Scott Sumner  

What would a principled defense of political correctness look like?

Apple's principled defense... P.J. O'Rourke on Math...

Vox has a new article on political correctness:

Academic freedom is the sine qua non of higher education. Students ought to be challenged, even made uncomfortable, in order to learn in deep and meaningful ways. And, of course, collegiate education is where students must encounter perspectives different from their own. No one who genuinely believes in higher education is going to dispute any of that.
Apparently Kevin Gannon does not believe in higher education, as later he suggests that students should not be exposed to ideas that make them uncomfortable:
Murray is a racist charlatan who's made a career out of pseudoscientific social Darwinist assertions that certain "races" are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don't belong there. This isn't a violation of academic freedom. It's an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse -- you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?
I'm a utilitarian, and my views don't neatly fit into either side of the left/right debate. As an analogy, I don't believe that the problem with terrorism is that lots of innocent people get killed; rather that lots of innocent people get killed for the wrong cause. There may be cases (say in WWII) where killing lots of innocent people is justified for the greater good. Bryan Caplan would probably disagree, but lots of people would agree with my claim.

My problem with political correctness is not that I think people should be made uncomfortable, but rather that proponents of political correctness are trying to prevent people from becoming uncomfortable for the wrong reason. The primary agenda is to advance a partisan political cause, not to make people feel comfy. After all, PC proponents frequently call people racist, and most people feel uncomfortable when they are singled out as being racist.

People on the left don't see the political aspect of PCism, for roughly the same reason that liberals don't see that NPR is liberal, and fish don't notice that they are wet all the time. (Disclaimer, NPR is my favorite radio station--but I do see its liberalism.) So let me help them to see their bias. Let's redo the offensive paragraph, as if written by a principled proponent of PCism:

Chomsky is a commie charlatan who's made a career out of apologizing for regimes that have murdered tens of millions of Cambodians, Vietnamese and Chinese. To bring him to campus is to tell (East Asian) segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Chomsky, they don't belong there. This isn't a violation of academic freedom. It's an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse -- you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?
You might argue that my attack on Noam Chomsky is not fair. He's not a charlatan; he's a highly respected linguist. To ban him would smack of McCarthyism. Yes, I agree. But it's equally true that Murray is a highly respected libertarian sociologist, who has had an important influence on public policies such as Bill Clinton's welfare reform. His books are taken seriously by intellectual publications on both the left and the right. It's also true that both people have made highly controversial statements, which many people find deeply offensive.

Whenever we read about people defending PCism, they invariable cite right wing speakers as the examples to be banned, not left wing. That's why PCism is not a principled ideology. If they were equally likely to object to offensive left wing speakers, say a Chomsky or a Slavoj Zizek, then we might have an intelligent conversation about the pros and cons of PCism. I might still oppose it, for roughly the reason I support the First Amendment despite being a utilitarian. I.e., I find "rules utilitarian" arguments to be quite persuasive. But at least I'd listen; I'd be willing to be persuaded. I might at least support trigger warnings. I certainly don't dismiss arguments that people should be made more comfortable---comfort is one of my favorite things!!

But unfortunately the PC proponents have not even reached the stage where their views can be taken seriously. I'm sure they don't care about my advice, but if there are any principled people in the PC community, I implore them to take the politics out of their ideology, and start objecting to offensive left wing speakers just as vigorously as they object to offensive right wing speakers. Only then can we start looking at the merits of their arguments.

Come back to me when you've cleaned up your act, and I might listen.

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CATEGORIES: Education , Liberty

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Richard writes:

I don't think political correctness lets you argue against it, lest you be politically incorrect in doings so. So need for a defense for it really.

But as you imply, the idea that it's about making people "comfortable" is a lie. Many Christians feel discomfort when their religious beliefs are questioned, many whites feel discomfort at being presented as history's villains. Most liberals I've talked to believe that such people should just get over it.

John writes:

Time for an ideological turing test? I'll defend political correctness, though I would generally be on your side:

Why should politics be taken out of our ideology? 50 years ago it was socially acceptable for someone to be against mixed-race marriage. 10 years ago it was socially acceptable for someone to be against gay marriage. Those changes in what was socially acceptable didn't happen because we were "principled" and started accepting fewer controversial opinions in general. They happened because we stopped tolerating a rather particular set of unacceptable opinions among our friends, peers, and professors.

