Bryan Caplan  

Good Manners vs. Political Correctness

Robert Frost and liberalism... Henderson on the John Batchelo...
My first face-to-face encounter with political correctness came in 1989.  All undergrads in my dorm at UC Berkeley were strongly urged to attend the all-important DARE meeting.  Not DARE as in "Drug Abuse Resistance Education" but DARE as in "Diversity Awareness through Resources and Education."  I had disdain for this simple-minded leftist propaganda then, and the recent return of political correctness seems even worse.

These days, however, I'm also often appalled by the opponents of political correctness.  I'm appalled by their innumeracy.  In a vast world, daily "newsworthy" outrages show next to nothing about the severity of a problem.  I'm appalled by their self-pity.  Political correctness is annoying, but the world is packed with far more serious ills.  Most of all, though, I'm appalled by their antinomianism, better known as "trolling."  Loudly saying disgusting things you probably don't even believe in order to enrage "Social Justice Warriors" further impedes the search for truth - and makes your targets look decent by comparison. 

Against both political correctness and the trolling it inspires, I propose an old-fashioned remedy: good manners.  Everyone should feel comfortable speaking their minds - as long as they're polite.  In slogan form: It's not what you say; it's how you say it. 

Every child knows the basics of politeness.  Talk nicely.  Don't yell.  Don't call names.  Listen and respond to what people literally say.  Don't personally insult people.  Don't take generalizations personally.  If someone's meaning is unclear, don't put words his mouth; ask him to clarify.  And of course, don't escalate.  If someone's impolite, the polite response is to end the conversation, not respond in kind. 

Isn't this just "tone policing"?  Sure.  People can and should comport themselves like ladies and gentlemen.  You can fairly criticize Social Justice Warriors for one-sided tone policing - their failure to police their own tone.  And you can fairly criticize them for acting as if there's no polite way to reject their views.  But proper tone policing is what makes conversation productive and pleasant.  (And of course, the more pleasant conversation is, the more we're likely to constructively converse).

Aren't some positions inherently impolite?  Maybe, but they're so rare we needn't worry about them.  If someone says, "Your whole family should be murdered," they almost always say so impolitely.  To put it mildly.  But there are clear exceptions.  It's not impolite to simply be a utilitarian, and in the right kind of trolley problem, utilitarianism implies murderous answers.  While I'm not a Peter Singer fan, he seems polite to me. 

But isn't trolling fun?  For some people, it obviously is.  But trolling is still very bad.  If someone trolls you, you should just politely end the conversation and find someone worth talking to.

COMMENTS (24 to date)
bill writes:

Excellent post. Thank you. I agree 100%.

Cody writes:

Great post. I've really never understood the ire directed at "tone policing", particularly from activists on the left. It can be counterproductive if the other party focuses so much on how the message is delivered that they don't engage the substance, but I think it's generally agreeable no productive conversation can be had where at least one side is trying to shout the other down, or is being insulting/condescending, or keeps interrupting, etc.

AlanG writes:

I second Bill's comment. Pretty much required reading for anyone who gets involved in commenting. The other thing is using your real name (I know I'm not taking my own advice but for the record it's Alan Goldhammer). I one feels strongly enough to comment they should stand by the comment with their name!

Glen Raphael writes:

Isn't the argument of this post self-defeating? Are you claiming that "trolling" is more prevalent than excessive PC-ism?

If so, then presenting some evidence would be nice; if not, then being appalled over trolling seems similarly innumerate as being appalled over PC-ism. No?

One argument on the other side is that speech some find "offensive" is in practice the only speech that ever needs defending from the mob, so it might be worth paying extra attention to how such speech is treated, even well out of proportion to what fraction of speech that is or how seriously it is intended.

Another way to think of it is that just as economists understand a larger market by thinking on the margin, focusing on what happens in the tiny fraction of cases where a transaction is just barely profitable, free-speech advocates understand how a society responds to speech by thinking on the margin, looking at what happens in the tiny fraction of cases where a speech act is just barely defensible.

Thaomas writes:

Excellent and well said.

Hazel Meade writes:

"Trolling" is not a very well defined concept.
It's often used to refer to commentary which is merely irreverant or provocative or in opposition to a particular audience. (i.e. a socialist who goes to a libertarian message board and argues or pokes fun at libertarians is "trolling", even if they are polite and not using ad-hominems.) I agree that the really crude trolls who just spew obscentities are fairly useless, but when you get into people making irreverant jokes the waters get murky. Plus it's easy to offend without meaning to on the internet. What sounds like a funny irreverant joke to the writer can easily be taken as offensive trolling.

