that gives status, and status how it counts--in relationship to members of your own society.