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The Primitive Roots of Political Correctness

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In a new piece on political correctness, Jonathan Chait does something that few progressive writers dare to do: admit critics have a point about the far left’s apparent desire to censor speech. Yet he fails to note that the problem is far older and more pervasive than it seems.

The fact that the place where the left most holds sway, academia, is also the place where free speech is most likely to be constrained by progressive politics has not been lost on conservatives over the past two decades. In fact, the number of articles, films, blog posts, and essays that have made this exact point is probably beyond reckoning. So, in theory, there should be nothing at all remarkable about someone making these points in 2015. The difference today is merely that someone on the left has finally stated the obvious: political correctness is a real and present danger to freedom.

If one can get past the impulse to cry out (like John McClane leaning out of the Nakatomi building) “Welcome to the party, pal!” the piece itself is fairly well done. These may be old standards by now, but Chait does a good job arranging them and bringing them up to the moment. There’s a long section on the kind of bitter ankle biting that takes place among the supposedly enlightened left. Not surprisingly, it ends in strife and fear. This is, as Chait admits, ultimately the point of all political correctness:

Political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism. Indeed, its most frequent victims turn out to be liberals themselves.

And it’s that last part that probably accounts for Chait’s interest in the topic. As Sean Davis has ably pointed out, Chait doesn’t seem to have a problem using some of these same tactics against the right. It’s only once liberals like himself feel the pinch that he becomes concerned. A bit later, Chait explicitly divides the liberal left from the Marxist left, i.e. those who still believe in freedom of speech as a good in itself and those who often see it as a power being abused by the powerful and therefore a problem.

Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.

The right is still the big bad, the enemy worth fighting. But Chait is at least willing to admit that his own left flank poses a growing threat to freedom which, thanks to social media, is more widespread than ever. He deserves some credit for saying it even if it’s really only a manifestation of self-interest.

Where Chait fails is in estimating the real scope of the problem. He ties the current propensity for hashtag warfare to the political correctness of the 1990s. While there is a connection worth pointing out, the behavior he describes has a far more primitive origin.

Novelist Douglas Preston has written an excellent e-book about the topic of altruistic punishment. Preston became interested in the topic after he wrote something about the Amanda Knox case online and became the target of a relentless online mob harassing him for having the wrong opinions.

What Preston discovered is a pocket of social science research which applies to a disturbing percentage of our online interactions. Altruistic punishment, simply put, is the expression of negative emotions toward those who fail to cooperate with the group. It is a pressure tactic designed to whip people into line with the tribe and its goals.

The purpose of altruistic punishment seems to be to fight the tendency to freeload. In a group where cooperation is necessary for survival, there will always be some who coast on the effort of others. Altruistic punishment may have developed as a way to discourage that kind of freeloading. But with the advent of social media, it seems to apply to everything and everyone who fails to get in line with the group’s priorities.

The scary thing about altruistic punishment is that human beings seem wired to take pleasure in it. If you’ve ever wanted the simple answer to why there are so many unpleasant jerks online, it’s because they get a genuine rush out of being unpleasant jerks online. They are convinced they are doing something important, even noble, by punishing the tribe’s detractors.

And the truth is that it seems to work. Those who don’t fall in line are pilloried which insures others will think twice before crossing the same line in the future. Most of the examples Chait cites in his piece seem to fall into this pattern. Someone issues a word of high-minded caution to a group of women writers. Someone else makes a joke in response and then becomes the target of harassment for doing so. The person who made the joke will withdraw under the torrent of anger and be less likely to speak up again.

Chait writes, “There is no allowance in p.c. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous.” That’s because the goal of altruistic punishment is not truth but conformity. If you refuse to get in line–and questioning a pronouncement is a kind of limited refusal–you will be made to suffer.

Altruistic punishment is not a partisan problem. It’s a plague which infects both sides of the aisle. That said, it shouldn’t surprise us that the political party which prizes group solidarity and equality is the one most carried away with this tactic. In fact, one could probably predict that the party who elected a former community organizer as President would be the one struggling with this.

The important point Chait gets right is that altruistic punishment is a tactic of control and, when it comes down to it, repression. It is not a politics compatible with freedom and democracy but the politics of the strong man or the communist. In any place where group loyalty comes first, freedom will come second. But Chait is wrong about the degree to which the leadership of his own party has already embraced this undemocratic tactic as a central part of their program. The barbarians are not brandishing torches outside the left’s gates; they were already voted into office. They are the ones blasting out emails full of talking points to use on your crazy conservative uncle over the holidays.


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