BC writes:

I'm sure there are many instances of impolite trolling, but I don't think that Christine Lagarde, former head of the IMF, and Condolezza Rice, former Sec. of State, were dis-invited from campus speeches because they are impolite. They seem plenty polite to me. Similarly, for Charles Murray at Middlebury College. And, the Yale professors that lost their jobs for suggesting that Halloween costumes be kept in perspective.

Political correctness opponents treat the problem as severe because, historically, limits on freedom of speech have been associated with highly oppressive regimes, and it has been difficult to restore free speech rights in societies that have lost them.

Also, the anti-speech incidents have not been anomalous in the sense that they have been consistent with stated policies on harassment and safe spaces. When speech can be considered equivalent to a physical attack, even when it is general in nature and not targeted towards specific individuals, then consistent application of such policies does imply severe restrictions on speech. Anyone can claim that the expression of certain ideas makes them feel unsafe or unwelcome. Opposition to such policies does not seem like an over-reaction to me.

Phil writes:

In what dictionary does one find antinomianism as a synonym for trolling? (Serious question, I cannot find a source.)

CMOT writes:

You've made the mistake of thinking that Political Correctness is about what it claims to be about.

It's not about avoiding offense but about imposing control, via bullying wherever possible. Dominance and cruelty are their own psychic rewards, which is why you cannot usefully engage with Social Justice Warriors. They simply don't believe they things they say or think they believe. They believe they must bully and control, and no argument or fact will sway them from not wanting to.

Trolling isn't the answer.

Taking away their ability to bully and control others is the answer.

BC writes:

Here is a recent example at Wellesley of declaring that speech can cause "injuries", which is a, if not the, key component of PC theory []. If speech can cause injuries in the same way that a gunshot can, then prohibiting speech is like prohibiting shooting people.

Unlike a gunshot, though, anyone can claim that they feel injured by speech. It's a self-assessment. As the Wellesley professors say in the linked email, "When dozens of students tell us they are in distress as a result of speaker's words, *we must take these complaints at face value*." (Emphasis mine.) There is nothing here about whether the speaker intends to troll or even whether an average or "reasonable" third person would perceive the speaker as trolling. Instead, anyone can censor anyone else by declaring themselves to be "in distress".

Graham Peterson writes:

There is no evidence that giving personal offense, raising one's voice, over-interpreting statements, mocking, ascribing unobserved motivations to beliefs, or any other violation of the norms of polite discourse descended from 18th century Enlightenment rationalism, and the cultural holdovers of British and Dutch aristocrats in 20th and 21st century American universities, are necessary or sufficient conditions of persuasion. Zero.

Weir writes:

"Political correctness is annoying, but the world is packed with far more serious ills."

You won't have read about this example from 2016. A government official, Gillian Triggs, takes it upon herself to harrass a cartoonist, Bill Leak. His cartoon was addressing something serious. The problem of neglectful, alcoholic parents is serious. If parents never get in the way of their kids, from the age of 11, committing violent crimes, year after year, in and out of juvenile detention, it's serious. But Gillian Triggs isn't interested in violence or neglect or kids using meth and ramming people with stolen cars, or anything serious, or anything ill. She's paid by the government to enforce political correctness instead. The PC position is that neglectful, alcoholic parents must not be spoken of, depending on the melanin level of these parents. In which case, political correctness takes a serious ill and makes it worse. Puts it beyond discussion. Makes people unwilling to talk about it. What people are entirely willing to do is to boast about how much more virtuous they are than the cartoonist. Political correctness isn't helping some drunk in a little town in the desert, or his kids, or the kids those kids are bashing up. PC makes the problem worse.

paul mawer writes:

All revolution started when being polite failed to change anything! if those that can change things don't & won't effect change,then listening & doing is just has important(probably more) as being polite,if the world is ever going to mature from it perpetual obfuscation of the polite (to stop change)asking for change,to change actually occurring by force then listening & effective change can not be left out of this narrative!

