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Yes, Political Correctness Really Exists

Jonathan Chait burned up the Internet this week with his critique [1] of so-called political correctness. Among many responses, Amanda Taub [2]‘s stands out for its denial of Chait’s basic premise. According to Taub:

…there’s no such thing as “political correctness.” The term’s in wide use, certainly, but has no actual fixed or specific meaning. What defines it is not what it describes but how it’s used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.

This is a curious response. Sure, people use the term in different ways. But Chait provides a perfectly serviceable definition: “political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.”

I don’t think Taub would deny that this political style exists [3], although one may quibble with some of Chait’s examples. What she objects to is the way Chait describes it. In her view, calling denunciations of putatively bigoted opinions “political correctness” allows their advocates to avoid taking those criticisms seriously. So, in a feat of rhetorical jujitsu, Chait becomes guilty of the same tendency he opposes: ruling views he rejects out of respectable conversation.

This dispute is an object lesson in the pernicious effect of political correctness—or whatever you want to call it—on intellectual and political debate. Arguments about ideas devolve into wrangling about words. The conduct of politics by means of semantics sometimes reaches comic heights. In his piece, Chait reports an incident in which,

UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I—one example of many “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.”

But there’s nothing important at stake in the phrase “political correctness”. So let’s drop it, at least provisionally, and focus on the phenomenon that Chait describes. Contrary to popular perception, it’s not just a product of youthful exuberance among student activists or the ease and enforced brevity of Twitter. It’s rooted in a philosophical critique of the liberal theory of discourse.

Although it has precedents in Kant, this theory received a definitive formulation in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty [4]According to Mill, the truth is most likely to emerge from unrestricted debate. Although Mill did not use the metaphor, such a debate is conventionally described as a “marketplace of ideas,” in which vendors are free to offer their wares and customers are at liberty to purchase only the best goods.


There are two problem with this image. The first is that it assumes that consumers of ideas are in a position to judge which most closely approximate the truth. But that may not be the case. In order to make good purchasing decisions, customers need a certain level of background information and capacity for comparison.

In order to make the intellectual market function properly, Mill proposed that participation be restricted to “human beings in the maturity of their faculties.” In the most obvious sense, that means that we should not rely on judgments by children or the insane.

But Mill did not stop with ruling out those who had not yet reached the age of majority, or whose reason was in some way deranged. He also argued that the liberty of thought and discussion was not appropriate for “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.” When it comes to “barbarians,” Mill reasoned, it is appropriate to use coercion, just as it is appropriate for parents to monitor their children’s reading. The implication for contemporary politics was that Britain was justified in practicing a kind of tutelary imperialism.

That conclusion might rule Mill off the syllabus at some universities [5]today. But it actually reflects an important and potentially damaging tension in his argument. Mill defends the unrestricted exchange of ideas. Yet he also accords to those he judges fully rational the authority to determine who gets to participate in that exchange—and to enforce the education of those who don’t make the cut. For Mill, in other words, intellectual freedom presupposes a period of enlightened despotism.

The second problem emerges more directly from the quasi-commercial dimensions of Mill’s epistemological model. Mill assumed that all normally-constituted adults who had received a basic education were capable of reliably picking and choosing among intellectual offerings. That assumes they are unaffected by the sellers’ attempts to influence their choices.

But consumer preferences are influenced by advertising, reputation, the way products are presented, habit, and so one. In practice, it’s not easy to get shoppers to consider buying something new and different, even if it really is better than its competitors. Most of the time they buy the same products from familiar brands.

Some Marxists call the factors that interfere with judgment “false consciousness.” They argue that false consciousness accounts for the failure of revolutionary ideology to attract adherents among the working class in the developed world. On this view, it wasn’t outright repression or censorship that prevented the workers from adopting a Marxist perspective. It is was the subtle and concealed influence of capital on their ability to exercise their capacity to make their own decisions.

These tensions in Mill’s defense of intellectual freedom were recognized in the 19th century. What we now call political correctness was first articulated in the 1960s by the brilliant German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s achievement was to turn Mill’s argument for free discussion, at least in a modern Western society, against its explicit conclusion.

Marcuse undertakes this inversion, worthy a black belt in dialectical reasoning, in the 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance [6].” In it, Marcuse argues that the marketplace of ideas can’t function as Mill expected, because the game in rigged in favor of those who are already powerful. Some ideas enjoy underserved appeal due to tradition or the prestige of their advocates. And “consumers” are not really free to chose, given the influence of advertising and the pressures of social and economic need. Thus the outcome of formally free debate is actually predetermined. The ideas that win will generally be those justify the existing order; those that lose will be those that challenge the structure.

This prong of the argument is close to the standard critique of false consciousness. But Marcuse links it to Mill’s distinction between those who are and are not capable of participating in and benefitting from the unrestricted exchange of ideas.

According to Marcuse, many people who appear to be rational, self-determining men and women are actually in a condition of ideological enforced immaturity. They are therefore incapable of exercising the kind of that Mill’s argument presumes. In order to make debate meaningful, they need to be properly educated. This education is the responsibility of those who are already shown themselves to be capable of thinking for themselves—in this case, left-wing intellectuals rather than Victorian colonial administrators.

