Good Manners vs. Political Correctness
By Bryan Caplan
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.