Political Correctness, or, the Perils of Benevolence

by Roger Kimball

National Interest 74 (Winter 2003)

All good people agree
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They.

—Rudyard Kipling, "We and They"

The term "political correctness" is such a familiar piece of moral shorthand that it is easy to forget that the phrase has been with us for only about a dozen years. "John or Mary or the University of Lagado is so PC"—it's never a compliment, but exactly what does the charge of political correctness imply? To a large extent, the familiarity of the phenomenon has bred, if not contempt, then at least an unhealthy indifference. Political correctness—the phrase and even more the idea—has had a curious and circuitous career, and the more we know about it the more distasteful and alarming it seems.

Indeed, we are often assured that political correctness—whether or not it posed a threat in the past—is no longer a menace. It has, the argument goes, either been defeated or simply faded away like a Cheshire cat with a scowl. Oddly, however, this soothing assurance generally comes from people who approve (or approved) of political correctness, so their relief at its disappearance is both disingenuous and unpersuasive. They succeed only in making one feel like the female water-skier on the poster for Jaws II who is unaware of the huge shark surfacing behind her over the words "Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water."

Today, most of us tend to associate the phrase "political correctness" with the conservative assault on efforts to enforce speech codes, to promote affirmative action and to nurture other items high on the wish-list of multicultural aspiration. You know the menu. Guns, no; school vouchers, no; patriotism, no; George W. Bush, capitalism, the United States, No, No, No.

On the other side there's Brussels, Kyoto, Durban, Wounded Knee ... like Molly Bloom, the very place names tremble with an excited "Yes." All this is marvelous fodder for the conservative satirist. For example, Fox News regularly features "Tongue Tied," which their editors describe as "A column from the front lines of the wars over political correctness, free expression and culture." In England, The Spectator runs "Banned Wagon," a weekly column devoted to exposing "restrictions on freedom and free trade." Other repositories of anecdote, analysis and anathema are legion. Ridicule of the ridiculous is the order of the day.

Indeed, the fact that criticism of political correctness occupies an important place in the armory of conservative polemic is one reason we are regularly encouraged to ignore it.

This effort takes a couple of forms. First, there is bald denial. We are told that really, at bottom, there is no such thing as political correctness: it is all an invention of, well, people like me: right-wing fanatics bent on turning back the clock of progress. This is the position of the politically-correct John K. Wilson, whose book, The Myth of Political Correctness, is still a standard for the PC crowd. The author's goal throughout its pages is to relegate the fact of political correctness to the realm of dragons, hippogriffs and Republican nightmares.

Second, there is the reliable "Yes, but ..." rejoinder. This comes in two basic versions, deflationary and defiant. The deflationary position says "Okay, political correctness does exist, but it is harmless, hardly more than an effort to avoid offending people: critics have exaggerated both the extent and the gravity of political correctness."

The defiant alternative, on the other hand, says "Yes, political correctness exists and is widespread, and thank God for that: it is not a bane but a boon: it just shows how enlightened attitudes about race-gender-class-ethnic-sensitivity-peace-homosexuality-the-environment-and-mustn't-forget-the-plight-of-foxes are spreading." Perhaps this is what Martin Amis meant when, writing in The New Yorker on July 12, 1993, he suggested that "at its grandest" political correctness is "an attempt to accelerate evolution."

In any event, because we tend to associate political correctness with attacks upon political correctness, it is worth noting that the epithet seems to have originated not with conservative commentators but with impatient college students in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "Politically correct" described the self-righteous, non-smoking, ecologically sensitive, vegetarian, feminist, non-racist, multicultural, Birkenstock-wearing, anti-capitalist beneficiaries of capitalism—faculty as well as students—who paraded their outworn 1960s radicalism in the classroom and in their social life. Mostly, it was a joke. Who could take these people seriously? It was also overwhelmingly an academic phenomenon, a species of rhetoric and behavior that flourished chiefly in and around the protected redoubts of the university. Thus it is that the acronym "PC" first won widespread notice in a student cartoon strip out of Brown University, an institution still distinguished for its abundant display of political correctness, if little else.

Of course, the roots of political correctness go back a long way. To some extent, I suppose, political correctness can be seen as part of the perennial human attraction to moral conformity, to be part of what the American art critic Harold Rosenberg memorably called the "herd of independent minds."