One might wonder how either Mill or Marcuse could be so sure that their kind of people knew what was best for others. The answer is that they regarded the truth as obvious. Mill was convinced that progress has demonstrated the obsolescence of non-Western culture, just as it had exposed the falsity of geocentric astronomy. In a postscript to the original essay, Marcuse expressed similar confidence in the rationality if not the linear character of history:

As against the virulent denunciations that such a policy would do away with the sacred liberalistic principle of equality for ‘the other side’, I maintain that there are issues where either there is no ‘other side’ in any more than a formalistic sense, or where ‘the other side’ is demonstrably regressive…

In Marcuse’s hands, Mill’s justification of enlightened despotism in undeveloped societies becomes a justification of enlightened despotism over the majority undeveloped individuals. The central difference between Mill and Marcuse is that the former believed that the necessity of despotism had passed, as least in the West. Marcuse contended intellectual freedom had to be be deferred until more people are likely to develop the correct opinions:

…the ways should not be blocked on which a subversive majority could develop, and if they are blocked by organized repression and indoctrination, their reopening may require apparently undemocratic means. They would include the withdrawal of toleration of speech and assembly from groups and movements which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, of which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc. Moreover, the restoration of freedom of thought may necessitate new and rigid restrictions on teachings and practices in the educational institutions which, by their very methods and concepts, serve to enclose the mind within the established universe of discourse and behavior—thereby precluding a priori a rational evaluation of the alternatives. And to the degree to which freedom of thought involves the struggle against inhumanity, restoration of such freedom would also imply intolerance toward scientific research in the interest of deadly ‘deterrents’, of abnormal human endurance under inhuman conditions, etc.

This passage is remarkable for the degree to which it prefigures so-called political correctness. Marcuse’s thought is that it is impossible for radical ideas to win a “free debate” in an society characterized by many forms of inequality. Therefore, debate should be restructured in ways that favor the weak and lowly. Marcuse goes on to speculate:

While the reversal of the trend in the education enterprise at least could conceivably be enforced by the students and teachers themselves, the systematic withdrawal of tolerance toward regressive and repressive opinions and movements could only be envisaged as the results of large-scale pressure which would amount to an upheaval.

Marcuse’s emphasis on students and professors encouraged the transformation of the universities that’s been exhaustively discussed by writers such as Roger Kimball [7]. But his hopes for “large scale” pressure were disappointed until fairly recently, partly because the repressive tolerance thesis is as offensive to ordinary people as it is attractive to academics.

The advent of social media changed that dynamic. In addition to tilting public discourse toward the young, who are more likely to use these platforms, they make it easier for those whom Marcuse frankly described as subversives to organize and target the withdrawal of tolerance.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Gawker commenters are secret Marcusians. Actually, they’d probably benefit from reading this extraordinarily learned, subtle thinker. But they have absorbed a simplified version of Marcuse’s critique of Mill. In Marcuse, this critique culminates in an endorsement of legal as well as social pressure to hasten progress:

Different opinions and ‘philosophies’ can no longer compete peacefully for adherence and persuasion on rational grounds: the ‘marketplace of ideas is organized and delimited by those who determine the national and the individual interest….The small and powerless minorities which struggle against the false consciousness and its beneficiaries much be be helped: their continued existence is more important than the preservation of the rights and liberties which grant constitutional powers to those who oppress these minorities. It should be evident by now that the exercise of civil rights by those who don’t have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise…

How long until his unwitting heirs come to the same conclusion [8]?

Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.

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44 Comments To "Yes, Political Correctness Really Exists"

#1 Comment By Bazaka On January 30, 2015 @ 12:21 am

Well, right-wing political correctness certainly exists, too, on certain issues (witness the “purge” that happened on the staff of National Review in the 1980s, which Scott McConnell has written about here). This very magazine was founded by conservatives who were ostracized for dissenting from the “politically correct” (I. e. hawkish) orthodoxy of publications like NR.

#2 Comment By Thomas batts On January 30, 2015 @ 1:17 am

Nice essay!

I think this is something to struggle with.

I have read some of Peter Senge’s books on learning organizations. (Worth looking into).

In them he describes a way of better way to discourse. He describes all of our ideas as “mental models.”… Approximations of reality we’ve made in our heads.

When our mental models are challenged most of us have a defensive response. We try to come up with some reason why our mental model is correct.

I think the key to intelligent, informative, discourse is to suspend our mental models. To genuinely investigate other people’s realities with trying to defend our own.

#3 Comment By a spencer On January 30, 2015 @ 2:27 am

Back in the 80s, when it began cropping up, I thought “politically correct” was a shallow, manufactured term.

Still do.

#4 Comment By Darth Thulhu On January 30, 2015 @ 3:18 am

The problem is unreflective, unempathetic False Certainty.

A similar sentiment of rigid and unloving “only we know best” undergirds “Fox Geezer Syndrome”, after all: obviously the geezer watching Fox has ascertained the One True Path to Save Liberty going forward, so the only reason anyone could possibly disagree with them regarding any detail is because they are a stupid libtard who must be disenfranchised and forcibly reeducated by Glenn Beck before being allowed to vote again.

Fox Geezer Syndrome, of course, is best combatted by waiting a few years and letting a significant fraction of the most hardened and unempathetic die off. In the interim, laughter and pointing out absurd factual and logical errors serves to soften the reach and contain the spread of the False Certainty (while also annihilating huge swaths of faith and community cohesion in the next generations).