RL Styne writes:

All good points, but how does this address the problem of the totalitarian behavior of the PC crowd? Look back at the Mozilla CEO debacle. This guy was fired due to public outrage because he donated to a political campaign against gay marriage. The PC crowd simply will not tolerate dissent; they are totalitarians. Is the solution really just to be polite and hope they don't come for you?

Adam writes:

You may enjoy the recent book Mere Civility on this very topic, and its history.

Shane L writes:

"Against both political correctness and the trolling it inspires, I propose an old-fashioned remedy: good manners. Everyone should feel comfortable speaking their minds - as long as they're polite."

I'm applauding. This old-fashioned politeness, for the record, is part of the reason I keep reading Econlog.

Steve Bacharach writes:

I like Bryan's sentiments, but this is better written and a more enjoyable read IMO.

Mark ST writes:

This post and some comments here reminded me of Paul Graham's essay What You Can't Say.

Suppose in the future there is a movement to ban the color yellow. Proposals to paint anything yellow are denounced as "yellowist", as is anyone suspected of liking the color. People who like orange are tolerated but viewed with suspicion. Suppose you realize there is nothing wrong with yellow. If you go around saying this, you'll be denounced as a yellowist too, and you'll find yourself having a lot of arguments with anti-yellowists. If your aim in life is to rehabilitate the color yellow, that may be what you want. But if you're mostly interested in other questions, being labelled as a yellowist will just be a distraction. Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.

P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed Bryan's appearance on the Rubin Report.

Tom West writes:
It's not about avoiding offense but about imposing control, via bullying wherever possible...
Without exception, every single movement has groups that both believe in the movement (the majority), and people hoping to ride the movement for their own purposes.

When you've lost sight of this fact, and come to believe that every member of a movement has the basest of motives, you've left rationality behind.

And I say this from the left, where daring to say that there are any Trump voters who aren't positively delighted at the suffering of minorities and the poor can make oneself very unpopular :-).

That's not to say that movements can't produce catastrophic outcomes (as I think we may see over the next four years), but impugning the motives of all of its members is rarely useful or correct.

guthrie writes:

Econlog is one of the finest examples of holding to this principal. I believe I can safely assert that you and your co-bloggers here are extremely consistent in practicing the 'good manners' mentioned here. Likewise, you are consistent in enforcing this principal in the comment section, and as a result it's one of the most interesting and erudite (and *polite*) conversations on the internet. Bravo to all!

Jeff writes:

I disagree. Ridicule is exactly what the proponents of political correctness deserve. Being polite to bullies only encourages more bullying.

JC writes:

One thing that is very important for a person to be is to be polite. That is one of the big things that everyone is taught as a child is to use good manners. Things like don’t yell, don’t point at people you don’t know, and don’t burp at the dinner table. Being polite is great way to show your maturity as well as being able to get along with a lot of people. However, you wouldn’t believe the number of people who just aren’t polite. Say you’re telling a joke to your friend and they get personally offended because they took the joke the wrong way. Then, they yell at you and not let you explain what you actually meant. A polite person would have asked you to elaborate on what you meant if they did not understand completely what you mean and they also would not take it personally either. I try to be as polite as I can be when I am talking to people, especially to my elders and those who have authority over me.
The other thing that was mentioned in the article is people being politically correct when they speak. Honestly, being politically correct is not always easy. The definition of political correctness is the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against. An example of political correctness would be calling the natives who lived in this country long before it became the United States Native Americans and not Indians. I can say that I am not always politically correct and if I am not politically correct, I try not to offend anyone.

Being civil and passive had just enabled the PC movement. We are in this situation due to following your advice. Best to push back and push back hard.

Jonathan Gress-Wright writes:

I'm wondering if a little game theory might clarify what's going on. The polite people are the doves, while the trolls and the PC enforcers are hawks. When a hawk meets a dove, the dove loses, but that doesn't mean it's always good to be a hawk, since if there are only hawks around then your encounters are always confrontational. On the other hand, a dove meeting a dove can cooperate, something that hawks can never do.

Game theory shows that, in a given mixed population of hawks and doves, a certain proportion of hawks and doves will evolve, matching the optimal probabilities for adopting either a hawk or dove strategy when encountering random others. So from this I expect that there are always going to be some nice, polite people who try to cooperate and yield to aggression, while at the same time there will always be rude trolls who just try to provoke conflict. It is highly unlikely we can persuade everyone to be just one or the other.

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