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Rejoinder to Moller on Political Correctness

Summary:
I still say Dan Moller should rethink his views on political correctness.  Here’s my point-by-point reply.  Moller in blockquotes, I’m not. My view of political correctness is one of those in-between positions that everyone ends up hating: the left is wrong in ignoring PC run amok, the right is wrong in thinking PC is always and everywhere crazy. I also have an in-between position.  But frankly, so do most full-blown social justice activists.  Who’s the most prominent thinker who denies that PC “runs amok” once in a while?  I object to your position because your criticisms of PC are not only overly mild, but directly contradict your moral framework. PC is a kind of tax on certain forms of discourse, just like other “taxes” coming from other directions. For

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I still say Dan Moller should rethink his views on political correctness.  Here’s my point-by-point reply.  Moller in blockquotes, I’m not.

My view of political correctness is one of those in-between positions that everyone ends up hating: the left is wrong in ignoring PC run amok, the right is wrong in thinking PC is always and everywhere crazy.

I also have an in-between position.  But frankly, so do most full-blown social justice activists.  Who’s the most prominent thinker who denies that PC “runs amok” once in a while?  I object to your position because your criticisms of PC are not only overly mild, but directly contradict your moral framework.

PC is a kind of tax on certain forms of discourse, just like other “taxes” coming from other directions. For instance, there’s a mild taboo against certain forms of unpatriotic speech and conduct, like spitting on the flag or saying you hate America. You can say these things, but you may pay a price, if only not being invited to someone’s party. This can take a pathological form as when antiwar criticisms are delegitimized by being branded unpatriotic, but there’s nothing wrong with the tax itself, in my view. Encouraging mild patriotism is okay.

Standard politeness norms have put a mild tax on racism, sexism, and such for decades.  Advocates of political correctness are obviously asking for much more.  Specifically: (a) They want to make many questionable views  unquestionable – no matter how politely you speak; (b) they want a double standard that allows them to mistreat anyone they disagree with.  And in Governing Least, it sounds like you want to grant them both demands.  Consider this passage from your book:

Proponents of PC norms aren’t confused to think that racial pseudoscience has had enormous, damaging effects in the past; they aren’t mistaken to regard any revival of racial science as potentially disastrous and in any case accompanied by huge costs.

I’m worried about the misuse of IQ research, too.  But this sounds like a thinly-veiled endorsement of the suppression of a wide range of inquiry, starting with IQ research.  Call me paranoid, but if we regard “any revival” of vaguely-defined “racial science” as “potentially disastrous and in any case accompanied by huge costs” the science of human intelligence dies.  Would you consider that “PC run amok”?  How about protests against Charles Murray?

The idea behind PC is to make it harder to say stuff that threatens the status of groups that have often had their public standing imperiled in the past. This can take pathological forms, as when it shuts down important debates over college admissions or the like. (And it’s worth noting that in the book and article I describe and criticize PC run amok at length, with concrete examples–I don’t take the pathological forms lightly.) But the mere existence of mild social sanctions for mocking gay or handicapped people at work, say, doesn’t seem so bad to me.

Mocking the handicapped has been widely reviled by almost everyone for ages.  Mocking gays is a different story; I’ve seen major social change over my lifetime, and I agree that it’s for the better.  But this evolution perfectly fits my plea for simple politeness.  How does PC differ?  Most obviously, because it also legitimizes public efforts to dehumanize and demoralize non-gays (such as repeatedly echoing the phrase “straight white males” with contempt).

Here’s a concrete example: in the bad old days, a female colleague might leave the room and be subjected to demeaning sexist commentary by a group of men remaining. Obviously this still happens, but in my particular work-environment and in many others, this would now likely be seen as a norm violation even in the room itself. (There would be that sense of, “Wait, what??”) I disagree that this is merely politeness –it’s a mild form of benign PC, and it makes it easier for talented people to contribute, which is good for all of us. We can accept this and still criticize PC run amok, which is, alas, a serious problem, especially on campus. And again, I’m clear on this in the book; e.g., I describe how PC can threaten airline safety!

Why?  “Mere politeness” is exactly what it sounds like to me.  Here’s how I’ve explained it:

Every child knows the basics of politeness.  Talk nicely.  Don’t yell.  Don’t call names.  Listen and respond to what people literally say.  Don’t personally insult people.  Don’t take generalizations personally.  If someone’s meaning is unclear, don’t put words his mouth; ask him to clarify.  And of course, don’t escalate.  If someone’s impolite, the polite response is to end the conversation, not respond in kind.

How does PC go further?  First, PC misanthropically looks for offense where none is intended.  Second, PC embraces a double standard of ignoring or even praising demeaning sexist commentary by women about men.  And strikingly, Governing Least lays the intellectual groundwork for condemning both forms of overreach.  Not only does your book strongly oppose overly demanding moral claims.  You also take a brave stand against the “Gallic shrug,” reminding even the vulnerable of their residual obligations.  Taken seriously, these two insights would end PC as we know it.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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