Sadly, no such easy hands-off solution exists for Youth Purity Police Syndrome. The best solution there, thus far, is laughter and merciless mowing down of the logical and factual errors for the truly hardened, and moral shaming of the unloving and unempathic hate-fests for those still able to look at what their peers are actually advocating.

Both groups of False Certitude self-select their own echo-chambers, of course, so it can be very difficult, and very draining, to constantly be fighting uphill, repeatedly pointing out basic aspects of reality that they do not want to acknowledge nor engage with (because acknowledging those facts would require changing one’s responses to deal with with those inconvenient Truths).

#5 Comment By libertarian jerry On January 30, 2015 @ 3:24 am

Herbert Marcuse,and his ilk,were the spearhead for the invasion of America by Cultural Marxists. The Left knew they couldn’t easily inject the virus of socialism into the American body because capitalism had created such a large and prosperous middle class. So they decide to take over and change the culture to achieve their goals. With the “long march” through Academia the Left took over much of higher education along with public education,the arts,the Main Stream Media,Hollywood,TV and so forth. So by changing and dominating the culture,and thus the attitudes of much of the population,they achieved their goal of implementing collectivism into America. So called “political correctness” is one of the tools used in this Cultural Marxist onslaught. All one has to do is look at old videos of Marcuse speaking before university students saying that anyone who opposes Mr.Marcuse and his collectivist views is,by default,either a racist,a sexist,a war monger,greedy or any number of epithets designed to avoid discussion and debate on the issues. Therefore by winning a “debate” by default the Left proceeded to get their views enacted. Its an old tactic but it works. Don’t have a rational discussion of the issues just throw mud at your opposition. Many modern politician’s political ads work on this principle. Just look at what America has become over the last several decades….. The Socialist States of America. Much because of the work of the Cultural Marxists.

#6 Comment By Jon Socrates On January 30, 2015 @ 7:49 am

1) The efficacy of free debate depends upon not just each participant’s knowledge and experience, but also his moral character. What we have now is also a moral marketplace, and we can see a how much people are drawn to self-serving “moral” codes. After all, Christianity tells us that people have a sinful nature, which makes them vulnerable to Satanic whispers.

2) “Debate, [according to Marcuse] should be restructured in ways that favor the weak and lowly.”

This view rests on an assumption that underlies much of progressive/cultural Marxist thought–the belief that all ideologies/cultures are essentially equal, and that dominant ideologies/cultures are dominant only because of arbitrary historical factors or by the whims of those in power. However, dominant ideologies/cultures are perpetuated because they serve functions.

Certainly there can be genuine oppression in which people are actively sought out and abused. Too often, though, people are “weak and lowly” because they do not conform to the dominant ideology/culture. For progressives/cultural Marxists, these people ought not change to accommodate society; rather, society ought to change to accommodate them.

“Restructur[ing] debate in ways that favor the weak and lowly” ultimately serves to make dominant the ideologies and culture that are antithetical to the mainstream. But by virtue of being antithetical to the mainstream, these ideologies and culture will produce a new mainstream that has not been proven to be a competent successor. In fact, we would expect that new mainstream to have different priorities. In their short-sightedness, progressives and cultural Marxists take for granted the functions of society even while they work to undermine it.

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

#7 Comment By Karl Sandfort On January 30, 2015 @ 9:54 am

If you’re saying that Marcuse was saying that there is unfair competition in the marketplace of ideas, then I would say that he saw things pretty clearly. The point of the article, that Marcuse is a sort of intellectual father to the current climate of political correctness, strikes a note that, to me, is pretty much on-key. This article needed to be written. I lean to the left and am personally offended by much discourse on the right. Words are words, but I am concerned that when I walk out the door one day some real person is going to do something crazy because of what they read on a web page the night before, yet I am generally opposed to censorship (by law or in fact). The article did not, however, bring me any closer towards fathoming the rampant stupidity found on the web. In the marketplace of ideas, dollar stores have sprung up like dandelions.

#8 Comment By Frank Stain On January 30, 2015 @ 10:02 am

Marcuse’s claim that genuine rational debate is not possible in liberal societies with deep concentrations of political and economic power is surely shared by many elements of the Paleo Right. One could easily find a justification for such a view in Alasdair MacIntyre’s assertion that the Thomistic tradition of inquiry can only survive outside the liberal university. For MacIntyre no less that for Marcuse, what passes for ‘debate’ and ‘discussion’ in liberal democracies is simply incompatible with the conditions of genuine rational argument. The Benedict option is where one ends up when one has concluded (as Marcuse doesn’t) that the reform of existing institutions is impossible.

#9 Comment By mike nimzo On January 30, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

OK, so what do we call it when the right does it?

#10 Comment By wycoff On January 30, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

The Fredrik deBoer piece linked in the article was interesting. “Disabled” is now a forbidden term? What would they do if someone who said “handicapped”?

One thing to keep in mind is that many college students -left and right- grow out of this ideological obsessiveness.

#11 Comment By JM On January 30, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

Thanks for writing this, Professor Goldman. In all the online critiques of Chait’s piece, nobody discusses the origin and philosophical foundations of “PC.” I doubt many of these people, including Chait himself really know or understand the epistemology.

