Political Ideas, Political Tactics

June 7, 2016
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 which 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).

Subjects were told to imagine that they were on a jury and that the video was key evidence in a case where the protesters were suing the police. One of the basic questions was whether the police had violated the free-speech rights of the protesters. On the whole, there was little difference between those who were told that the protest was at an abortion clinic (49% said yes, the police had violated the protesters’ rights) and those who were told it was at a recruiting office (45%). That’s on the whole. Separating the subjects according to political views revealed sharp differences in perceptions.

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 the government 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.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

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.


brandsinger said...

Since my comment was alluded to, I will reply.

1 Political correctness has come to be a pejorative term because the enforcers of its tenets have gotten more and more extreme in their tactics -- i.e. publicly shaming people for saying something (even inadvertently) contrary to the latest dicta of the Thought Council -- and then calling for their dismissal and banishment from the public stage. The term has become obnoxious (and a slur not just by Trump but by anyone who cherishes open debate and common fairness) because its practitioners have become bullies.

2 As for the social "science" experiment you cite -- I don't know where to begin taking it apart as obviously flawed -- or perhaps just irrelevant.
a) it's simple common sense that people are influenced by the context of what they see and the presumed intent of acts they witness. A great big "duh" to that one.

b) More importantly, the glib categories of the "experiment" are patently subjective and shaped by the "scientists'" own political prejudices. Are you serious when you write "Hierarchicals are OK with current inequalities of race, class, and gender." --?? as if that were not a transparently biased categorization of one class of subjects in the "experiment"?? It's so obvious that the social "scientists" (or you in recounting the example) have already created false sets of subjects. "OK with current inequalities"??? such a loaded characterization. One can only imagine the survey questions used to arrive at this generalization and how they were interpreted.

c) All that said, I know a handful of ACLU-types who try to stick to principles of Constitutional law and First Amendments in interpreting events. For example, the ACLU might be considered stocked with big-government interventionists (under the phony-baloney categories above), yet the ACLU defends individual property owners against excessive use of eminent domain, as when a city wants to take property to give to a private corporation. The ACLU also supported the Citizens United decision on solid grounds of defending free speech, though one imagines that the political leanings of most members would imply antagonism to that ruling.

So, regardless of this flawed "experiment" -- yes, people tend to view events through the lens of personal bias -- but yes, too, there are cases where people stand on principle and evaluate events according to enduring values, not just their stand on the issues.


Jay Livingston said...

1. You may think it’s obvious that “people are influenced by the context of what they see and the presumed intent of acts they witness.” But that’s not the way people themselves think about their perceptions. As I said in the post, “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.” I would bet that includes you. Would say that your assessment of protesters as a “mob” of “bullies” is highly influenced by your disagreement with their goals? or would you say that they are objectively a bullying mob and that you are reporting a fact?

2. Before you dismiss an piece of research as junk, you ought to, you know, read it and find out what the researchers actually did. I’m not sure what you mean by “false sets of subjects.” Subjects’ political views were classified on the basis of their responses to questions. Here’s an excerpt from the questionnaire.

B. Hierarchy
People in our society often disagree about issues of equality and discrimination. How strongly do you agree or disagree with each of these statements?
[Possible responses: strongly disagree, moderately disagree, slightly disagree, slightly agree, moderately agree, strongly agree]
1. HEQUAL. We have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.
2. EWEALTH. Our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth was more equal.
3. ERADEQ. We need to dramatically reduce inequalities between the rich and the poor, whites and people of color, and men and women.
4. EDISCRIM. Discrimination against minorities is still a very serious problem in our society.

The more a person agreed on #1 and disagreed on the others, the more strong their score as Hierarchical (and conversely for Egalitarian). So my summary statement that those classified as “Hierarchicals are OK with current inequalities of race, class, and gender” was accurate, wasn’t it?

Putting words like science and experiment in scare quotes is not a very convincing way to show the flaws in a study, but to do that, you would have to read and understand the article. Of course, you could say, “I don't need to read an an article to know that its methods are junk,” but the only people who would be persuaded by that kind of argument are other know-nothings.

brandsinger said...

I put "science" and "experiment" in quotes because much of "social science" is practiced to reinforce the prejudices, values and interests of the "scientists" themselves. There are many examples of this... One hilarious case has recently been admitted to by the authors... who got their results explaining the difference between conservatives and liberals exactly backwards -- and just published their admission:

(I quote from my source): Check out this stunning statement from an Erratum published in the January 2016 edition of the American Journal of Political Science:

The authors regret that there is an error in the published version of “Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies” American Journal of Political Science 56 (1), 34–51. The interpretation of the coding of the political attitude items in the descriptive and preliminary analyses portion of the manuscript was exactly reversed. Thus, where we indicated that higher scores in Table 1 (page 40) reflect a more conservative response, they actually reflect a more liberal response. Specifically, in the original manuscript, the descriptive analyses report that those higher in Eysenck’s psychoticism are more conservative, but they are actually more liberal; and where the original manuscript reports those higher in neuroticism and social desirability are more liberal, they are, in fact, more conservative.

(concludes my source) In plain language, they exactly reversed the results. According to the actual results of the study, Liberals are more authoritarian. Conservatives were inclined towards “social desirability.”

So Jay, how in heck could this happen? My quote marks are not "scare quotes." They are caution signals warning of the inherent bias of peer-reviewed social so-called "science."

Jay Livingston said...

In my previous comment, I said, “Putting words like science and experiment in scare quotes is not a very convincing way to show the flaws in a study, but to do that, you would have to read and understand the article.” Apparently, you have still not done that. Instead, you have found a correction – the authors’ admission of error – to a completely different article in a different branch of social science.

Here is your logic: An AJPS article had an important flaw.Therefore the Kahan Stanford Law Review article must be bogus. Do you really find this convincing?

You also imply that political bias corrupted both the AJPS study and the Kahan study. I haven’t read the AJPS article, but from what you report, there’s no evidence that the cause of the reversal was political bias. It might have been, but it also could have been a coding error. Besides, “social desirability,” which the corrected version showed conservatives to score higher on, does not mean that conservatives themselves were socially desirable. “Social desirability” refers to the tendency to bend one’s own responses to the perceived desires of others – what we used to call conformity. So maybe conservatives scoring higher on this trait isn’t as great a compliment as you seem to think.

As for the Kahan study and my post about it, once again you are responding to what you think it said or what you wanted it to say rather than what it actually said. There is nothing in the Kahan study or my summary of it to suggest that Kahan is a liberal. (That’s also true of my blogpost.) The point of the article is that liberals and conservatives alike alter their perceptions so as to make them congruent with their political views. In fact, your reading (I use the term loosely) of my post is a perfect example. You assume that all social scientists are liberals, therefore Kahan must be a liberal, especially since I cited his research. Therefore a) Kahan must be saying bad stuff about conservatives, and b) his research must be incompetent or even fraudulent. Neither of those is true.

Granted, there is bad social science – studies where the evidence is not strong enough to support the conclusions. It’s mostly in psychology, and the topics have nothing to do with politics – “priming,” for example, or the idea that men named Dennis are more likely to become dentists (I am not making this up). There is even fraudulent social science. That’s also true in the hard sciences.

But if you want to convince me or anyone else (except maybe yourself) that the Kahan study is worthless, you’ll have to show specifically how this study, not some study in another field, was flawed. Otherwise, you give the impression – in this case, a correct impression – that you don’t know what you’re talking about.