Political correctness can also be enlisted in what Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, called "democratic despotism." In pre-democratic societies, Tocqueville noted, despotism tyrannized. In modern democracies, it infantilizes. Democratic despotism is both "more extensive and more mild" than its precursors: it "degrades men without tormenting them." In this sense, Tocqueville continued, "the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world."

Tocqueville's analysis, although written in the 1830s, seems remarkably contemporary. Let me quote a few sentences. The force of democratic despotism, Tocqueville wrote, would

be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood.... [I]t every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself.... [T]he supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided.... Such a power does not destroy.... but it enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Thus Tocqueville, who might have been writing about the latest initiative from the European Union.

Yet the impulse to conformity and democratic despotism are only part of the story. We come closer to the heart of political correctness—to the reality if not the phrase—with figures like Robespierre and St. Just. They and their comrades sought to bring post-Revolutionary France into line with what they called "virtue," the heady feeling that one was in the vanguard of enlightenment, an angel of truth, a beacon of uncommon wisdom.

It was—it is—a daring as well as an intoxicating vocation. In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had warned that "Those who dare to undertake the institution of a people must feel themselves capable ... of changing human nature, ... of altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it." Robespierre & Co. thought themselves just the chaps for the job. The fact that they measured the extent of their success by the frequency that the guillotines around Paris operated highlights the connection between the imperatives of political correctness and tyranny—between what Robespierre candidly described as "virtue and its emanation, terror."

Nearer our own time, Chairman Mao, with his sundry campaigns to "reeducate" and raise the consciousness of a recalcitrant populace, offers a classic example of political correctness in action. Add to those efforts the linguistic innovations that George Orwell described in the Afterword to 1984 as "Newspeak" and you have limned the basic features of political correctness. The purpose of Newspeak, Orwell wrote, was to make "a heretical thought ... literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words."

The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as "this dog is flee from lice" or "This field is free from weeds." It could not be used in its old sense of "politically free" or "intellectually free," since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.

Just so, the politically correct of our own day seek to bring about a moral revolution by changing the way we speak and write about the world: a change of heart instigated and embodied by a change of language. Examples are legion. We are told to scrap the phrase "learning disabilities" and replace it with "learning differences." The announced hope is that little Johnny, who is a bit backward, poor thing, will not feel stigmatized; the secret hope is that by refusing to speak the truth, we can change the truth. The BBC tells its employees that they must use the word "partner" when referring to their wives or husbands, since using "wife" and "husband" might seem to imply that the married state was somehow preferable to other possible modes of sexual cohabitation. Major newspapers in the United States refuse to accept advertisements for houses to let that mention that their property has "good views" (unfair to the blind), is "walking distance" to the train (unfair to the lame), is on a "quiet street" (unfair to the deaf). I know it sounds mad. It is mad. Nevertheless, it is true.

But to return to the sources of political correctness: Robespierre, Mao, 1984—what a grisly confraternity. Is it too grisly? In some ways. It does not seem quite right to describe Robespierre as "PC." Or does it? How about Mao? Or Orwell's enforcer O'Brien? Were such sinister figures "PC" within the usual meaning of the term? Not quite, perhaps; and yet, almost. Certainly they represent one important strand of the phenomenon: the moralizing, virtue-intoxicated side—bolstered, as many garden-variety PC-ers are not, with abundant means to impose their will on others. The dissonance we feel about describing such figures as PC is matched, I believe, by the eerie sense that they are, after all the qualifications, defining examples of the species.

Nevertheless, it seems a long way from Robespierre or Mao to what we mean by political correctness. Today, the phrase "political correctness" is generally accompanied by a smile—an uneasy smile, but a smile nonetheless. The phrase describes some exaggerated bit of left-wing moralism—so exaggerated that it is hard to take seriously. We smile when we read about an elite American college that has enrolled the sin of "lookism"—the unacceptable belief that some people are more attractive than others—into its catalogue of punishable offenses. We laugh when hearing that a British academic has condemned Frosty the Snowman as a white "male icon" that helps "to substantiate an ideology upholding a gendered spatial/social system." We scoff when we hear about the University of Michigan professor who complains that J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books "conventionally repeat much of the same sexist and white patriarchal biases of classical fairy tales." We smile, we laugh, we scoff. But most of us do so uneasily.