#12 Comment By Rob G On January 30, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

The MacIntyrean and Marcusean ideas are not the same in the sense that they are R and L flipsides of one another. I don’t recall MacIntyre ever suggesting that non-Thomistic argument ought to be repressed, or that left-leaning thought ought not be tolerated in the public square. Marcuse, on the other hand, stated that tolerance need not be extended to non-progressive (i.e. rightward) ideas. And note that MacIntyre himself remains somewhat of a man of the Left, at least politically.

They are alike in that they both believed that certain ideas can’t get a fair shake in today’s intellectual climate, but that’s about as far as the similarity goes.

#13 Comment By Michael Sheridan On January 30, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

I have read opinions that were strikingly similar to those put forward by Marcuse from intellectuals of various political persuasions. It is easy to see why this is so. If you have dedicated a large part of your life and identity to wrestling with ideas, which is a useful definition of what it means to be an intellectual, you are unlikely to trust the masses of people who have not done the same to come to the same hard-won conclusions you have come to, whatever those conclusions might be. This mistrust is very often merited.

First, the masses of people will probably disagree with most intellectuals, regardless of how well the views of those intellectuals align or fail to align with objective reality. This is neither to the credit or the discredit of the so-called “common man.” Mills and Marcuse aren’t wrong to think that there are many people lacking the capacity to fairly evaluate an argument or idea. This is especially true as many arguments or ideas are exceedingly difficult for anyone to evaluate and may require specialized knowledge or training to do so. Expecting intellectuals in contentious fields to trust those not in those fields to make what they consider the right choices in relevant matters is akin to expecting a skilled electrician to trust a gardener to wire his house.

Second, throughout history, a great many intellectuals have been simply wrong. This is inevitable. Just because a person has deeply considered a matter does not mean that this person will necessarily come to a correct conclusion or one that is useful to others. In fact, the fallibility of intellectuals is nearly a truism in our society, and underlies a cultural mistrust of learning that frequently extends to a mistrust of anyone claiming to know something new about objective reality, especially if that something is not an adjunct to an established worldview but is actively contrary to it.

There is no way around this dilemma. Walter Lippmann wrestled with this for the greater part of his writing career, starting out quite liberal (by the standards of the day) and finishing as what would probably be called a conservative, and the best he could suggest was that the media needed to do a much better job in informing the public.

From his 1914 Preface to Politics (early Lippmann):

The reply of the workingmen in 1847 to Cabet’s proposal that they found Icaria, “a new terrestrial Paradise,” in Texas if you please, contains this interesting objection: “Because although those comrades who intend to emigrate with Cabet may be eager Communists, yet they still possess too many of the faults and prejudices of present-day society by reason of their past education to be able to get rid of them at once by joining Icaria.”

That simple statement might be taken to heart by all the reformers and socialists who insist that the people are all right, that only institutions are wrong. The politics of reconstruction require a nation vastly better educated, a nation freed from its slovenly ways of thinking, stimulated by wider interests, and jacked up constantly by the sharpest kind of criticism. It is puerile to say that institutions must be changed from top to bottom and then assume that their victims are prepared to make the change. No amount of charters, direct primaries, or short ballots make a democracy out of an illiterate people. Those portions of America where there are voting booths but no schools cannot possibly be described as democracies. Nor can the person who reads one corrupt newspaper and then goes out to vote make any claim to having registered his will. He may have a will, but he has not used it.

For politics whose only ideal is the routine, it is just as well that men shouldn’t know what they want or how to express it. Education has always been a considerable nuisance to the conservative intellect. In the Southern States, culture among the negroes is openly deplored, and I do not blame any patriarch for dreading the education of women. It is out of culture that the substance of real revolutions is made. If by some magic force you could grant women the vote and then keep them from schools and colleges, newspapers and lectures, the suffrage would be no more effective than a Blue Law against kissing your wife on Sunday. It is democratic machinery with an educated citizenship behind it that embodies all the fears of the conservative and the hopes of the radical.

Culture is the name for what people are interested in, their thoughts, their models, the books they read and the speeches they hear, their table-talk, gossip, controversies, historical sense and scientific training, the values they appreciate, the quality of life they admire. All communities have a culture. It is the climate of their civilization. Without a favorable culture political schemes are a mere imposition. They will not work without a people to work them.

The real preparation for a creative statesmanship lies deeper than parties and legislatures. It is the work of publicists and educators, scientists, preachers and artists. Through all the agents that make and popularize thought must come a bent of mind interested in invention and freed from the authority of ideas. The democratic culture must, with critical persistence, make man the measure of all things. I have tried again and again to point out the iconoclasm that is constantly necessary to avoid the distraction that comes of idolizing our own methods of thought. Without an unrelaxing effort to center the mind upon human uses, human purposes, and human results, it drops into idolatry and becomes hostile to creation.

#14 Comment By Mario On January 30, 2015 @ 2:18 pm

I’m lost
Isn’t a Republic exactly that?
The Roman Senate, House of Lords etc main function is to allow the reasonable and knowing Elites to control the uninformed masses in the House of Representatives or Parliament

#15 Comment By Samuel Goldman On January 30, 2015 @ 2:21 pm

Frank Stain–For what it’s worth, I’ve criticized the Benedict Option on similar grounds: “MacIntyre’s pessimism conceals what can almost be called an element of imperialism…Embedded in his hope for a new monasticism is the dream of a restoration of tradition.”