Scott Sumner writes:

John, I agree. My point is different. As we learn more about the world we should reject unacceptable views. My point is that the issue of whether views should be rejected as being unacceptable should not depend on whether the unacceptable views are left wing or right wing, but rather the quality of the viewpoints. That is not currently the case in academia

That's the problem with PCism as it is currently practiced. It focuses on only one set of unacceptable views---right wing, and thus becomes a weapon in partisan politics.

Yes, one can say that "everything's political", but everything doesn't have to be political in that sort of divisive partisan sense.

I think that if left wing PC advocates thought more about how things like McCarthyism were actually a form of political correctness, they might come to a different view about the sorts of opinions that should be excluded from academia.

Jason writes:

I don't understand why the argument against PC extends into trigger warnings though. To me, the argument for trigger warnings is mostly that they warn students of content they might find psychologically difficult, so they can prepare themselves for it or avoid it if they need to, for their broader mental health. I wouldn't be in favor of banning the material, or removing it from the curriculum, but a simple warning seems appropriate.

I think that trigger warnings are a good idea, and shouldn't be thrown out simply because the current group pushing for them is also pushing an agenda of censorship.

Kgaard writes:

Hi Scott ... Wow ... this is the first political thing you've written that I agree with -- and I agree with all your monetary stuff.

I think the problem with what you propose is that PC is an evolutionary strategy of people who are weak at rational argument. If they allow for open debate they lose.

The alt-right is an intellectual free-for-all and arguments are ripped to shreds and re-built over and over again. It is not a forum for feel-good-ism but for ruthless debate.

So putting an alt-righter against a standard issue PC-er at a college debate will be like putting a lion against a puppy dog 5 times out of 6.

MikeDC writes:

Why wouldn't deeper thought on the matter and consideration of past right-wing political correctness campaigns simply convince PC advocates to double down and try to wipe out their opponents ever more forcefully?

It's like you trying to take a charitable view of someone who supports Trump. You've said on several occasions you can't make any pretense of taking their concerns seriously, so you show them no respect.

I know you consider yourself a reasonable person (most people do), so unless you were to devote some sympathy for their concerns, would not your additional thought only breed more antipathy?

J Mann writes:

Gannon's quoted argument seems to rest on the premise that Murray is obviously and indisputably an unscientific quack.

My impression from the early kerfuffle is that Murray is a thoughtful scientist who has made some controversial claims, and that most takedowns of his work are mostly the same minor methodological disputes that you could probably make about any academic who employs methodology. But I'm not a scientist, so I might be wrong.

Still, unless it's absolutely obvious that someone is a quack, and maybe not even then, it's troubling to forbid them to speak. I guess the main anti-vaxxer guy might be a good test, or someone who claims to have scientific proof of alien life.

Harry writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Nicholas Weininger writes:

The immortal line from the trial scene in Bananas remains relevant today:

"Differences of opinion should be tolerated, but not when they're too different. Then he becomes a subversive mother."

zeke5123 writes:


The argument goes that trigger warnings are a way to signal "this material is inappropriate." It poisons the well so to speak. It isn't a ban per se, but it may have censorship-lite effects.

John Hall writes:

Good post.

I find that the left and right tend to be equally susceptible to this sort of thinking. It's no coincidence that the left in the U.S. is still upset about McCarthyism and don't see, at all, the injustices from PCism (well documented in the new book by Kimberley Strassel, I may add).

But I think it extends beyond just PCism. For instance, the right will fervently criticize deaths from Communism and the left will fervently criticize deaths from right-wing dictators (I'm thinking Chile here). Neither side listens to each other; both always assume the worst intentions of the other.

It's not going to change. This behavior is part of what makes us human.

Yaakov writes:

The right-left divide is a war on resources, with very high stakes. In such wars, just about anything goes. Trying to discuss issues logically is therefore important for the bystanders but is meaningless for the combatants. They may or may not be aware they are irrational, but given the stakes, they surely do not care.

This is not normal human behavior. Humans do not act like this when they are not at war. But as long as elections are a sale of options to stolen goods amounting to a substantial percentage of GDP, it is here to stay and will only get worse, as combatants increase the effectiveness of their weapons.

bill writes:

Excellent post.

One non-left wing example is Christianity, which is some ways is now softening to a "general respect for religiosity". That shift disturbs or angers some Christians while still leaving atheists as everybody's scapegoat. It's also pretty verboten across the spectrum to criticize the military or the police. Many people are very quick to deride as "isolationism" any call for a foreign policy with a default setting of non-interventionism.

