An ideology that exists primarily in university campuses and online activism is gaining greater prominence. This ideology is distinguished by its starkness: conferring absolute power to those without privilege; and fomenting hostility to those who, by accident of birth, assume the status of oppressors.
The oppressors are defined as such because they are privileged, and consequently benefit from institutional oppression. This is not material or economic privilege, but the privilege of being a white, heterosexual, cisgendered male. To be powerful is possess all these characteristics; and so to challenge inequity is to attack those who possess these characteristics.
This ideology is justified by social justice, and thus its advocates are colloquially known as social justice warriors. But its consequences for justice – or for the principles that underpin justice, such as equality – have been dire. It doesn’t have an egalitarian ethos. It is anti-humanist. It doesn’t see each person as an individual. Instead, it sees each person as either oppressed or oppressor, and defines its norms from this pure dichotomy: the oppressed should be treated with lower moral scrutiny, exempt from the rule of law, and free to enforce censorship. Whereas the oppressors, stained by the original sins of patriarchy and colonialism, can never be victims but only victimisers, and a transgression of their rights should consequently not concern us.
Ultimately, this ideology, known to many as ‘political correctness’, subordinates the principles underpinning a free society – freedom of speech, rule of law, rationality, and an egalitarian ethos – to power relations. What’s important is not supporting individual liberty and equality, but focusing on who is privileged, and acting accordingly to undermine their privilege. And thus, under the banner of social justice, illiberal politics are excused in places that should be bastions of freedom.
With this in mind, it was refreshing to read Robert Hughes’ ‘Culture of Complaint”. In it, Hughes, art critic cum bon-vivant, brilliantly dissects the problems that undergird political correctness: its dependence on critical theory and jargon to analyse the world; its neurotic fixation on language rather than politics as a means of changing the world; Most critically, its attack on objectivity and universal values in favour of identity politics.
A noteworthy section of Hughes’ polemic is his critique of critical theory combined with identity politics, and its negative impact on objective values. Critical theory completely decapitates the concept of objective values. Everything becomes politicised. One can’t discern values from culture without understanding the ideological implications of a cultural product.
As Hughes notes:
As a maudlin reaction against excellence spreads to the arts, the idea of aesthetic discrimination gets tarred with racist and sexist discrimination.
In other words:
The idea of quality in aesthetic experience is little more than a paternalistic fiction designed to make life hard for black, female and homosexual artists who must henceforth be judged in their ethnicity, gender and medical conditions.
In other words, how good something is is secondary to who made it. This is one of the reasons why writers like Shakespeare – England’s imperishable bard, someone who according to Harold Bloom “invented the human” – are not being taught in some schools for fear of contaminating the curriculum with more dead, white men. Doing this misses something crucial: people ought to teach Shakespeare because he is the best, nothing else. Denying working class and black children the chance to read Shakespeare is simply denying them the chance to read the best. Critically, he is the best because the insights he offers into the human condition are universal. However, identity politics fused with critical theory is hostile to the concept of universal values.
The successful attempt to ban Exhibit B, an art installation that portrayed slavery, was attacked for partly the same reasons. The person who created the exhibition lacked the sufficient melanin to touch a sensitive subject; he was white. Touching subjects that are sensitive to some members of minority groups is tantamount to blasphemy.
Considerations of an art’s inherent qualities are discarded. What matters is who made it and whether it offends. And if it is made by the wrong person, and if it offends, a braying mob, undeterred by the principle that artistic freedom extends to offensive art, will do their best to strike it down. Social justice warriors legitimise censorious activism by politicising every activity. This makes ‘problematic’ art fair for censorship because ideological purity is considered more important than artistic freedom. Whilst ostensibly noble in wanting to empower minorities that are insecure about expressing themselves, this is ultimately counterproductive and unprincipled. Counterproductive by valuing the unprivileged for their identity and not their work, thereby stunting their capacity to improve and develop; and unprincipled because, fundamentally, art is an individual form of expression that has the capacity to transcend the individual rather than be solely defined by it. It is one of its key qualities.