#16 Comment By Chris On January 30, 2015 @ 3:46 pm

Political correctness exists, but it’s got nothing to do with Marxism. Dissent recently did an article about how unfashionable Marcuse is.

#17 Comment By KD On January 30, 2015 @ 4:26 pm

The problem is that we have shifted from the notion that the truth is an objective norm above us, that judges our conduct and speech acts, to truth being some social consensus, or truth being some ideology we adopt based on consumption preferences. If the truth ultimately judges us, then getting it right matters. If the truth is something we consume, or make up amongst ourselves, then who exercises power is more important than what is true. Marcuse and Mill both start out with a defective concept of truth, and garbage in, garbage out! (The endless procreation of errors, or the replacement of the errors of the bourgeois with the errors of the proletariat is hardly “progress”.) As John Gray notes, there is no progress except in science.

#18 Comment By Reinhold On January 30, 2015 @ 4:37 pm

The Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo agrees entirely with Herbert Marcuse (because he’s correct):
“Virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicizing the event. The electorate’s increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech.”

#19 Comment By Reinhold On January 30, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

“It is was the subtle and concealed influence of capital on their ability to exercise their capacity to make their own decisions.”
False consciousness refers more precisely to NOT being class-conscious, to not organizing based on one’s class interests. The entire American labor movement was class conscious; it’s a prerequisite of any labor movement. The reason Marxism didn’t spread had more to do with the Cold War and impressions people had of Marxist states.

#20 Comment By KD On January 30, 2015 @ 5:23 pm


Marxism has a teleological vision of history, where the proletariat revolution will bring an end to history, and humanity will rejoice in the socialist eschaton. Consciousness is “false” because it deviates from the “omega” consciousness, which is identified with worker class consciousness. I think Marcuse ditched historical determinism/Marxist eschatological prophesy, but held onto dialectical materialism in some fashion. So you end up in relativism, with no common norm (because that would require a hierarchy, e.g. “mystification”), and no way to resolve disputes ultimately without resorting to plebian measures. Unless you superstitiously believe that the oppressed “races/classes/sexes” are ontologically superior to the current people on top, its just endless murder.

#21 Comment By Miguel Madeira On January 30, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

“The MacIntyrean and Marcusean ideas are not the same in the sense that they are R and L flipsides of one another.”

What I have the impression is that left-wing political correctness and right-wing anti-political correctness have much in common, namely a tendency to consider that strong social pressure to accept some ideas is a form of “repression” of dissident opinion (even without legal repression) – in the end, what is the big difference between a conservative complaining about “political correctness” and a feminist complaining of “patriarchy”? Both are saying “even if the law grants, in formality, [free speech/equality between women and men], there are strong social sanctions against [people with unPC ideas / women who don’t accept a submissive role]”.

And, in the recent polemics, both sides say that the words of the other side are oppressive in itself (one side complaining about “micro-agressions” and the other side complaining about “social justice warriors in the social media”)

#22 Comment By Reinhold On January 30, 2015 @ 7:19 pm

Is that a response to what I said? I was clarifying that false consciousness does not mean some kind of rejection of Marxism––it means a rejection of class consciousness. The article mentioned that Marxism didn’t appeal to American workers and that was blamed by Marxists on false consciousness, but that’s not true, given that the American middle class itself was a direct result of the class consciousness of the labor movement.
As for relativism, I would argue that Marxism actually contains an objectivist criterion for human action, namely does it contribute to the class interest or not? Of course, what contributes to and what detracts from the class interest is not objectively obvious, so you end up with some central committee determining what does and does not contribute to the class interest and the revolution, and thus a version of dictatorial subjectivism.

#23 Comment By tz On January 30, 2015 @ 10:09 pm

John Socrates covered much, especially with the Abolition of Man excerpt, but I’ll see if I can’t clarify it further.

Sometimes the truth IS obvious. If you offer me 2 apples at $2 each, and I give you $3, you will probably say I am trying to cheat you. Is the reply that 2 times 2 should equal 3 at all reasonable? Is 2×2=4 some kind of oppressive western patriarchal arithmetic? Before you laugh, if Morality is objective (note that Ayn Rand held that view too), then “thou shall not steal” is the same KIND of truth as 2×2=4. It is objectively true, not merely convenient or utilitarian.

Speech is not action. And there are probably marketers who can convince you 2×2=3 (the exponential debt expansion is an actual example).

There is a course. First, allow all discussion and debate, and honest attempts to discover the truth. Screeching like a monkey and flinging feces as they sometimes do is not such an attempt. Second, limit government – for Reality will decide who has truth unless government puts its thumb on the scale. For example banning the ownership of gold. Few laws that don’t involve obvious breaches of the peace aren’t trying to bias the measurement of truth.

#24 Comment By redfish On January 31, 2015 @ 2:07 am

One of the key ideas of Marxism is that aside from the truth of ideas, there’s also the use of those ideas by those in power. So a work ethic might be good in theory, but, as an idea, its used to bludgeon the working class into accepting an unfair labor situation. Sexual ethics might be good in theory, but, as an idea, its used disproportionately to chastise those outside of power, while those in power get away with their indiscretions.

