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On Being Politically Incorrect

Piers Benn makes some deeply suspect observations.

There is much written these days on being politically correct. Quality newspapers and magazines have latched onto the predominantly American idea that certain habits of speech, ways of addressing people, social attitudes and even eating habits betray a fundamental lack of soundness in one’s ideological outlook and call for urgent and radical re-education. To be sure, the recent British interest in this phenomenon is largely from a critical angle; Peter Jenkins, writing in The Independent a few months ago, denounced the pressure for political correctness as dangerously illiberal, and the hackles have been raised of many a libertarian journalist such as Auberon Waugh. There is also, no doubt, a temptation to exaggerate the influence of the enforcers of political correctness, for such people are the perfect foil for the derision of many a bombastic individualist. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is real. It exists in many different shades of fanaticism, of course, and different politically correct people give prominence to different pet causes. But there is no shortage of people who see fit to correct the ‘ideology’ of others and to abolish the conditions under which such erroneous thoughts can survive.

Why, however, should this be of the slightest interest to philosophers? A trivial reason is that philosophers should be interested in things other than philosophy. Another is that, in any case, it raises central questions in ethics and political philosophy. A third is that, as lecturers, professional philosophers regularly address large audiences of students, some of whom hold views that are very correct indeed and who can, if they want, make life quite difficult for teachers who betray any lack of enthusiasm for them. I must admit that this is not very common where I lecture (at St. Andrews). I sometimes wonder whether, if I declared in a lecture that “Hitler was a great leader”, the main response would be to ask whether “Hitler” has one or two “t”s. But even here, a tide of moral fervour occasionally sweeps the city. Unfocussed outrage usually finds some object without difficulty; if nothing else will do, pornography is a reliable stand-by. Racism used to be another, at least in some places, but seems to have gone out of fashion. The environment is one of the trendiest concerns, to the extent that manufacturers bend over backwards to assure buyers that their wares will not damage the ozone layer or the eco-system, or whatever it might be. But far more central to political correctness is the need to annihilate all kinds of alleged hegemonies – sexual and cultural ones, for instance. And since the unsound attitudes are deeply ingrained and often unconscious, a language must be developed that confronts and eliminates them.

This idea, of course, is not new. Its ascendancy is brilliantly foretold by George Orwell, who developed the concept of ‘newspeak’ – a form of pseudo language invented by the Party in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, with the aim of making deviant thoughts unthinkable. “It is intolerable to us”, says O’Brien, “that a single erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be”. Indeed, the newspeak word that describes the politically correct is “goodthinkful” – meaning, as Winston puts it, “naturally orthodox; incapable of thinking a bad thought”. (It is noteworthy that this is not the first time this novel has been mentioned in this journal – see Daniel Hutto’s article in the first edition. Nineteen Eighty-Four is in many ways a philosophically seminal work).

Many writers have noticed that latter-day newspeak is stylistically catastrophic. The need, for example, piously to acknowledge that the human race contains female as well as male members, whenever using the third-person pronoun, has led to great literary ugliness – ‘he or she’, or ‘she or he’, sound pedantic; “s/he” is unpronounceable and “she”, whilst avoiding the problems of the other two expressions, seems a trifle self-congratulatory. We could multiply examples endlessly. But the philosophical question is this: whilst it is easy to ridicule such talk or to pour scorn on its triviality, can we give a more precise account of what exactly is wrong with it? Indeed, is there really anything wrong with it at all? Is there a distinct philosophical motivation behind the many attempts to turn language and attitudes in a ‘politically correct’ direction?

A relatively superficial question concerns the actual truth of many of the claims that are made by goodthinkful people. Is it, as a matter of fact, true that blacks or women are, as groups, historically oppressed? Is it true that even to raise the question is already to reveal an incorrect ideological outlook? Certainly there have been those who see ostensibly objective and rational attempts to appraise such notions as steeped in the ideology of the oppressor. Rationality has been said to be a mere tool for maintaining power structures; the concept of objectivity has been attacked as bogus. When, for example, the American psychologist Arthur Jensen produced findings which he said provided evidence of a genetic component in average IQ differences between American blacks and whites, there was uproar. Anyone who claimed that, whatever Jensen’s motives may have been, the claim that there is a genetic basis for IQ differences is a purely factual and empirical one (rather than false a priori ), was met with hostility. There seemed, to many, to be something especially odious about cloaking racism in scientific language (had not the Nazis done exactly that?).