Why the uneasiness? There are several reasons. In the first place we know that such strictures, though preposterous, are not without consequence. Indeed, the phenomenon of political correctness is a great teacher of the often overlooked lesson that the preposterous and the malign can cohabit happily.

There is also the fact that the odor of malignity, of thuggishness, is never far from the lairs of political correctness. The student accused of lookism can be severely penalized for the offense, as can the student accused of racism, "homophobia," or "misdirected laughter." In some cases, the academic thought police even attempt to regulate what is not said, as when an editor of a student newspaper was removed from his post because he had given "insufficient coverage" to minority events. We laugh when we read about poor Frosty, but the laughter dies when we consider that the professor who would have us melt Frosty is also someone responsible for the education of students. It is amusingly ludicrous to burden Mrs. Rowling's entertainments with feminist rhetoric, but then we remember that books can be banned or slighted for less.

PC's Allergy to Humor

Milan Kundera's novel The Joke traces the fortunes and amours of a young student, Ludvik, after his exasperatingly earnest girlfriend decides to show the authorities a postcard he had written to her as a joke: "Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!"

As a result of this whimsy, Ludvik finds himself expelled from the Communist Party and the university and is eventually conscripted to work in the mines for several years. Among other things, Kundera dramatizes the dynamics of political correctness. He is especially good at portraying one of its signal features, humorlessness. One of the points of The Joke is that totalitarian societies cannot abide a joke; humor is anathema; political correctness is a kind of geiger counter that registers deviations from the norm of earnestness. Any deviation is suspect, any humorous deviation is culpable.

The allergy to humor that is integral to political correctness is one reason the art of parody has suffered in recent years. Then, too, a parodist, to be successful, must be able to count on his audience's ability to distinguish clearly between the parody and the reality being spoofed. The triumph of political correctness has long since blurred that distinction. Whose ideological antennae are sensitive enough to register accurately the shifting claims of victimhood and entitlement? A mayoral aide in Washington, DC, uses the word "niggardly" in conversation with a black colleague; the colleague takes offense because he thinks "niggardly" is racist; the aide promptly offers his resignation, which is accepted. True? Or parodic exaggeration? True, all too true.

What Kundera gives us is a fiction about—at least in part about—political correctness. But documentary evidence is also near at hand. One can consult Solzhenitsyn, for example, or study the pronouncements of British think tanks like the Runnymede Trust, whose 400-page report on "The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain" a couple of years ago contained the surprising news that the word "British" has "racist connotations." Even worse, it turned out, is the word "English." "To be English," the report informed us, "is to be white. Britishness is not ideal, but at least it appears acceptable when suitably qualified, such as Black British, Indian British, British Muslim and so on." The report continued with this alarming announcement:

Britishness, as much as Englishness, has systematic, largely unspoken, racist connotations. Whiteness nowhere features as an explicit condition of being British, but it is widely understood that Englishness is racially coded. The unstated assumption is that Britishness and whiteness go together like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. There has been no collective working through of the imperial experience.

The absence from the national curriculum of a rewritten history of Britain as an imperial force, involving dominance in Ireland, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, is proving to be an unmitigated disaster.

Note that phrase "rewritten history." If the people who gave us the Runnymede Trust report have their way, history will be subject to a lot of rewriting. Among the many recommendations made by "The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain" was the demand that British history be "revised, rethought or jettisoned" in order to meet the requirements of "inclusivity." The report makes many other recommendations—it calls, for example, for race equality and "cultural diversity" inspections in schools, and suggests that television franchise holders be required to appoint a specified number of Black and Asian staff.

Such examples multiply themselves a hundred-fold with the greatest of ease.

Item: A school board in San Francisco seeks to require that 70 percent of school reading be books by "authors of color." One board member explained: "Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, for instance, has a bias against African-Americans. And Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, while a great work, has an economic bias. It characterizes people based on their class."

Item: A mid-level executive at a large bank is overheard wishing a colleague "Merry Christmas." Her superior takes her aside and gravely tells her that such language might be construed as offensive and warns her against indulging in such public displays of religious sentiment.

