Reassessing Political Correctness


Senator Sam Brownback said something at the Republican primary debate in California that would seem to challenge common understanding of what is usually referred to as political correctness. In discussing the many social ills he presumably planned to eradicate as president, Brownback lamented,

“We’ve got a culture that’s got things like what Don Imus said going on not only on the radio. Now it’s in records that are being market[ed] to teenagers with million dollar ad budgets using the same words that he was fired for.”

Now, is this political correctness, or is this anti-PC? Sure, the common PC response to the Imus flap was to side with Jesse Jackson. But here we have a Republican Senator attacking a whole subgenre of art, implying that rap lyrics are as troubling as what Imus said. Although some would consider it a good point about leftist hypocrisy, we must not forget that Brownback is implicitly using a PC premise about Imus’s touchy words to make a conservative argument against rap lyrics. If his argument is sound, so must be his premise.

What exactly is political correctness? Is it something that can’t be defined, but always identified — sort of like obscenity is, in the eyes of the Supreme Court?

Identifying PC

People of various political persuasions identify political correctness as a stifling code of proper expression, perhaps enforced by law but imposed more through dynamic social custom. It is generally something to view as automatically bad. On the right, PC is a distinctly leftwing phenomenon, and some conservatives almost seem to regard those voices which are supposedly the least politically correct as obviously the most truthful.

From 1993 to 2002, comedian Bill Maher had a show nominally devoted to opposing political correctness. In some respects, he did so. He had a more libertarian than leftist outlook on certain personal liberty issues. He was radical on questions like drugs. He was also, much more than PC leftists, eager to praise American force abroad, defend the Vietnam War as an absolute necessity, cheer on Clinton’s militarism and openly vote for Bob Dole because he was the last likely candidate from the Greatest Generation.

Perhaps this was anti-PC in the midst of the center-leftist orthodoxy of the 1990s. Neolibertarianism, or libertine conservatism, was certainly not the prevailing ethos of the time.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Maher was attacked and lost his job as ABC’s poster-boy for political incorrectness when he said this:

“We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly. Stupid maybe, but not cowardly.”

Nationalist hawks thought he was being a leftist peacenik here, and certainly what he said broke some taboos in those days when you weren’t supposed to say anything but "God Bless America," but what’s interesting is Maher wasn’t really opposing US militarism. He was promoting it. He was saying Americans were insufficiently willing to take casualties in our wars — and soon enough, he cheered on the war on terror. In actuality, Maher was speaking along lines similar to Max Boot‘s comments a month or so later when Boot decried the relatively low number of American casualties in Afghanistan. Now, when a bona fide hawk like him says something so clearly offensive, his fellow warmongers generally don’t complain.

A more recent example shows just how muddled the idea of Maher-style political incorrectness is. In Maher’s interview this year with Congressman Ron Paul, we hear this self-described libertarian and journalistic maverick attack Paul on the most PC grounds one could ever imagine. Dr. Paul has a libertarian revisionist view on the Civil War. He also opposes the current war. He is wary of economic fascism for the purpose of combating global warming. He is for free enterprise and doesn’t trust the state to run the economy.

Putting aside “libertarian” Bill Maher’s apparent failure to understand libertarianism and its clear implications, it is also ironic that a man who had a show called “Politically Incorrect” would attack a libertarian hero for not worshipping at the altar of Abraham Lincoln and climate hysteria.

In the end, despite what their superficially iconoclastic followers might think, both Bill Maher and Sam Brownback are really as PC as it gets. (Believe it or not, it is politically correct to criticize gangsta rap; the most agitated feminists hate it as much as they despise the neuter pro-noun “he.”)

The most important concern for libertarians should be the relationship between PC and statism. Political correctness does tend to conform with contemporary statist morality, as it shapes and is shaped by that morality. But it works through social pressures as much as through coercion. There is something about it that does not smack of central planning and design, but of somewhat decentralized, viral intellectual influence. Because of all this, it is ultimately something that can adapt to and reflect either a leftist or rightist agenda.

Leftwing PC

Leftwing PC is supposedly the dominant kind, and in many ways, it is. Say you’re not sure about global warming or recycling, you think the welfare state encourages laziness, or that you think Western Civilization has a lot of great things going for it, and some people will look at you like you sacrifice helpless puppies every night in tortuous rituals just to hear the screams.

But not all leftwing PC sentiments are wrong.

The Founding Fathers were hypocrites. The US was the aggressor in the Mexican War. The European colonists were horrible to the Indians. Slavery was a great evil. Japanese Internment was a great evil. Bush is a dishonest president who wages war for economic reasons and for power. The criminal justice system is systematically unfair and oppressive. Muslims are people too. Christians can be aggressive too. The US is one of the greatest threats to peace on earth.

This is all stuff some rightwingers would say is horrifying political correctness and therefore axiomatically wrong or unworthy of consideration.

But all of the above is correct.

According to many rightwingers, we’re not even supposed to follow the left in referring to criminal suspects as “alleged” offenders, since, for some reason, it’s unacceptably “politically correct” not to assume that anyone a prosecutor says is guilty must be guilty. We’re not supposed to call detainees or insurgents anything but "terrorists." We’re not supposed to say that Americans are arrogant nationalists when it comes to foreign policy, as if the US empire is the greatest persecuted victim of political correctness.

Conservatives have increasingly been attacking the most valid politically correct perspectives while slowly adopting the worst ones.

