Thoughts on political correctness and SJW

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. 

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14 thoughts on “Thoughts on political correctness and SJW

  1. “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.”

    Not to mention patronising. Meritocracy places value on the quality of a work. A system of quotas based on the sex or ethnicity of the artist devalues the work of women and people of colour by introducing the suspicion that sub-standard work is being promoted to benefit those whose work could not succeed on its own merits. This ‘All Must Win Prizes’ approach infantilises those it is meant to help.

    But to make this argument to a SJW is of course a waste of time since they tend to hold that (a) Meriticracy is a self-serving, elitist lie because (b) there is no reliably objective means of judging artistic worth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think there is a reasonable point here, but it’s kind of lost in the same sort of argument you criticise your “SJW”s for making. I think I could probably find a Facebook group to back up any point.

    This post is inventing and conflating a number of percieved enemies to a particular form of liberalism and I’m not sure they exist to any outside a few bored teenagers with Tumblr and CiF accounts.

    They certainly don’t outweigh the genuine structural inequalities we can observe through most of western society. Problem is, and where I do agree with you, is that it’s become almost lazily easy to turn those inequalities into personal brand identities, but I think the problem here is that the post doesn’t seem to differentiate the people from the ideas.

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    1. I’ll be honest and say I find your comment a bit vague. But I’ll try my best to respond.

      “I’m not sure they exist to any outside a few bored teenagers with Tumblr and CiF accounts”.

      You’re greatly underestimating the problem. The ideology I describe in the piece has real world impact, especially on university campuses. I mentioned that particular Facebook group because they encapsulated the most salient features of this ideology: hostility to dissenting views; vicious animus to those with “privilege”; and moral relativism.

      And these features have real world consequences.

      If it just existed in some obscure Tumblr sites, how can you explain the rise of safe spaces and no platforming ? Both of which undermine academic freedom and infantilise students.

      If this ideology just existed on Tumblr sites, how can you explain the attack on the rule of law? The attack on presumption of innocence many by who assumed the viewpoint of a victim is infallible. (The UVA rape case I mentioned).

      If it’s confined to a few Tumblr and Facebook site, how can you explain the racism against supposedly privileged groups? The Bahar Mustafa case for example.

      If you think the subordination of important principles – freedom of speech, rule of law and equality – to an attempt to undermine privilege is valid, then fine. But I think this is a coherent ideology that is both reactionary in beliefs and attitude.

      It may be relatively small in the number of people who genuinely espouse it, but it is loud, angry, vicious, relentless and coercive and therefore merits examination and rebuttal. They’re not “perceived enemies to a particular form of liberalism”. They’re actual enemies to liberalism – which I define as a belief individual liberty and moral autonomy, for everyone. They dislike liberalism because they see it as an instrument of oppression, reinforcing rather than undermining the privilege of white males. That’s why they support no-platforming; as an affront to privileged white men saying harmful things to oppressed minorities.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Couple observations:

    I think you nailed it with “peculiar sense of belonging”. Actually, that particular sense of belonging isn’t all that peculiar; it’s a phase of social and psychological development that’s common in early adolescence. It’s when your world seems to be falling apart because kids you don’t like are listening to your favorite band (that’s pretty much what “cultural appropriation” complaints amount to). IMHO, privilege theory and identity politics are basically tween clique rivalries on steroids.

    Of course, most people grow out of that phase by their mid-teens and don’t, to put it mildly, look back fondly on it. But for whatever reason, especially at elite universities, there’s a big group of late adolescents and young adults who are still stuck in it (I suspect helicopter parenting and overstructuring have a lot to do with it; a lot of today’s college students are only now starting to learn and practice informal social and interpersonal interaction, something that previous generations did in junior high).

    I’m pretty sure another factor is the rather massive power shift from faculty to administrators in academia; a culture of grievance is an appealing justification for administrative empire-building.

    Additionally, we’re seeing the intrusion of personal emotion into politics being mainstreamed, and much of that emotion is of the irrational anxiety-disorder sort. This isn’t helped by a quack approach to psychotherapy that preaches avoidance of anxiety-inducing stimuli (this approach seems to be motivated by quack therapists’ desire to keep their clients dependent on, and therefore paying, them). We saw a spectacular example of this in the “Satanic panic” of the 80s and 90s and all the recovered incest memories.