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:

The Vox article is borderline absurd - however the point on "content advisories" is completely sound. I use content advisories all the time do things like avoid violent movies, or to find age-appropriate material for my kids. I see people post on facebook with headers like "If you don't like stories about joints popping out of place, skip this post". News broadcasts do this all the time as well, with warnings like "graphic footage".

I agree that the phrase "trigger warning" is self-parodying and dumb, as it makes it seems like perfectly normal people will be reduced to a quaking mess if the wrong word crosses their path. We should collectively jettison that term and embrace "content advisory", and be done with it. It is no threat to academic freedom to advise students what potentially difficult content is in the class.

MikeDC writes:

Perhaps instead of "content advisory" we could just use Tipper Gore's "Parental Advisory" terminology. That way, the paternalistic nature of the whole affair is right out there in the open.

Ricardo writes:

And yet, movies were much cleaner before content advisories. I've always suspected that the MPAA ratings were a clever way to allow studios to create movies that many find distasteful -- movies that would otherwise have faced protests.

So my prediction is that "trigger warnings" will evolve into a preamble for really horrible diatribes. You just issue a trigger warning and then let loose.

MikeDC writes:

Ricardo... interesting point. I've noticed that as I start showing my kids movies from my childhood (The Goonies would be a good example) they're filled with swear words that would never get into a movie aimed at kids now. But the violence is much less savage and realistic.

WalterB writes:

Benjamin...I see a difference between a content advisory and a trigger warning. The advisory says that the content could be offensive or upsetting, based on a general knowledge of what people will find offensive or upsetting. You're right, this is a useful thing.

But the trigger warning doesn't just say that the audience could be offended by the material; it instructs that the audience should be offended. It is meant to convey that the politically correct reaction to this material is a negative one, and people are best off not even listening to the message at all; in snowflake language, it's "OK" not to listen. A similar message is conveyed groups set up a "safe space" before an un-PC speaker has even arrived on campus.

James writes:


PCists are not going to drop the left wing ideology because their first commitment is to leftism. PC is just a means to that end.

PCists won't take your advice here but it's not personal. You advice just doesn't seem relevant to what they want. PCists will take your advice when it pertains to advancing leftism.

Tom West writes:

My point is that the issue of whether views should be rejected as being unacceptable should not depend on whether the unacceptable views are left wing or right wing, but rather the quality of the viewpoints.

Except that as a whole, that's not how human beings work. Any successful marketer will tell that quantity almost always wins over quantity. That *allowing* something to be said is almost inevitably interpreted as support of that view.

It's why *every* side knows that relentlessly suppressing speech works (not all the time of course, but better than almost anything else).

(This visibility = support is also why "moral" children's TV is probably responsible for more ill-behaviour than almost anything. It's typical for the bad behaviour to be present for most of the episode with the protagonist learning their lesson at the end - yet time and time again, the viewers simply model their behaviour over what got the most screen time.)

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

I would recommend reading Timur Kuran's brilliant book on preference falsification Private Truths, Pubic Lies: the Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, particularly the chapter on affirmative action.

The point of the exercise is cognitive exclusion and, more specifically, targeted cognitive exclusion.

As for universal coverage of banning offensive material, read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 for where that leads to ...

BTW Anything by Timur Kuran is worth reading. His book The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East may be the best work of economic history ever written.

Tracy Wilkinson writes:

John: did those changes happen because we stopped tolerating opinions, or because we noticed that the advocates of those opinions had no credible arguments for them?

I don't think opinions die because public opinion stops tolerating them. After all once being in favour of same-sex marriage was unthinkable, and anyone expressing such a sentiment would be shunned by all right-minded people. I think opinions die when it becomes clear they're stupid.

Dain writes:

Seems to me that suppressing rightism but advancing leftism IS a principle, just not one most people here respect, including me.

Tom West writes:

I think opinions die when it becomes clear they're stupid.

I think that's tautological as what's "stupid" is almost entirely determined culturally.

For example, the idea that lack of tolerance is a stupid is not self-evident to the strong majority of the world.

Sure, tolerance might seem to go hand-in-hand with rationality, but then that's over-estimating the value of rationality to most of humanity, where it can be summoned if needed, but provides neither comfort nor happiness, which is what is truly important.

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