Now whether it is true or not that such apparent IQ differences really do have a genetic explanation, is not really a very interesting question. Indeed, I believe that Jensen subsequently repudiated his alleged findings. Nor need his own motives come under scrutiny here. I take this merely as an example of how claims to scientific objectivity are sometimes dismissed out of hand, when an issue is politically sensitive. And since philosophy is essentially a critical activity, philosophers should have something to say about this. This dismissal of critical openness is, it seems, a likely corollary of the enforcement of political correctness. For once a language has been constructed in which certain hypotheses are actually unformulable, such hypotheses cannot be tested or discussed.

A relatively sophisticated answer to this would admit to the charge of trying to make bad thoughts unthinkable, or at least inexpressible, but claim that non- (or pre-) politically correct language does exactly the same thing, with the disadvantage that it promotes wrong and harmful notions. Indeed, the whole problem of whether there is any extra-linguistic way of apprehending reality is a central issue in philosophy. I do not wish to pursue the matter here, except to make one polemical comment: that I suspect that genuine and hard problems, to do with the relation of language to concepts and the mindindependence of reality are prone to be hijacked by the semi-educated and used as the sheetanchor of sweeping political dogmas. Thus I have heard confident talk of ‘constructs’ that serve some ruling (and ipso facto oppressive) ideology. But maybe we should return to our earlier question. Suppose that many of the concerns of the politically correct are sound. Suppose that racism, speciesism, sexism, heterosexism etc really are rampant and evil. We face the interesting question of what should be done.

This leads us to uncover a certain type of ethical outlook underpinning political correctness. In philosophical terminology it may be called the maximizing outlook. The duty of everyone is to maximize the overall good. Morality is a project that demands our total commitment, from which private concerns and hesitations are excluded. No opportunity to defeat evil and promote good must be missed. Thus, there is no such thing as private morality; the morality of others must be of concern to me. For by failing to correct the errors of others I am ignoring a chance to promote as much good as I might. And that is to do wrong.

If we really took this idea seriously, we would find it utterly unworkable. For, as in often discussed in the literature on acts and omissions, a truly maximizing outlook makes demands upon us that seem incompatible with a recognisably human life. Maximizers are not unaware of this, of course. But they will simply tell us that if a course of action apparently required is actually impossible, or would be so exhausting as to interfere with our other attempts to maximize the good, then such a course is not required. Which is cold comfort for those who hoped, by pressing this objection, to escape the duty to maximize altogether. What I must do is do all I can; and that is a tall order.

It is by attributing this ethical outlook to the politically correct that we can explain the zeal which characterises their activities. Of course, what it is that one is bent on maximizing depends on one’s other views. Classical utilitarians were out to maximize pleasure. If politically correct behaviour would have brought about less overall pleasure and more overall pain than its absence, then the utilitarian would have been against it. But the underlying mentality is similar.

The doctrine that we are required to promote the overall good at all times has had some sophisticated and exhaustive defence (most notably from Shelly Kagan, in his book The Limits of Morality ). I here only invite the reader to consider what it involves. Taking that last foreign holiday was immoral, for the money could have gone to the starving. Come to that, buying that unnecessary pint of milk was also wrong, for it robbed Oxfam of the thirty pence it could have had if it had not been spent on the milk. The smallness of the wrong is not to the point. If more overall good would have been promoted by giving the money to the needy than by buying the milk, then it was wrong to buy the milk. Now, perhaps we can indulge in some unashamedly ad hominem arguing. Who among us really takes this seriously? No one – not even those who uphold the doctrine in theory. If that is so, how consistently can we maintain zeal for politically correct behaviour? In its purest form, every ideological slip, every gesture or expression or action that offends against some important cause, must be challenged. I mustn’t buy that wine because it is South African. Therefore, I mustn’t drink even a sip if it is offered to me. Rules of hospitality are as nothing beside the requirement to point out to the provider of the wine the error of his (her?) ways. Courtesy is of no value when set beside the requirement to protest if a stranger lights a cigarette, especially in front of – heaven forbid! – children. A man must beware lest he accidentally look at a woman in a way that suggests sexual attraction, at least, before a complex procedure for establishing reciprocity has been completed. And I must never eat any foodstuff whose production even might have involved cruelty to or killing of animals.