Political correctness is just the same shoe on another foot. The idea of tolerance and respect for diversity might be good in theory, but, as an idea, its used to bludgeon anyone who differs from popular viewpoints.

It happens because liberals can be hypocrites the same as anyone else.

#25 Comment By Labropotes On January 31, 2015 @ 8:24 am

I find the use of Mill in articles like this disappointing. I wonder if the author believes that he has given an honest, complete depiction of Mill’s relevant thoughts.

Mill addresses the fallibility of ordinary people’s judgement. He has more to say about governing populations in their nonage, including examples that make it clear what extremities he’s addressing. Mill maps a continent while cartographers like Mr Goldman question the plotting of certain creeks.

There’s lots of room to disagree with Mill, but here we see a small portion of what he says, and a child’s argument against that, and not the whole. To those who know what he’s doing, it makes the author look like a poser. To those who don’t, they are set back even from ignorance, believing something that isn’t so.

#26 Comment By Joseph A On January 31, 2015 @ 10:59 am

I find it interesting that almost everyone I see complain about political correctness is male, Western, and white.

#27 Comment By Jim On January 31, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

I can’t seen to locate the McConnell article about the purge at National Review in the 80s. Anyone got a link?

#28 Comment By Colm J On January 31, 2015 @ 4:11 pm

Joseph A: “I find it interesting that almost everyone I see complain about political correctness is male, Western and white.”

That’s the exact reverse of my own experience. The views of many non-westerners on issues such as same sex unions, feminism etc., are well to the right of most whites. Even on immigration, non-whites don’t always tow the PC line. The black British poet Benjamin Zephaniah noted recently that many from Asian and black immigrant families in Britain are among the most vocal critics of new waves of migration to Britain. And in my experience women’s views on such matters aren’t noticeably more “progressive” than men’s.

By the way a new form of Orwellian Political Correctness is now clearly emerging in the Neocon/Liberal political establishment in the UK and elsewhere – whereby all kinds of restrictions on free speech and privacy are justified on the grounds of combatting “extremism” – a word the very meaninglessness of which provides the authorities with a blank cheque to silence opinions it disapproves of.

#29 Comment By Dain On January 31, 2015 @ 6:06 pm

“Marcuse’s claim that genuine rational debate is not possible in liberal societies with deep concentrations of political and economic power is surely shared by many elements of the Paleo Right.”

Yes, but they understand that their particular take on this is gauche and without much influence. So they fall back on free speech and open inquiry as an important value because it’s the only possible counterpoint to the vanguard of young progressives who are vocally hostile to it ( [10].

A Paleo Right version of political correctness is laughably unrealistic. But defending a thick-skinned free speech ethos is not. Historically it’s the rule in the US and mostly still is. Even many (old, uncool) liberals adhere to it.

#30 Comment By Reinhold On January 31, 2015 @ 6:18 pm

“One of the key ideas of Marxism is that aside from the truth of ideas, there’s also the use of those ideas by those in power. So a work ethic might be good in theory, but, as an idea, its used to bludgeon the working class into accepting an unfair labor situation.”
An incredibly important and subtle point which even a lot of leftists seem not to comprehend: just because an idea is useful to the bourgeoisie in the class struggle does not mean that, in another context, it doesn’t have some merit; I often hear the work ethic tarnished for its bourgeois content, even though ‘hard work’ does not mean ‘exploitation in the labor market’ intrinsically.

#31 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 31, 2015 @ 7:30 pm

It is probably more accurate to discuss language of this nature in terms of appropriateness. Because political correctness suggests 9at least today) that you have so violated a norm such that a legal case can be made against you or so close a violation that your presence must either change or you must go. In the discussions on these site, it has generally been, the going consequence.

Because it is no longer permissible to hold a view that opposes the position.

Devastating for social tolerance when must bake a cake in celebration for behavior and principles that violate one’s conscience. More so when it is clear that alternative methods of achieving one’s desires were are so readily available.

#32 Comment By William Dalton On January 31, 2015 @ 7:54 pm

“Marcuse undertakes this inversion, worthy a black belt in dialectical reasoning, in the 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance.” In it, Marcuse argues that the marketplace of ideas can’t function as Mill expected, because the game in rigged in favor of those who are already powerful. Some ideas enjoy underserved appeal due to tradition or the prestige of their advocates. And “consumers” are not really free to chose, given the influence of advertising and the pressures of social and economic need. Thus the outcome of formally free debate is actually predetermined. The ideas that win will generally be those justify the existing order; those that lose will be those that challenge the structure.”

Isn’t this the heart of “conservatism”? The status quo should be favored in any society, and the advocates of change always have the burden of persuasion. To have a system which favors change over the present reality is an invitation to disorder and chaos, in which no one has confidence in the rules under which they live or what will be expected of them tomorrow. It is the equivalent of Stalin’s Russia, in which people were not simply punished unfairly (as, say, in Hitler’s Germany), they were punished arbitrarily and for no predictable reason. It is a world one wishes most devoutly to avoid being made a subject, at any cost.

#33 Comment By Kurt Gayle On February 1, 2015 @ 2:32 am

The second title of Samuel Goldman’s essay refers to German-born Herbert Marcuse as “German Marxist Herbert Marcuse.”

But was Marcuse a “Marxist”? Marxists would say that he was not, because Marcuse discarded the Marxist historical theory of class struggle in its entirety.