    Actual researchers and evidence-based therapists are fully agreed that trying to avoid anxiety-inducing stimuli (“triggers”) only makes the anxiety worse, with more and more things setting it off (the extreme example of this involves eating disorders, where food becomes an anxiety-inducing stimulus and efforts to avoid it can be literally deadly). Recovery comes from confronting those stimuli, not shying from them.

    Nitpick: Kipnis faced a Title IX complaint, not a lawsuit. But it was still the regulatory equivalent of a SLAPP suit (I get the impression that I’m the first to come out and say that directly, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong).

    I suspect that some of the most egregious SJWs have actual personality disorders (though this is sort of an occupational hazard of activism in general). Certainly if you look at the standard list of cognitive distortions (black-and-white thinking, overgeneralization, mind-reading, selective abstraction, global labelling, emotional reasoning, should statements (“musturbation”), etc.) the (stereo)typical SJW seems to regard them as virtues to be cultivated, not bad habits of thought.

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  4. Another excellent piece! I think it worth re-reading Hitchen’s (prescient) take on identity politics (from Letters to a Young Contrarian published pre-9/11 2001):

    “Since this often seems to come up in discussions of the radical style, I’ll leave mention one other gleaning from my voyages. Beware of identity politics. I’ll rephrase that: have nothing to do with identity politics. I remember very well the first time I heard the saying “The Personal is Political.” It began as a sort of reaction to the defeats and downturns that followed 1968: a consolation prize, as you might say, for people who had missed that year. I knew in my bones that a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse. Nor was I wrong. People began to stand up at meetings and orate about how they *felt*, not about what or how they thought, and about who they were rather than what (if anything) they had done or stood for. It became the replication in even less interesting form of the narcissism of the small difference, because each group begat its subgroups and “specificities.” This tendency has often been satirised — the overweight caucus of the Cherokee transgender disabled lesbian faction demands a hearing on its needs — but never satirised enough. You have to have seen it really happen. From a way of being radical it swiftly became a way of being reactionary; the Clarence Thomas hearings demonstrated this to all but the most dense and boring and selfish who had always seen identity politics as their big chance.

    Anyway, what you swiftly realise if you peek over the wall of your own immediate neighbourhood or environment, and travel beyond it, is, first, that we have a huge surplus of people who wouldn’t change the way they were born, or the group they were born into, but second that ‘humanity’ (and the idea of change) is best represented by those who have the wit not to think, or should I say feel this way.”

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  5. Interesting piece Tom. Refreshing to see a critique of identity politics from someone who isn’t the sort of person that identity politics essentially targets (cis white males)

    Couple of points tho.

    1) I think the whole debate, identity politics itself and the critique has lost sight of and ultimately conflated ‘white people’ and ‘whiteness’. While suggesting all white people are inherently racist is of course a ridiculous over generalisation, the continued construction of the white western subject is deeply problematic. Identity provides a way for people to align with others because they quite visibly do not align with the ‘norm’. This norm is not an active construction by white people per se but is the powerful result of many historical factors that leave us where we are today

    2) This brings me on to my second point which is quite simply, what’s the alternative? Critiques of identity politics always return to a Marxist orientated class based battle in which the homogenous ‘left’ should fight against inequality. But identity is far more visible and far closer to a vast number of people than their ‘class’. And while I am not suggesting you are guilty of this, I rarely here identity politics critics come up with a productive solution to these issues other than, ‘identity politics and safe spaces are bad’.

    I have spent a large amount of my life living in Zambia where I, as a white man, live, work and socialise amongst people who are not my race. The connotations that whiteness carries with it are immense and long precede and further elements of my identity and background. In my work I see the most ridiculous examples of white identity being associated with the ‘right’ thing to do and the ‘modern’ ‘progressive’ route – I’m talking high level politics and often without even realising it. Whiteness is something that the world simply cannot write away and hope will eventually disappear. Well, it can of course, but surely this is not the best way to deal with inequalities and racial tensions that exist today? I don’t know perhaps you think it is?

    Maybe I’m talking about a different battle ground, I don’t know. But on a global scale I haven’t been presented with an alternative to the continuing normalisation of whiteness in political-economy.

    Finally this isn’t my area per se but I study the concept of power in a different field and I think a much more in depth theorisation and thinking about power in this context is needed. For example making it about a struggle for the ‘possession’ of power is unhelpful I think, because, as you rightly point out most white people have simply inherited this perceived power through no active work of their own.

