For Political Correctness

June 4, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Political correctness.  Donald Trump scoffs at the idea, but he loves the phrase.  It’s what he uses to avoid questions and dismiss his critics. This strategy is what Sykes and Matza, in their now-classic 1957 article on “techniques of neutralization,” called “Condemning the Condemners.” Sykes and Matza were describing the thinking that juvenile delinquents use to justify their lawbreaking. Condemning the condemners neutralizes the rules against crimes, for after all, if the authorities are imperfect – corrupt, venal, unfair, etc. – then the laws they are enforcing can be ignored.

The delinquent, in effect, has changed the subject of the conversation in the dialogue between his own deviant impulses and the reactions of others; and by attacking others, the wrongfulness of his own behavior is more easily repressed or lost to view.
Similarly, Trump. Are his ideas and policies racist or sexist; are they intolerant on religion? Ignore that question, because the real problem is the idea behind the question itself:

MEGYN KELLY:  You once told a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.. . . How will you answer the charge . . . that you are part of the war on women?

TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness.
The strategy plays well among Trump’s supporters. When Trump said that the problem was political correctness, they interrupted with cheers and applause.

But there’s something to be said for political correctness. Part of that creed might be summed up as “Don’t be an asshole, don’t be a bully.” It’s the same impulse towards decency as the dictum that the role of the press should be to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If you’re doing it the other way round – comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted – you’re probably being an asshole and a bully.

Political correctness sides with those who are most easily victimized and stigmatized, especially when the basis of that stigma is something that the afflicted have little power to change – race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, physical appearance (height, weight, beauty).

A Washington Post story (here) about a case of bullying highlights these aspects of political correctness. It was on the “Post Most” list that week – the most popular stories among Post readers– probably for the same reason that the NRA loves stories about people using guns to defend themselves against bad guys. In this case, political correctness could have saved a life.

Emilie Olsen was adopted from China at nine months. She grew up in southwest Ohio. In fifth grade she became the object of jeering for her clothes (“Chinese people don’t wear camo”). In sixth grade this expanded to include accusations about her sexuality (a fake Instagram account “Emilie Olsen is Gay”). In seventh grade she was showing signs that the harassment was having its intended effects – her grades dropped, she became depressed, she cut herself. In addition to the online bullying, her tormentors posted graffiti in school bathroom stalls:  “Go kill yourself Emilie.”

She had some friends and supporters. Their demand to the bullies to “stop messing” with Emilie turned into a brief fight. Her psychological condition grew worse, and less than two months later, she got her father’s gun and killed herself.*

Her parents have sued the school, which of course denies that bullying, if there even was bullying, had anything to do with her death. The parents may not be able to prove their case legally. Still, if the school had enforced some of those principles the Trump-minded** dismiss as political correctness, Emilie Olsen would probably still be alive.

*The case illustrates another tenet of liberal thought – that guns are dangerous. A gun in the house is much more likely to be involved in an accident, a domestic fight, or a suicide than in defense against outside predators.

** Butler County is heavily Republican.  In the Republican primary in March, Kasich won the county. But Trump did much better there, losing by only 2 percentage points, than he did in the state as a whole, where he lost by 11 percentage points.


Machin said...

This is an interesting article, and the case presented in the last paragraph does make a good point. Nonetheless I am wondering to what extent the strategy is not partly doomed to fail. What oppression Trump pretends fighting is the remnant of a sort of "first vague" political correctness coming back from the 1980s/1990s (I don't have a source to put on that point and may be mistaken). The behavior consisting in consoring - which is not used as a pejorative here - comments and language carrying violence has in return given plenty of rope for bigots such as Trump. In a way, it eventually seems to strenghten his argument since what once appeared as the rubbish grumbling of a "silent majority" now is framed as the vivid resistance from a minority - which it obviously is not.
So here's my question: in France we have noticed that going for a "moralistic" antiracism eventually led to little good, and even to a certain extent reinforced people like Eric Zemmour or his like, who have emerged as "rebels" and had considerable impact on the public debate, partly because media such as the TV were used receiving public figures saying "racism is bad and you shouldn't want it" and could hardly stand a debate in front of someone refusing the premise (that racism is bad). Isn't it, on the long run, a losing strategy, although based on common-sense ideas.

