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Yes, Political Correctness Really Exists

Social media gives new muscle to German Marxist Herbert Marcuse's arguments against free discourse.

Jonathan Chait burned up the Internet this week with his critique of so-called political correctness. Among many responses, Amanda Taub‘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, 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 LibertyAccording 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 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.” 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. 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?

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