Item: A doctor I know at Good Samaritan Hospital outside Chicago writes a letter to the hospital's "Cultural Diversity Team." He points out that their Diwali Festival celebrating Hindu culture neglected to mention the appalling abuse of women that is a prominent feature of that culture. A firestorm erupts. The president of the medical staff informs the letter writer that "many individuals reading your words ... have found them disturbing, insulting, and ... elitist" and warns further that "continued correspondence in the same vein ... will be viewed as harassment and contributing to a hostile workplace environment." In other words, cut it out or get out—which is not, incidentally, a bad characterization of the PC understanding of dialogue.

On an even more ominous front we have the activities of the European Union, that bastion of political correctness, whose tax-exempt ministers are appointed, not elected, who seem to be accountable only to themselves, who meet in secret and issue binding diktats that affect the daily lives of people all over Europe. It is nice work if you can get it.

A few years ago, the EU made it illegal for journalists to criticize its policies. Last year, it decided that racism and xenophobia were crimes that could carry a prison sentence of two or more years. "Racism" and "xenophobia" they defined as harboring an aversion to people based on "race, colour, descent, religion or belief, national or ethnic origin." I do not love thee, Dr. Fell, the reason why I cannot tell—but it is certainly not because of your race, nationality, skin color, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, or any physical or mental disabilities—sorry, differences—from which you may suffer.

As these examples suggest, contemporary political correctness, though it may have originated and matured in the academy, is not only an academic product. It thrives in the academy, true, as bacteria thrives in rotting flesh. But political correctness has metastasized. It now thrives outside academia wherever a certain type of intellectual congregates: In the corridors of the European Union, for example, or in anxious bureaucracies like Oxbridge, the BBC and the United Nations.

I hasten to add that by "intellectual," I do not mean "bookish"; I do not mean "intelligent." I mean characterized by a certain lofty moralism—smug, progressive, abstract, activist. Writing in the June 2003 issue of The New Criterion, the political philosopher Kenneth Minogue anatomized this attitude as a form of "Olympianism." "There is," Minogue wrote,

a dire purposiveness about the Olympian passion for signing up to treaties and handing power over to international bureaucrats who want to rule the world. Everything down to the details of family life and the modes of education are governed and guided so as to fit into the rising project of a world government. The independence of universities in choosing who to admit, of firms choosing whom to employ, of citizens to say and think what they like has all been subject to regulation in the name of harmony between nations and peace between religions. The playfulness and creativity of Western societies is under threat. So too is their identity and freedom.

The intrusiveness that Minogue describes is an expression of what is perhaps the most stultifying characteristic of political correctness: its addiction to displays of benevolence, to the emotion of virtue. When the Harvard professor Barbara Johnson justified the suppression of conservative points of view on campus with the argument that "professors should have less freedom of expression than writers and artists, because professors are supposed to be creating a better world," she provided a good example of how the imperatives of political correctness are at odds with the principles of open debate. Or consider the case of Peter Kirstein, who until recently was an obscure professor of history at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Professor Kirstein was one of many who received a form-letter email from a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy soliciting advice about an upcoming conference. Kirstein's reply catapulted him to temporary notoriety: "You are a disgrace to this country and I am furious you would even think I would support you and your aggressive baby killing tactics of collateral damage." Kirstein went on to excoriate the United States Air Force for imperialism, cowardice and bringing "death and destruction" to "non-white peoples throughout the world."

What is interesting is not so much Kirstein's loathsome little missive, which was hardly more than an off-the-shelf specimen of politically-correct academic rancor, but the self-infatuated conviction of virtue that informs it. On his website, Professor Kirstein lists the twelve points of his "teaching philosophy." It includes helpful items such as "Teach peace, freedom, diversity, multiculturalism and challenge American unilateralism." But the most telling of his twelve points is the first, which he prints in bold face: "Teaching is a moral act."

Now, there is undoubtedly a sense in which teaching is a moral act. But its morality is like happiness according to Aristotle: it is achieved not directly but indirectly through the responsible engagement with the tasks at hand. Indirection—moral subtlety, an appreciation of human imperfection—are resources deliberately slighted by the politically correct. In their pursuit of a better, more enlightened world, PC types let an abstract moralism triumph over realism, benevolence over prudence, earnest humorlessness over patience.