PS for Mr. brandsinger: I hardly understand how sexism in Iran and Egypt is supposed to somehow erase sexism in the USA, the UK, or France, I'd gladly have more development on that argument if you would. Or are we supposed to be glad some guy wants to cut our hand under the pretext that another guy in another country might have cut our forearm? Where does it stop? Because, if that's the reasoning, I'm pretty sure you could make the argument that FGM is not so terrible as compared to, say, killing female babies as happened in some parts of China after the beginning of the once-child policy, which is not so terrible either considering that in Europe some women were burnt alive for being independent, and so on and so forth.

Jay Livingston said...


I agree. Conservatives use the excesses of the left (or really, a small part of the left) to justify everything that the left would object to. Conservatives aggregate the left’s decent tendencies and illiberal tendencies into a single idea which they call “political correctness.” Then, they can reject anything by giving it that label. Trump does this implicitly, as the exchange with Megyn Kelly shows.
I do not know much about M. Zenmour. But in the US, we have not had national politicians who ran explicitly as anti-racists because until now, we have had no national politicians who were explicitly racist. In the past and in local elections, yes. And there, as far as I know, no opposition candidate has been successful by pointing out the racism. That’s probably because racist politicians ran in places where racism was a majority attitude, so the candidate who said, “My opponent is a racist” wasn’t going to win the election.

Even this year, in the televised Republican debates, none of the other Republican candidates pointed out strongly that Trump’s ideas and policies were racist – and perhaps for the same reason: anti-racism wasn’t going to get them many votes from the Republican voters. Instead, the media – at last – have been shining the light on Trump’s unevolved ideas about gender, race, and religion.

(Merci d’avoir analysé la fausse-logique l’autre commentaire. Vous m’en avez sauvé la peine. Vous pourriez lui repondu en français, qu’il peut lire assez bien, je crois.)

brandsinger said...

Jay, you write a blog entitled "for political correctness" and say there is "something to be said for it." Then you proceed to re-define political correctness as a form of human decency, respect and even gallantry. Neat trick -- "fausse-logique" indeed! Political correctness is the intolerance of any opinion at variance with the accepted mainstream liberal dogma. Political correctness is the brutal shaming of people who even inadvertently run afoul of criteria of "hate" speech and the bludgeon of the charge of "racism." Political correctness results in the disgraceful firing of the founder of Mozilla because he once, years earlier, contributed to a campaign against gay marriage -- but showed only respect and tolerance toward all employees. Political correctness is the climate in which the president of Harvard dare not speculate publicly on any possible differences between men and women (a true sin and worthy of hellfire) -- a sin punished by loss of job. Political correctness is manifest by Wesleyan students signing a petition to defund their own paper because someone wrote an opinion contrary to the liberal canon. That's political correctness. It was called out by American comedians like Jerry Seinfeld who complained that today comedians are walking on eggshells instead of telling jokes that might offend.

That's political correctness -- and Americans are sick of having to think, say, write, and even wear! only what the adjudicators of the left allow -- on pain of being bullied off the podium (oh, and that's part of the enforcement tactics). If you are "for political correctness" you are for bullying by an ever-emboldened mob. I suspect that you are, by the way. Just own up to that and spare us the exercise of redefining political correctness -- which is what more and more Americans have come to recognize as intellectual bullying increasingly reinforced by physical assault.

Jay Livingston said...

I hate to disappoint you, especially when you seem so lathered up in your comments lately. (Have you considered returning to your “you won’t have brandsinger to kick around anymore” promise?) But in fact, I’m an old-style liberal. I believe in free speech. Generally, I do not approve of shouting down speakers, even though the protesters are probably not doing anything illegal – if free speech protects the anti-abortion screamers, it protects anti-racism screamers. I just think it’s wrong. I also think that in most cases it’s a bad strategy. OTOH, I have no objections to students organizing to get a school to dump a graduation speaker because of her politics, as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog (here).

As for executives, I don’t know. What should an organization do when the person at the top says something that offends a lot of people inside and probably outside the organization? Suppose that the president of Liberty University made a speech saying, “When you come right down to it and look at the evidence, evolution makes an awful lot of sense.” Many of the students and faculty would call for him to be removed for his incorrectness. And I really couldn’t blame them. Didn’t the NRA vote out a president because he didn’t conform to their political ideology?