Rightwing PC

Sometimes, it seems as though conservatives have their own politically correct code as to what is “politically incorrect” and therefore out of the bounds of polite conversation. Like the left, they have their own orthodoxy. There is in fact a puritanical element of all political correctness that overlaps with a certain type of conservatism. It is, at times, used by the right to preserve the status quo by protecting sacred cows from discursive slaughter.

Look at how well the rightwing uses its own PC sledgehammer, and not without hypocrisy. Not too long ago, Ann Coulter joked of assassinating Bill Clinton. Nowadays, even criticizing the "Commander in Chief" is seen as seditious on the right. Warmongering conservatives wave the bloody shirt to guilt trip us in ways that put to shame the Clintonistas’ meager attempts to make us all feel everyone’s pain.

The rightwing even plays the race card as well as the left ever did, if it needs to. Criticizing Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice as national leaders was at times deemed racist, even by non-establishment elements of the right. Criticizing Israel or US policy toward it is typically regarded as anti-Semitic.

Then there’s the classic pro-war PC lingo. Conservatives who use such euphemisms as “collateral damage” will scoff at you if you refer to an illegal alien as an “undocumented worker" or a derelict as "homeless." But it seems to me their euphemistic lexicon is indeed a form of political correctness, and it masks an even more insidious agenda.

In another turn of irony, conservatives who have long pointed out the absurdity that can sometimes arise from overly political correct language — calling a black Briton an “African American,” for example — will sometimes fail to practice what they preach. A few years back, there was a rightwing move to call suicide bombers “homicide bombers” instead. It was offensive, these people argued, to call it “suicide” when murder was involved.

Of course, any murderous bombing is a case of “homicide bombing.” The whole point of calling it “suicide bombing” is to differentiate it from other killings by bomb. Duh.

PC and the State

Political correctness can serve to bolster the state and preempt controversial discourse that would undermine the establishment. Personally, I think nothing should be beyond discussion in an appropriate forum. The libertarian qua libertarian should especially be concerned about the statist causes and effects of political correctness, even though it sometimes presents itself in technically non-coercive ways.

In the case of Imus and Brownback, what the Senator said was potentially more offensive to libertarian concerns than either what Imus said or the fact that Imus was fired from his job. Brownback was, after all, speaking as a presidential candidate, and his attack on the politically incorrect language of rap music had possible implications of censorship on the horizon. It might sound far-fetched, but if we remember the anti-rap censorship-mongering Lieberman-Gore-Bennett bipartisan axis of evil, we have to look upon such politicians’ aspirations toward addressing the "problem" of "bad" language with at least as much concern as we look upon mass boycotts of aging shock jocks, to say nothing of what those shock jocks themselves say, all of which at least occurs in the market setting and can be combated with market and social pressure. A PC censor with government power is the ultimate danger.

Anti-PC censorship is also a threat, especially if PC is simply defined the way the official right defines it. David Horowitz has come closer and closer to advocating a sort of ideological affirmative action on college campuses, imposing standards to protect the supposedly endangered species of mainstream conservatism that’s dying at the universities.

The rightwing hates it when a leftist professor speaks the truth about American foreign policy even more than when he tells lies about capitalism. There have been legislative efforts to regulate speech about Israel at colleges. There’s no reason to think this crusade will end on campuses. Surely, some want to ban certain political criticism in the papers and even the Internet. If the PC left stands up to such censorship, to that extent they must be cheered.

Libertarians and PC

Libertarians often, unfortunately, get too caught up in the rightwing error of assuming everything that’s leftist PC is automatically wrong — and accordingly go on defending corporatism, empire or the police state — or, in contrast, they adopt the wrongheaded PC leftism that will tell you these statements below are evil:

Abraham Lincoln’s war on the South was aggressive, and not motivated by slavery. The US should have stayed out of World War II. The Civil Rights Act should be repealed.

These statements, however jarring they might be to leftwing speech police, are worth saying because they are true. The same goes for the truths mentioned above that the official rightwing says are off limits because they’re "PC.”

(It is worth noting that criticism of Lincoln, World War II and the Civil Rights Act is now seen as politically incorrect by most the left and the right — all the more reason to voice such universally taboo criticisms loudly! — demonstrating that the official right really has sunk to the point where it attacks the PC left mostly when it’s correct and quietly adopts leftist PC when it’s most wrong.)

Libertarians should speak the cold truth, even when we agree with the politically correct and even when we don’t. On the other hand, sometimes libertarians don’t know how to put things in a way such that people will actually listen to them and consider them. Just because it’s politically incorrect and true to say the US is a murderous empire and taxation is extortion doesn’t mean it’s a good way to open every conversation.

Indeed, some libertarians have their own politically correct shibboleths that you had better not cross or else all of a sudden you’re betraying liberty. Slip up and refer to "public schools" or "dollars" as opposed to "government schools" and "Federal Reserve Notes," and prepare to hear a lecture on the importance of precise language that will make some multiculturalists and radical feminists seem conversationally accommodating and charitable by comparison. It’s great to be precise, but it’s also good to communicate effectively. Thus, we can call the situation in Iraq a war, not only an "unconstitutional police action."

Sometimes it’s tough to know how to draw the line between polite conversational etiquette and communicative usage on the one hand, and stifling political correctness on the other. We can however say it is usually more worth going against the grain to speak a neglected truth in necessarily forceful language than simply to rebel against PC orthodoxy for its own sake. A good guideline as to that: if Bill Maher, Jesse Jackson and establishment Republicans all claim to find it offensive, there is probably some truth to it. Or, at the very least, it’s probably not the sign of the end times they suggest it is.