As has often been noted, an absolute commitment to benevolence, like the road that is paved with good intentions, typically leads to an unprofitable destination. In Physics and Politics, Walter Bagehot summed up the point when he observed that

The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does most good or harm. Great good, no doubt, philanthropy does, but then it also does great evil. It augments so much vice, it multiplies so much suffering, it brings to life such great populations to suffer and to be vicious, that it is open to argument whether it be or be not an evil to the world, and this is entirely because excellent people fancy they can do much by rapid action—that they will most benefit the world when they most relieve their own feelings.

Bagehot wrote in the 1870s. His words are if anything more pertinent now.

Benevolence is a curious creature. Its operation tends to be more beneficent the more specific it is. This was a point that James Fitzjames Stephen, the great 19th-century critic of John Smart Mill, made in his book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity:

The man who works from himself outwards, whose conduct is governed by ordinary motives, and who acts with a view to his own advantage and the advantage of those who are connected with himself in definite, assignable ways, produces in the ordinary course of things much more happiness to others ... than a moral Don Quixote who is always liable to sacrifice himself and his neighbors. On the other hand, a man who has a disinterested love of the human race—that is to say, who has got a fixed idea about some way of providing for the management of the concerns of mankind—is an unaccountable person ... who is capable of making his love for men in general the ground of all sorts of violence against men in particular.

Political correctness tends to breed the sort of unaccountability that Stephen warns against. At its center is a union of abstract benevolence, which takes mankind as a whole for its object, with rigid moralism. This is a toxic, misery-producing brew. In On Enlightenment, the Australian philosopher David Stove got to the heart of the problem when he pointed out that it is precisely this combination of universal benevolence fired by uncompromising moralism that underwrites the cult of political correctness. "Either element on its own," Stove observed,

is almost always comparatively harmless. A person who is convinced that he has a moral obligation to be benevolent, but who in fact ranks morality below fame (say), or ease; or again, a person who puts morality first, but is also convinced that the supreme moral obligation is, not to be benevolent, but to be holy (say), or wise, or creative: either of these people might turn out to be a scourge of his fellow humans, though in most cases he will not. But even at the worst, the misery which such a person causes will fall incomparably short of the misery caused by Lenin, or Stalin, or Mao, or Ho Chi Minh, or Kim II-sung, or Pol Pot, or Castro: persons convinced both of the supremacy of benevolence among moral obligations, and of the supremacy of morality among all things. It is this combination which is infallibly and enormously destructive of human happiness.

Of course, as Stove goes on to note, this "lethal combination" is by no means peculiar to communists. It provides the emotional fuel for utopians from Robespierre to the politically-correct bureaucrats who preside over more and more of life in Western societies today. They mean well. They seek to boost all mankind up to their own plane of enlightenment. Inequality outrages their sense of justice. They regard conventional habits of behavior as so many obstacles to be overcome on the path to perfection. They see tradition as the enemy of innovation, which they embrace as a lifeline to moral progress. They cannot encounter a wrong without seeking to right it. The idea that some evils may be ineradicable is anathema to them. Likewise the notion that the best is the enemy of the good, that many choices are to some extent choices among evils—such proverbial, conservative wisdom outrages their sense of moral perfectibility.

Alas, the result is not paradise but a campaign to legislate virtue, to curtail eccentricity, to smother individuality, to barter truth for the current moral or political enthusiasm. For centuries, political philosophers have understood that the lust for equality is the enemy of freedom. That species of benevolence underwrote the tragedy of communist tyranny. The rise of political correctness has redistributed that lust over a new roster of issues: not the proletariat, but the environment, not the struggling masses, but "reproductive freedom," gay rights, the welfare state, the Third World, diversity training, and an end to racism and xenophobia. It looks, in Marx's famous mot, like history repeating itself not as tragedy but as farce.

It would be a rash man, however, who made no provision for a reprise of tragedy.

Roger Kimball is Managing Editor of The New Criterion. Among his recent books are The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (Encounter Books, 2000) and Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee, 2002). This essay is adapted from the Charles Douglas-Home Award lecture delivered at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales, May 2003.