When it comes to profit-making organizations that depend on their image – I mean their brand – it gets even stickier. If you say something your customers find politically unpalatable, your sales may suffer. Ask the Dixie Chicks. Radio stations wouldn’t even take their money to run ads; they had to cancel concerts – all because of one political statement that many C/W fans disagreed with. So if your CEO takes a political position that most of the people in your corner of the world find offensive, what do you do? Or what about this hypothetical: suppose someone earns his bread by ghostwriting speeches for bank executives and other Wall Street fat cats, and then he publishes an op-ed in the Times that sounds like it might well have been written by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Would his paymasters be justified in firing him?

As for the part of your comment that Machin responded to, it was your argument that Trump’s sexism is to be ignored because women get much worse treatment in distant lands. Is there some Greek word for this not-very-persuasive rhetorical strategy?
Also, I used your comment and its confusion of ideas and tactics as the basis of today’s blogpost. Thanks.

Machin said...

Hello again, I see you are having a lively debate together which I do not fully comprehend, so I take the liberty of quoting the argument I find interesting in that:
"Conservatives aggregate the left’s decent tendencies and illiberal tendencies into a single idea which they call 'political correctness.' Then, they can reject anything by giving it that label. Trump does this implicitly, as the exchange with Megyn Kelly shows."

I tend to agree on that, and took notice in my early years - which were not so long ago - of that precise tendency of emptying the term to turn it into a new "pensée unique". Now, the point which I am intrigued by is the fact that this "old" tendency of "genuine" politically correct is making a big comeback in social sciences at the moment (which is the realm interesting me), and I wonder: to what extent will it not backlash at a point, and to what extent does it not already have considerable unforseen consequences? I come from French academia, and I was for example surprised to see in the UK a methodological debate dominated by the refusal to employ aggressive terminologies and by a structiny of formal consent, which in return led to a lot of unattention on the research interaction (I'm thinking about a piece written by my colleague Moe Ali Nayel titled "Palestinian refugees are not at your service", which is very clear on that).
As for Trump, your description of his strategy is clear and I think it interesting to look at that way in which politicians or public figures return a stigma on that account. I'm going back to a French example: the editorialist I talked about earlier, Zemmour, was sued for saying on TV something like "It is normal that the police controls Arabs and Black people more than Whites, since most drug dealers are Arabs or Black people" (we don't have the First Amendment and it is illegal to promote racial hatred in France). At the same time, the main far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, would follow a completely different strategy by moving to a cultural framing such as "We are not racist, we just believe Arabs are Muslims and will not integrate in a country such as France where we have a Christian identity, but this is not racist since being a Muslim is not biological and therefore has nothing to do with race" (ignoring the fact that race has nothing to do with biology per se, but whatever). This allows for a similar, and even more perverse reaction, in which the antiracists themselves are described as racist, "Because they immediately focus on race". There is an interesting this about that avoidance of overt racism in order to be racist again.
So all in all, this is a rather interesting reflexion.

brandsinger said...

Trying to be concise (which is not common in this thread) and seeking shorter, more intelligible paragraphs (again, not the norm here, obviously), I say:

1 I'm back here Jay because you have several times haunted my brandsinger site with your characteristic know-it-all-ness (look it up, Mr. Machin).

2 I liked your reasoning in your post favoring cliches at graduation -- very sophisticated post. I'll use it in writing classes.

3 I'm glad you favor free speech -- (however qualified you make the case). I hope you have the courage of your convictions (cliches being welcome here) and speak out on campus in favor of conservative guest-speakers.

4 As for my argument on liberals and women -- I stand by my belief that liberal exaggerations (or really, lies) such as the Republican "war on women" do no one any good, especially women who might then feel victimized -- especially when in the history of the world and in the context of today's world, women in America have achieved incredible freedoms and opportunities. War on women does exist in the world -- just not here -- and if you use that kind of rhetoric, your ability to make moral and political judgments is compromised.

I'm out of here as long as my own brandsinger site is not challenged, in which case I'm back spreading truths that can only be refuted with tangled, loooooooong paragraphs per Mr. Machin, who is in serious need of an editor.