Posted by Jay Livingston
A comment on the previous post claimed that political correctness is “bullying people.” The comment ignored most of the content of the post, which was about the tactic of using the term political correctness as a strategy used by bullies divert attention away from their bullying. The comment also confuses two dimensions – ideas and tactics. It’s a common enough mistake. Even the Wikipedia entry doesn’t keep ideas distinct from tactics.
|Political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct), commonly abbreviated to PC, is a term which, in modern usage, is used to describe language, policies, or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society. In the media, the term is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive.|
The first sentence refers to ideas, as did my previous post (“comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”). The second sentence describes a rhetorical strategy: when you want to vilify something (in this case political correctness) go to extremes. Find examples of the most extreme version of the ideas and the most extreme tactics of its supporters. Once the phrase has become a pejorative, anything that can be labeled as politically correct must automatically be wrong.
But most people use the term to refer not to tactics but to ideas or values (e.g., “New York values”). To say that replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 is politically correct, or supporting gay marriage, or hoping that the Washington Redskins pick a different name, or thinking that women, Blacks, and LGBT people ought not be excluded from syllabuses or TV shows and that Donald Trump shouldn’t call women bimbos – these and a host of other issues, all of them labeled as politically correct, have nothing to do with tactics and everything to do with ideas and principles.
Bullying is a tactic, not an idea, and it is used by supporters of all sorts of political ideas. Anti-abortion activists scream into the faces women going to abortion clinics. Some even firebomb the clinics and make death threats against practitioners. In fact nowadays, thanks to the Internet, people from all over the political spectrum make death threats and use other vile tactics that all fall under the category of bullying.
The “political correctness = bullying” conflation illustrates another aspect of muddied thinking – “motivated cognition”: our feelings about the ideas affect our perception of the tactics. It’s like the football fan’s perception of pass interference or holding or some other infraction – whether we see a player’s tactic as legal or illegal depends on whiche side we’re rooting for. The classic 1954 study “They Saw a Game” documents this kind of motivated cognition among students following a controversial Dartmouth-Princeton football game.
More recently, in 2012 Dan Kahan and his colleagues did a similar study – “They Saw a Protest” (pdf here). All subjects were shown the the same video of protesters and police. Some were told that the protest took place outside an abortion clinic and that the protesters were anti-abortion. Others subjects were told that the scene was a military recruiting center and that the demonstrators were protesting the Army’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (still in effect in when the study was done).
The measure of the subjects’ political orientation was not the usual liberal-conservative dimension but instead a space marked off by two axes: One axis is the Hierarchical-Egalitarian. Egalitarians think we should strive for greater equality in society; Hierarchicals are OK with current inequalities of race, class, and gender. The other axis is Individual-Communitarian – basically about the role of government. Is it interfering too much in our lives (Individual), or is it not doing enough to improve things (Communitarian)? Translated into more conventional political categories, the Hierarchical and Individual would be conservative, the Egalitarian and Communitarian would be liberal.
Hierarchicals (solid lines in each graph) were much more likely to say the police were at fault when the protest was against an abortion clinic than against a recruitment center. As they saw it, the protest at the military recruitment center – that was dangerous so the police had to move in. But when the protesters were anti-abortion, how dare the police bust up a legitimate protest. For the Egalitarians (dash lines), those positions were reversed. Basically, if we agree with the protesters, we perceive the police as violating their rights. If we disagree with the protesters, the police are just lawfully doing their job.
Politics shaped perception on an even more factual question: had the protesters blocked people from entering the building? Again, when the protest was at the recruitment center, Egalitarians saw the protesters as relatively benign, Hierarchicals saw them as a threat to pedestrians and others. When the protest was at the abortion clinic, those perceptions flipped.
But wait, there’s more, and it gets worse. Not only does our ideology influence what we see, but we fail to recognize that connection, assuming instead that we are merely calling them not just as we see them but as they objectively are. At the same time, says Kahan, we are quick to spot the motivated perception of people we disagree with. The result is that we think those we disagree with are not just wrong but that they are acting in bad faith, deliberately misperceiving a peaceful protest as a violent mob or vice-versa.