But so much for the polemic. The philosophical question is that of where, exactly, such attitudes go wrong. For there is such a thing as cruelty to animals; some men really do annoy women by approaching them in certain ways; smoking is bad for you, racism is wrong. So if the causes are right, what is wrong with such ways of pursuing them?

In part we have dealt with this in discussing the problems of maximization. Even if, for example, we do object to smoking or to killing animals for food, it does not follow that we must never smoke or eat meat. It doesn’t justify a bullying attitude towards those who disagree. It only means we should do a reasonable amount to ‘promote the good’. We could almost put this by saying that we should do good only in moderation – meaning, of course, that if by ‘doing good’ we mean ‘bringing about good states of affairs’, the obligation to do good can be diluted by other considerations. But why? If something matters a great deal, what is wrong with pursuing it with a certain ruthlessness? Is not resistance to this merely a sign of being too lazy or complacent to do what is right?

The answer is that it often is a sign of such laziness. But before engaging in the pursuit of any such cause it is necessary to acknowledge the extent to which it competes with other values. It is failure to see this that largely explains the unlimited nature of the typical attempt to enforce correctness. No sooner has a measure been proposed than it seems not to be radical enough. Not only must I resolve to purge myself of unsatisfactory attitudes; I must ensure that others are likewise purged. Not only must I, for example, refrain from reading ‘incorrect’ literature; I must make sure that no-one else reads it either. Each new step seems a logical progression from the last. But what are the other values that such causes compete with? Really to understand this requires a healthy insight, based on ample past experience, into the kind of character traits that moral zealotry tends to bring out. It is failure to take human motivation as it is, rather than as one would wish it to be, that partly explains the disastrous consequences that the pursuit of one kind or another of political correctness has led to. Orwell knew well enough what kind of people form the backbone of politically correct movements. They are not infrequently those who are desperate for an excuse for telling others what to do. They often are filled with implacable indignation and self-righteousness. They are conformist, unforgiving and unmerciful. Or so he paints them in his novel. They lack, above all, a sense of the value of what must be crushed by any really effective campaign to eliminate unsoundness: namely respect, privacy, politeness, tolerance and a certain humility in the formation of opinions. But – one might protest – are these character traits not merely contingent features of the politically correct? And even if not, are there not causes which just outweigh these competing values? It is just such a response as this that embodies the lack of realism about human motivation. In a perfect world, perhaps, it would be possible to pursue some monistic conception of the good whilst retaining integrity. But not in this world. And it is this that leads me to a final suggestion.

When we examine the attitudes of the enforcers of correctness, we notice the sort of zeal that often characterises profound religious certainty. Indeed, religion has often provided an excuse for moral bullying. But at its best, religion does at least have one aspect that is lacking in secular visions of the perfect world: namely, a recognition that if things are ever to be perfect, it is God who will finally make them so, whilst in the meantime He has forbidden certain actions even though they appear to promote the overall good. Religious zeal can thus co-exist with a certain resignation to the ills of life, which are held to have a place in an incomprehensible divine plan. But when stripped of its religious roots, the evangelical fervour loses the humble resignation that hitherto tamed it, and the world comes to seem to be a vast arena for indefinite improvement. Such a delusion helps, I believe, to explain the absurd demands upon life that people often make – their attempt to abolish death and suffering, the vexatious litigation with which doctors are persecuted. And it also helps to explain the inherent mercilessness with which, from benign beginnings, movements towards correctness and virtue are pursued.

© Piers Benn 1991

Piers Benn is a lecturer in the Department of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews

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