    Cheers

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    1. Your experience will be very different, by the simple fact that you are exposed to a different society. Modern social justice is the preserve of the well off western world only- and I suspect it is your nationality (or assumption of nationality) that causes people to revere you in Zambia.

      I have had similar experiences in Nepal. In fact, my black friend had the same experience simply because he was seen as “western”.

      Is this fair? Probably not. Although it is correct on some level. Your level of education is probably much higher than the vast majority of people you encounter in Zambia- is it niave to expect your cultural and political sensibilities to be more advanced as well? To put it more simply- “people have a good life in western democracies, this guy is from a western democracy, if we learn from him we can have a good life too.”

      With regards to your point about possession of power- it is already seen this way by proponents of so called social justice. They believe power is something priviliged groups inately possess, and that power is a zero sum game. The only way to attain power is therefore to take it away from the group that has more power.

      Which leads me on to WHY exactly identity politics is bad. It does not treat people as human beings. You might personally have no power or influence whatsoever in society- but as you are part of a priviliged group (white, male, christian, heterosexual, cisgender, neurotypical, ablebodied etc.) you are still liable to have your “power” (in terms of social currency) forceably taken away. Your individual characteristics don’t matter. You can’t change the immutable characteristics that people believe define your identity- so you will always be privileged.

      My critique of identity politics has nothing to do with Marxism or class based politics (in fact I’m more of an Anarchist than a Socialist). “Class” is just another form of identity, class politics is another form of identity politics.

      We should strive to treat people entirely as individuals, rather than identifying friends and enemies based on their skin colour, genitals or how much money their parents have.

      My identity is not defined by my immutable characteristics but my views and my choices.

      To think otherwise is at best illiberal, at worst, fascist.

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      1. The point I am making has nothing to do with nationality. Nationality is a secondary characteristic only obtained further down any social interaction. I am talking about the immediate and most prominent attribute – someone’s race. I know a number of white Zambians who have the same experience as me, and of course South Africa (particularly the Boer Republics) is quite a literal example of this phenomenon that goes well beyond the boundaries of nationality and ‘western’ identity. So this is very much about whiteness and the connotations that it holds. Again, like I said before – not white people, but whiteness.

        Assuming my education is higher than the vast majority of Zambians is also untrue. Some yes, others certainly not. You make it sound as if I am talking about remote tribal villages. I understand such a presumption but I certainly was not. Im talking about day to day urban life in the political scene where I work. Whiteness is an extremely powerful agent (with many different impacts of course). By way of an example, I recently viewed a particular development project for the city where I work and the policy documentation which gave an outline of what the new area (it was an urban park) would look like, made use of white subjects within the imagery. This, to exist in a country like Zambia as an adopted, accepted policy brief, is insane.

        My critique of power as possession is not to suggest that people do not ‘possess’ power that is given to them by whiteness –they do. But the recognition of this power is so fluid and nuanced that ordinarily you wouldn’t even notice it, which is why people get annoyed at being accused of it being their ‘privilege’. Once you are confronted with a situation where it is obvious that it is a tool you could possibly leverage then you begin to notice its all-pervasiveness.

        Again, as I said in the initial post, I might be talking about something very different to safe spaces in the UK, but to deny the existence of whiteness as a power on the global scene is crazy. It’s there, it works and it colonizes minds. Every day.
        I like your point about class being a form of identity politics, it certainly is and I wish more of those who criticise identity politics would realise this. Identity constitutes a lot more than people realise, after all we are not ‘all the same’, we are all essentially, very different. Your final point therefore, about ‘striving’ to be treated as individuals is one that I never understand and is often placed in opposition to identity politics when it is in fact an entirely different thing. Yes, of course, we strive for an egalitarian society where everyone is treated the same, but we fundamentally do not live in one and to just state that this idealised utopia is what we should desire is not solving any issues it is just describing a better world. The question is how do we get there? And this is what identity politics – sometimes well and yes, sometimes very badly – is trying to do. Identity politics/safe spaces whatever should be seen as a means of trying to reach an egalitarian society, not as opposition to one.

        How you or I choose to define our identity does not fully constitute our identity in a world that contains 7 billion other people and a lot of history to cover them. It would be nice if it did. But it doesn’t.

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