What would a principled defense of political correctness look like?
By Scott Sumner
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.