Hughes’ polemic was published in the fall of 1993, detailing trends that had asphyxiated academia in the 1970s and 1980s. That the themes he describes still ring true today, and that his arguments still sparkle with relevancy, testify to the potency of political correctness. It is hard to kill. It has recently leached into a new location to energise itself – the internet. And it is creating echo chambers where young people conceive a special language accompanied by righteous anger.
There is a group on Facebook called Cuntry Living that discuss politics and culture. This group concentrates all the features of political correctness exquisitely. Posts have to be prefaced with trigger warnings – an idea initially conceived to offset to PTSD, but now collapsing under its own absurdity, with everything from racism to discussions of racism potentially triggering. This sanitises the world. It offers an excuse to hover over difficult subjects rather than confronting them. With this attitude to difficult subjects, this assumption that controversial issues should be sugarcoated, it is unsurprising that social justice warriors are hostile to dissenting views and hostile to the very concept of unfettered dialogue.
Anything resembling dissent, such as questioning trans identity or, say, arguing western values are better than Islamist ones, is met with hostility. Ideological deviation is a crime. It is not an open and critical place for debate but a palace of conformity. Like all radical politics, political correctness is easy to caricature but harder to break. Its main attraction is, I posit, the peculiar sense of belonging that comes with being part of a partisan movement. Their power proceeds from their status as victims of oppression. They don’t need argument but forceful assertion.
Appealing to argument may, therefore, not be the best way to the dissuade its followers. What makes it appealing is tribalism and power.
You have your enemies, and you have your righteousness. You have a narrative of passionate grievances. This makes it receptive to people bored by liberal values. Such values have been withered away by relativism: universal rights and egalitarianism now look distinctly unsexy. It is seen as the thing “white, privileged men” defend rather than transbi-centric, über-radical Activists. This is silly for multiple reasons. This disregard for liberalism and portrayal of earnest liberals as staid or, worse, oppressive, undermines a key feature of progressive activism – universalising values. In many communities, and many cultures, both here and around the world, liberals – those who believe in choice and freedom and equality – desperately plead for the values enjoyed by the West to be extended to them. If you denigrate liberalism as unsexy, you brush away values that are genuinely emancipatory, and impair the possibility of forging links with those who live in unfree cultures and consequently seek these values more intensely.
Political correctness has been damaging for freedom of speech in universities. In Oxford university, an abortion debate was called off because the debaters were men and people found it offensive. In Edinburgh university, a music video was banned because people found it offensive. In LSE and UCL, rugby clubs and philosophy societies have been disbanded because people have found them offensive. Offence has been weaponised, given a power open societies should not concede. Rather than saying “so what” to people saying, in effect, they’re offended by something, authorities are actually considering whether to circumscribe the most distinctive feature of a free society for its most pathetic objection.
Academic freedom is viscerally important: it guarantees the individual liberty to say what you want; and assumes your agency to hear what you don’t, or, choose to ignore. Censorship and self-censorship only disempower. In universities, it disempowers an individual from saying what they want in a place that should be a crucible for experimentation and discovery. More critically, it disempowers the people it wants to empower; assuming minorities can’t manage the condition that accompanies a free and open society – being offended by something. Political correctness is anathema to the values that constitute a free society. What’s more, it visibly undermines these values in places that should cherish them most – universities and academia.
Another distinctive feature of political correctness is the hodgepodge of critical race theory and identity politics. Discrimination is excused under the banner of liberation. Discrimination is not only being excused, but also conferred an attractive righteousness. Thus, individuals can say “kill all white men”, or declare white people are trash, or argue white people should be banned from events, without anything resembling compunction. Their justification is simple: their prejudice against whites isn’t racist, and doesn’t carry the peculiar stigma of racism, because racism is prejudice married with power. With an ugly sleight of hand, they pollute the conventional meaning of a term to absolve themselves from the scrutiny this term rightly merits. It doesn’t actually redress power balance, but reverses it. By suggesting power is an inherent feature of whiteness, where it ultimately resides, political correctness removes the possibility of non-white people exercising power and being fully responsible for their own actions: the concept of moral autonomy is undermined. This means that the non-white advocates of political correctness are free to act however they please without the moral scrutiny that attends white people – and should, in fact, attend every human.
