It’s frustrating thinking about political correctness. It all seems so shockingly and embarrassingly tired. The same slogans have been recycled again and again for over twenty years now. But perhaps this understandable response is mistaken. Perhaps there is something new in PC’s most recent incarnation. Peter wants us to understand political correctness as part of a strange hybrid he calls “libertarian securitarianism.” In his view PC is rooted in the “securitarian” part of the hybrid. It is a demand for protection from threats—both physical (health and safety) and moral (the desire not to be judged or better to find one’s identity affirmed). Peter argues (in his recent essay in The Weekly Standard) both parts of this compound “share the same roots in a rather extreme philosophy of autonomy.”
This notion of autonomy may help explain why the PC of today feels different from the version that was around a generation ago. The old version seemed rooted in “multiculturalism”—it proclaimed cultural relativism and attacked the idea of natural standards for the good or justice. The new version shares this, yet it seems to go further in its demand for the recognition or affirmation of equality (a kind of homogenizing equality) in all spheres of life. All are deserving of equal shares of recognition and respect. Undergirding the demand for equality is a radical autonomy that holds we can all recreate ourselves through new choices at every moment—each of which is just a legitimate or deserving of respect as any other. Choices or opinions that are premised on anything other than this understanding of human nature as utterly plastic are not legitimate. It thus professes relativism and tolerance but militantly demands adherence to approved opinions. Phillipe Bénéton sees these patterns of thought as endemic to late modernity. As he puts it, “practical egoism goes hand-in-hand with an invasive social moralism.” The social moralism is particularly troubling because however much young people might claim to be relativists, most, I suspect, discover how dissatisfying such a creed is. It can’t speak to their longing for justice or to their desire for meaningful belonging. So they are seduced by the project to find and root out opinions that threaten the approved notions of equality.
The new PC seems more intent upon monitoring and changing routine thoughts and language and daily behavior. Thus the emphasis on language and speech: any hint of “bias” must be highlighted and punished. The particular cases and punishments are less important that the overall effect: to compel others to self-censor and thus, over time, to force people to begin to change their very perception of reality. Changing patterns of thought and behavior is difficult—the social moralism relies on shaming and humiliation. Who wants to think of themselves as a degenerate retrograde? Much easier to go with the flow! The communists were experts at this of course. Here’s Theodore Dalrymple: “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.” My one quibble with Mr. Dalrymple is that communist propaganda’s purpose surely went beyond humiliation—it attempted to disrupt the link between people’s inner thoughts and reality—to erase the distinction between true and false. But humiliation seems perfectly applicable to the new PC.