Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Correctness is in the Eye of the Beholder: What we really can and can’t say

In Culture, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on April 28, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I had a fascinating experience tonight in which I did a radio show that was based on a paper I had written two years ago about professors and politics. The title of the paper was “Ascriptive Justice: The Prevalence, Distribution, and Consequences of Political Correctness in the Academy” and despite the seemingly reactionary title, this is probably my favorite piece among those I have written. The argument is ironic and the methods are complicated, but I put a lot into the article that still sits well with me.

The story behind the article is fairly complicated and I will not rehearse it here, but the gist is that I wrote this in anticipation of a volume that was to come out of the American Enterprise Institute called Reforming the Politically Correct University, based on a conference that was held there.

After having attended the conference (well perhaps really long before), I became suspicious about the use of this concept, Political Correctness. It seemed that panelists were using it willy-nilly to suit whatever attack on academic liberals they pleased. What appeared to unite the critics was a sense that a politics of difference or multiculturalism was driving university worldviews and corrupting scholarship, and this left them cold. Their arguments would blend appeals to the first amendment in which a scholar or activist might condemn university speech codes or discriminatory practices with the core theme of contempt for identity politics.  In response, I decided to use data from a survey I had produced on faculty attitudes and was able to show that PC was basically what I had surmised from my position in the audience and that its effects seemed much less pernicious than pessimistic views would attest.

In some way that I did not explore, a radio station in Minnesota became familiar with my paper and wanted to have me on to discuss political correctness in America more generally. The host was a very nice and competent woman named Michele Tafoya, who I strongly suspect is of a conservative persuasion for reasons that are probably obvious from the set-up of the show. After all, political correctness is a label only really used in a fight; it’s not something that anyone would ever want to be anymore.

As I said, the set-up for the show was a bit awkward for me in that I had written my article in an almost sardonic spirit (you can see an attack on it here by a prominent conservative who knew full well what I was up to).  The whole point of my article was that what we call PC is better rendered as what I there called Ascriptive Justice–a liberal philosophy that seeks to protect people from discrimination on the basis of characteristics about themselves over which they have little control. This is the only place where I have yet published my ideas about three modern lefts anti-monarchist, anti-capitalist and anti-supremacist. My claim is that PC is a slur for the third left. Put in contemporary terms, we could say that after the French revolution we have seen Classical Liberals, Leftists and Progressives come out for various kinds of rights freedoms. Today, if you are a progressive, you are likely to be called PC however fair and tolerant you are. There is much more to be said about this, but I will just say that I am really happy that I got to go to Michele Bachmann’s radio market and say that the Arizona immigration kerfuffle can be explained by chosen traumas. Despite her own views on the subject, my host was quite accommodating and open to new ideas, which only goes to show me that my suspicions about inclusive ethnocentrism are on target in this brewing cauldron.

What made me decide to write about this for the Conflict Resolution community was a news item out of the English parliamentary election. Gordon Brown has just been effectively sunk with an ethnically insensitive gaffe. You might imagine that he was caught out in some Macaca moment, but no. Instead he was caught saying that a woman that he had just chatted with was bigoted because she was opposed on principle to immigration into England by those who would live and work there.

Mr. Brown obviously knows that the immigration question is less threatening than many there suppose and that the British are unnecessarily xenophobic. Contrast this with our own situation in which not a single guest on Meet the Press this Sunday was willing to support the Arizona immigration law as anything but the fixings for a police state. Mr. Brown reminds me very much of Richard Nixon by temperament and he may deserve his political fate, but we learn from this that what is Politically Correct in England is an old fashioned nativist contempt for outsiders white or brown. In America, a Kinsley gaffe would be to unintentionally reveal your ethnocentrism. In England it is to unintentionally reveal your cosmopolitanism.

You might imagine that I was bit uncomfortable discussing my scholarly research on a show with the title “Why is America SOOOOO Politically Correct?”  The experience was much better than it sounds. As I was able to explain on air, I think a better word for what we attack as politically correct is simply progressive. Now that I have seen the way English politics work, I think she may be on to something. Note that Gordon Brown is not accused of being a bigot, but he can’t say when he thinks someone is. Here things go the opposite way. Why is America SOOOOO Progressive (in a relative sense)?

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