Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Psychology of Political Correctness

Conservative essayist Theodore Dalrymple made a comment in a recent interview that I found very disturbing, even terrifying. It is either a paranoid delusion or the most profound statement on freedom of speech that I've read since J. M. Coetzee's Giving Offense (Univ. of Chicago Press) appeared in 1996. Here is what he says:

Political correctness is communist propaganda writ small. In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.

To get an idea of what he is talking about, I think you first need a reasonable definition of "political correctness." I would say that any such definition has to have at least two parts. PC consists, first, of a certain method, which is coercion. This can be a speech code, a national "hate speech" law, or a brow-beating kind of moral disapproval. Second, there is the behavior being coercively repressed. This consist in expressions of opinions that denigrate members of various groups, which can be a race or a sex or a sexual preference or a national or ethnic group, which has historically been oppressed.

There is also a possible third part, which I have never been sure of. This is the theory that is sometimes given as the justification for political correctness. It states that a significant part of the cause of the continuing hardships of these historically oppressed groups is the spread of denigrating opinions about them by means of disapproving speech.

The problem I have always had about this is, frankly, that it seems so silly. Does anybody really think that we can change the world be changing what people say about it? That a main cause of the problems in the world are the negative thoughts we transfer from one brain to another by means of disapproving words?

What Dalrymple is doing is to offer an alternative to the third aspect of political correctness. Don't look at the silly theory that backs it up, look at reality, look at what it actually accomplishes. What it accomplishes is to create a generation of people whose speech does not match their actual view of the world. No one can make sure that all their disapproving thoughts are about men, Americans, white people, Republicans, capitalists, and other oppressor groups. We know we have incorrect thoughts all the time. But we stifle any negative thought we might have about anybody else because we don't want to be pounced on for our insensitivity. The result is a population whose bright shining outward behavior masks a nasty inner world, a population of compulsory hypocrites or, as Dalrymple says, a "society of emasculated liars."

This is what inevitably happens whenever we coercively repress people's expression of their wrong thoughts, instead of having it out with them in an environment of rational discussion. But how could this be the point of the coercion? Who could possibly profit from such a situation? Isn't this just one more example of how the coercive schemes of world-savers always seem to have unintended consequences that make the world all the more lost?

This of course is Dalrymple's point. This situation is highly profitable to anyone who wants the have power over these guilt-riddled hypocrites. That is his frightening proposal.

I'm really not sure what to make of this proposal. I can see four alternatives to it.

First, there is the unintended consequences idea, which I've already mentioned. Don't underestimate human short-sightedness. It is a very powerful explanation.

Second, there is a more moderate version of Dalrymple's view. It isn't that PC is intended to make us weaker and easier to dominate, but it obviously does make people more hypocritical, and the perpetrators of PC don't mind this. Why not? Because even hypocrisy can serve their cause, so who cares if that's what it is? Call this the callous indifference explanation. Explanation via callous indifference isn't the same thing as explanation via intention.

Then there is the third possibility: The hypocrisy explanation. That PC is perpetrated by people who are genuine, spontaneous, uncoerced hypocrites themselves. They use "correct" discourse to hide their own incorrect, unkind, hierarchical thoughts from their own awareness. So they don't see, or don't care about, the hypocrisy they breed in others.

Finally, there is the possibility that people do seriously, sincerely believe the official theory behind political correctness, that injustice is actually caused by bad words spreading bad thoughts. After all, there is some truth to this theory, and it is the one that is actually used by PC advocates to identify their motives. It must be part of the explanation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

2 words - Sapir Worf. Famous and controversial linguistic theory of determinism which broadly states that language determines thought. Although it has been falsified since it's first inception, this has caused supporters of the theory to water it down rather than abandon it. The basic idea is that if you can't say it, you can't think it, so control the language and you control the thought. It is the underpinning psychology of PC, and yes some people really do beleive that language constructs reality, when it plainly reflects it.