In fairness to Mr. Goldman, there is no indication in his essay that he himself considers Marcuse a Marxist. Aside from the word “Marxist” in the title (which could represent the mistaken assumption of an eager TAC editor) and brief comments referring to “some Marxists” and “a Marxist perspective” – but neither comment applied to Marcuse himself – Goldman says nothing about Marxism, certainly not Marcuse’s.

In a larger sense it’s fairly incomprehensible to me that over the years I keep reading references to “cultural Marxism” as if the writings of members of the Frankfurt School had anything to do with the central ideas of Marxism. They do not.

#34 Comment By Viking On February 1, 2015 @ 3:03 am

An interesting if disturbing discussion, Dr. Goldman, thank you. What strikes me most about “repressive tolerance” as a theory is its self-refuting nature. If its intended beneficiaries are truly rendered powerless, then the authoritarian solution will never be instituted, at least not by them. If such “proletarians” did so succeed, that would negate the thesis, and beg the question: why did we have to limit the freedoms of others when we had power all along? One could always go with Lenin’s answer, a Revolutionary Vanguard, but that still poses at least one huge problem. To wit: what guarantee is there that the RV will be any less repressive than the elite(s) which preceded it, especially given that its members are likely heavily educated sorts, with little knowledge of life among the workers? That’s how it worked in Russia, and I’ve read that Lenin himself probably never so much as visited an actual factory. Too, it’s one thing to replace one undemocratic system (Czarism) with another (Bolshevism), and quite another to replace a free electoral system with an authoritarian polity. Even the fledgling democracy which Lvov and Kerensky had set up had some potential which was lost to the Communists.

There’s another matter I’d like to pursue here, going back to the world that Karl Marx saw about him. His native Germany had no genuine democracy of which I’m aware. The UK did, but with severe restrictions on its use. The secret ballot wasn’t introduced until 1872, eleven years before his death in 1883, and twenty-four years after writing The Communist Manifesto. The year 1867 saw the first urban workers admitted to the franchise, but universal manhood suffrage, and women’s suffrage too, both waited until 1918 to take effect. And 1911 saw the payment of MPs for the first time. Before, one had to be able to subsist on one’s own reserves to serve in Parliament, a crippling disadvantage for working-class leaders. These facts should throw light on the differences between what Marx observed, and what we now experience.

#35 Comment By Jonathan On February 1, 2015 @ 9:48 am

olitical Correctness is also the handmaiden of environmentalist activism. It is impolitic to question whether this ongoing phenomenon of the accelerated rise in average surface temperature is the result of mankind’s carbon footprint. It is also impolitic to question nature’s fragility with regard to this footprint. And certainly, assertions that nature might just be elastic or sufficiently adaptable so as to absorb our so-called intrusion into her domain would be shouted down in protest.

The implication of environmentalist activism is the shift away from a clear ideological path towards collectivism. It has become the default option, so they assert, of an economy about to be torn into tatters by an unforgiving mother nature. And our leaders have bought into this only to a degree still holding onto the notion that creeping reforms will ameliorate the situation and save us from catastrophe. The environmentalist is split between two camps: those who see such reforms as a foot in the door towards the consolidation of capital and state power and those who find it necessary to push their radical agenda rejecting these very same reforms.

But the reforms are gradually setting the stage for artificially imposing new product lines and a market for them onto the economy. Through subsidies, taxes and regulations the gap between alternative energy sources such as wind turbines and fossil fuel has narrowed until this point in time. Once government sufficiently raises the price at the pump through tax surcharges to finance infrastructure, subsidies towards the development of alternative energy sources, and credits for the installation of solar panels on homes and on businesses, and possibly to subsidize community colleges and other programs the gap continues to narrow. And with the widening public acceptance to the global warming spin, government in collaboration with key members of the industrial elite might have their way. Fortunately, at least for now, there is a stay of execution in that the downward pressure on oil prices continues mitigating any anticipated attempt to subvert this trend through taxation.

What we are seeing has been in progress way before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The abandonment of the old ideological framework has been marked by the retreat into identity politics which currently collaborates with environmentalist activism The society that these so-called progressives envision is no longer an egalitarian worker-controlled world but a melange of political and economical players dictating an agenda that might appear in some places socialist and in others corporatist.

In their critique of capitalism these progressives have become the unwitting proponents for the consolidation of the state with capital. It therefore behooves us not only to critique and resist the dictatorial trend of academe and the student body but also continue to examine and take on the entire progressive animal within the public discourse. Environmentalism has become a multi-headed hydra of soft demagogy finding some way to preach gloom and doom whether from unbridled population growth, species extinction, acid rain or global warming. And they hold the reins forbidding a rational inquiry into their arguments in the name of P.C.

#36 Comment By JLF On February 1, 2015 @ 9:50 am

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

For the 17th century Puritan all truth came from scripture, rightly interpreted. That correct interpretation could only come from the tutelage of the Holy Spirit on the individual conscience, certainly not from the established Church of England, which by its decrees demonstrated to the Puritan mind the absence of the Holy Spirit. They came to Massachusetts Bay colony to find the space to exercise their “liberty of conscience” free of the coercion of secular authority and Archbishop Laud with his Policy of Thorough.

