Governing Least: Incorrectness on Political Correctness
By Bryan Caplan
When I saw Dan Moller’s chapter on “Dilemmas of Political Correctness,” I thought I knew what he was going to say. I thought he was going to say something like, “We should all have good manners, but the demands of so-called ‘social justice’ are unreasonable and unfair.” Indeed, I half-expected him to offer another imaginary speech echoing those in his first chapter. Something along the lines of:
Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:
My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but for many centuries people in this society have treated my group disrespectfully – if not brutally. You’ve improved of late, but it is nowhere near sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me special deference as a matter of justice. From now on, you have to go out of your way to make me feel especially loved and prized. You should discuss my troubles several times per day, and never suggest that members of my group are in any way responsible for our current misfortunes. To do the latter is now officially called “Blaming the Victim,” and is the height of injustice.
Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you monitor your fellow citizens for the slightest sign of disrespect toward my group – and my group is the final arbiter of what counts at disrespect. To the extent you care about justice, you must heap scorn and anger on anyone that we deem to have disrespected us, since that is what is owed me in light of our society’s legacy of disrespect toward my group.
Could you bring yourself to make this speech?
But Governing Least contains nothing like this speech. Instead, despite his contrarian political philosophy, Moller defends political correctness:
This much theorists of political correctness get right— political correctness is not a myth. But they neglect the perfectly good reasons for cultivating and enforcing various politically correct norms. In the case of race, the root concern is clearly that there exists a horrific record of violence and injustice directed toward African Americans and other minorities, as well as a record of promoting
such violence by superficially respectable means (including racial pseudoscience), and enlightened moral thinking has thus converged on a default norm against advancing ideas associated with the oppression or marginalization of minorities. A similar story applies to gender and occupation. Political correctness thus represents the evolution of public standards with the praiseworthy tendency to protect and promote the interests of historically oppressed groups. These standards work by introducing a high barrier of entry to those wishing to enter public discourse in a way that that threatens to undermine moral progress. By maintaining the norms, we acknowledge that such threats exist and that it is important to us collectively to signal to new entrants into public discourse that they must observe the norms carved out to protect the status of groups potentially under threat. And what is true in this case is true of many other examples of political correctness, such as censoring stereotyped depiction of Asians, the German anxiety over displays of sympathy for National Socialism, calls for including more women and other groups on syllabi, or suggestions that the poor are to blame for their plight.
Moller admittedly qualifies his position, but so mildly that only a political correctness fanatic would demur:
There is nothing wrong with promoting a presumption that historically oppressed or marginalized groups should not be insulted or subjected to discourse threatening to undermine their status, and it is puzzling that critics of political correctness seem frequently unwilling to acknowledge its legitimate ends. That leaves the door open to a second kind of criticism, the misguided application of the relevant norms.
Why makes Moller’s position so surprising? Because the rest of Governing Least argues for the moral impropriety of issuing strong positive moral demands against strangers. If you question the right of the poor to taxpayer support, how can you blithely accept norms “carved out to protect the status of groups potentially under threat”? Unless the threat is imminent, this is a truly extravagant demand. Furthermore, it seems engineered to deny any obligation of reciprocity. Conventional norms of good manners, for example, tell you that you’re entitled to respectful treatment as long as you treat others respectfully. Political correctness, in contrast, doesn’t just tell us to treat historically low-status groups with sensitivity; it also tacitly warns us not to judge the way that members of low-status groups treat others. As a practical matter, for example, feminism means that women may harshly criticize male behavior, but not vice versa. Even if you think that racist violence is just a few hate speeches away, Moller should remind the fans of political correctness about what he calls their “residual obligations.” (Start with #NotAllMen).
Stepping back, I would have expected Moller to pay more attention to the practice of political correctness. When I look at modern discourse, I don’t see political correctness as an effort to ward off “threats to undermine moral progress.” Rather, political correctness is such a threat. As I’ve said before, my view is that it’s largely an effort to dehumanize and demoralize people who question the highly questionable “social justice” worldview. And while I don’t think political correctness is the most important threat to undermine moral progress – or even the fourth-most-important threat – it’s still deplorable. I agree with Moller that proponents of political correctness highlight some genuine social problems. The best remedy, though, is not an exotic public religion, but good manners.
P.S. If I were Moller, I would also lament the way that extravagant but trendy moral claims drown out modest but non-trendy moral claims. Above all, would-be and illegal immigrants aren’t just an “historically oppressed group.” They are a currently oppressed group, denied the fundamental human rights to work for willing employers and rent from willing landlords. But Moller seems to think that concern for their oppression is political correctness run amok:
Another example is the increasing tendency to reject official government terms like “illegal alien” in favor of “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented citizen,” with the implication that refusing to do so implies reactionary or hateful views. These campaigns aren’t just the one-off ideas of random individuals; the phrase “undocumented citizen” is encouraged by administrators at universities in the United States, and others urge that the statement “America is a melting pot” constitutes a form of “microaggression.” Regardless of what the right immigration policy is, and notwithstanding the legitimate interest in avoiding various forms of marginalization, this kind of discourse once again “impairs analysis.” “Undocumented immigrant” is meant to make it harder to focus on the fact that there are laws and procedures governing entry to the country that were flouted by the persons in question, while the Orwellian “undocumented citizen” seeks to present a political aspiration as a fait accompli.