The power-powerless concept is toxic because power is more fluid than assuming to be brown is too be powerless; a brown Islamist may be more powerless than a Jew because his skin is visibly darker, but when he murderously re-enacts the oldest hatred of our civilisation on the streets of Europe, who dares dilute the significance of his racism?
This power-powerless concept is faulty because it enables someone like Bahar Mustafa to assert she can’t be racist, after saying and endorsing perfectly racist things. It enables articles after articles after articles to be written that invert reality and reproduce something that should be consigned to history: one set of standards for one group of people, another set for another. The way to challenge inequality is not by reproducing the conditions of inequality – but, rather, by proceeding from an egalitarian basis: viewing each individual as deserving of equal dignity. The identity politics of Bahar Mustafa are a consequential challenge to this premise because they separate rather than stress our common humanity. Political correctness is a fundamentally anti-egalitarian movement.
The term ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ captures an important truth: an effective way to leverage power is by assuming the status of a victim. A culture of victimhood is inherent to political correctness. It is through this victimhood, ultimately, that the tribal hatred of its advocates are nourished, and the dignity of its opponents are undermined.
Take Laura Kipnis for example, professor of communications at Northwestern university, who faced a lawsuit and accusations of gender discrimination for the crime of writing a ‘problematic’ essay on the issue of university administration. Or take the author of an anonymous Vox piece, so frightened by his students he can’t disclose his identity, so distressed by the atmosphere of fear he can’t fully express his personality. Or take Teresa Buchanan, associate professor of education at LSU, fired for using “salty language”. University professors have to toe an ideological line or face potential dismissal. One of the key ways these university professors are undermined is by dissolving the distinction between speech and actions. Speech that some consider offensive is made equivalent to physical harm. Confusing speech with actions enables authorities to circumscribe a marketplace of ideas; thus, ideas can’t be expressed freely because ideas could literally endanger the well-being of students.
Two problems attend this. Firstly, is the right to be protected from supposedly dangerous ideas an adequate tradeoff for individuals fully expressing their personality? I posit a definite not. Secondly, if speech and actions are indistinguishable, rather than asking what should be considered for censorship, the question should be: what shouldn’t be considered for censorship? Some say no limits, a lot say up to incitement to violence, others say up to incitement to hatred. Conflating speech with actions means that there is no secure basis for freedom of speech at all. There is no up to anywhere because there is no spring to bounce from.
Another consequence of the culture of victimhood is its impact on the rule of law. The presumption of innocence – the bedrock of a civilised society – is being attacked by those who confer perfect status to victims. The Rolling Stones case was eye opening. Sabrina Erdely, a journalist now thoroughly discredited, wrote a story of mass campus rape against a young woman called Jackie and presented it as fact. The uncritical acceptance of Jackie’s story crystallised the manifold problems of this culture. The most obvious of which is the subordination of facts and evidence to ideology. And the most salient of which is the trivialisation, the utter exploitation and embellishment, of a very serious and very important issue – sexual assault.
The culture of victimhood inherent to political correctness poisons the twin principles of freedom of speech and presumption of innocence. These two principles are the organs of an enlightened society, guaranteeing equality under law and individual conscience. Those who imperil them, therefore, through victimhood and deceit, urgently deserve rebuttal.
Political correctness is a problem because it nourishes reactionary values. On top of that, in aggressively enforcing codes of behaviour and correct language use, it betrays the spirit of liberalism: freedom to do, freedom from coercion, and an assumption of equality. That political correctness features most prominently in a place traditionally viewed as an incubator of liberalism – universities – should concern all who value freedom.