Once in Boston, however, it soon became evident that some congregations, the repositories of all correct interpretation (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, of course,) had become corrupt. Thus, to preserve the liberty of conscience for those in these deviant congregations, the leaders in Boston sent instruction in the correct, Holy Spirit approved doctrine which the congregation must accept. Failure to accept the Truth thus revealed denied the liberty of conscience to the faithful, which could then be punished by secular authority.

Ultimately, the question is authority and where it resides. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does epistemology. There must be an agreed upon standard of Truth; everyone wandering about each with his own idea of Truth is anarchy, and we can’t have anarchy, especially when it threatens my enjoyment of my prerogative, whatever that might be.

#37 Comment By scrantonius On February 1, 2015 @ 11:28 am

tz says:

“Sometimes the truth IS obvious. If you offer me 2 apples at $2 each, and I give you $3, you will probably say I am trying to cheat you. Is the reply that 2 times 2 should equal 3 at all reasonable? Is 2×2=4 some kind of oppressive western patriarchal arithmetic?”

This comment unintentionally reveals the relativistic nature of the market. If I offer a seller $3 for two apples that she wants to sell for $2 each, I’m not making the claim that 2×2=4, but that I’m only willing to pay $1.50 each for the apples. This is not a violation of any natural law but *bargaining.* And the seller might be disgusted, but then again she might accept my offer, depending on how much she wants to sell those apples. The moral of the story is: you don’t go looking for eternal values in the marketplace.

#38 Comment By JP On February 1, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

Marcuse has wide appeal amongst Progressives in that they all believe that the Common Man is incapable of “rational” thought. Censorship is needed to push Man in the right direction. We see this train of thought not only in our universities, but all concerning race relations, gender issues, and the debate concerning Climate Science.

The issue which is bound to get Democrats in a furious lather is Free Speech and the recent SCOTUS decision and Citizens United.

#39 Comment By Reinhold On February 1, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

“It is impolitic to question whether this ongoing phenomenon of the accelerated rise in average surface temperature is the result of mankind’s carbon footprint.”
No, it’s scientifically ignorant.

#40 Comment By simonsmith On February 1, 2015 @ 4:55 pm

i’m not sure that this is a very accurate rendition of the concept of ‘repressive tolerance’. marcuse’s argument is more subtle and complex. he wasn’t suggesting that power structured the public sphere per se, but that social relations tend to reproduce themselves as ‘the only reality’, and thus dissident arguments can be allowed to circulate, as social reality makes it impossible for people to imagine how things could be otherwise.
Marcuse wasn’t using ‘repressive tolerance’ as a category for every era – in times of crises, when it becomes clear that things have broken down (ie Greece now), a real debate between real alternatives emerges. It would be hard to deny that Greece today is what a genuine democracy should look like. Marcuse’s concept of ‘repressive tolerance’ wasnt that of ‘tolerant repression’ – the emphasis was on the double meaning of tolerance, ie inherent capacity of steel to withstand high heat and force, without being transformed.it was an inherent structural process, not a byproduct of power.
id suggest that the concept in the form i’ve outlined is of use to conservatives – the same-sex marriage movement is an example of it – as it is to a non-liberal Left.

#41 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 1, 2015 @ 9:09 pm

A most erudite and insightful review. Bazaka is correct that there is also right-wing political correctness, not limited to the obvious example of the McCarthy era. And a.spencer is correct that “political correctness” is a shallow manufactured term. But neither observation detracts from this essay.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that use of the term “politically correct” by the infantile disorders of the American (circa 1970s) would-be new communists borrowed from Soviet and Maoist notions of correct line, and was washed along with similar detritus as most of the would-be commissars morphed into yuppies with a vague longing to remain politically relevant.

It should be evident by now that the exercise of civil rights by those who don’t have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise…

This is true in critical circumstances. For example, securing the general right to vote, as a matter of routine citizenship, for Americans of African descent in certain states, required curtailing the liberties of county registrars and others. That this was an appropriate move is shown most of all by the fact that few in The South seriously want to go back to the status quo ante that was once widely accepted as Our Way Of Life.

But critical circumstances do not arise every day. In general, the reason our constitution restrains government from infringing fundamental rights is not that The Framers trusted citizens to always be well informed and virtuous, any more than James Madison believed that enlightened statesmen would always be at the helm of the ship of state. Rather, we simply don’t trust any duly constituted authority to make the judgement as to who is deserving of liberties or rights, which speech is worthy of protection, etc.

This deflates Marcuse’s entire approach to speech worthy of protection. It is a curious turnabout for self-styled “progressives” to doubt that the Common Man is capable of rational thought — this is an ahistorical innovation that reflects 21st century progressivism’s divorce from its early 20th century roots.

#42 Comment By Jonathan On February 2, 2015 @ 9:09 am

Alasdair MacIntyre wrote a study of Marcuse, if you’re interested in comparing them:


#43 Comment By Jonathan On February 2, 2015 @ 9:15 am

For a christian conservative (Tory) reaction against Mill, see “Mill And Liberalism” by Maurice Cowling.

#44 Comment By Jonathan On February 2, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

“It is impolitic to question whether this ongoing phenomenon of the accelerated rise in average surface temperature is the result of mankind’s carbon footprint.”
No, it’s scientifically ignorant.

Shout long enough and your slogans become the truth. Unfortunately this has been demonstrated in our fairly recent past.