There was a time when the Pecksniffs and Prodworthies of this world had their natural home on the socially conservative right. The once all-encompassing framework of traditional morality provided any number of opportunities to advertise one’s own rectitude while picking up on the failings of others.
The Christian truths at the heart of this tradition were lost beneath the weight of self-serving hypocrisy and oppressive conformity. No wonder, then, that the old ways were overturned.
Writing for The Dish, Freddie deBoer says the outcome of the culture war was inevitable:
“…social liberalism was… an alternative that enabled people to pursue whatever types of consensual personal behavior they wanted, and thus was a movement that increased individual freedom and happiness… So of course that movement won. It was a positive, joyful, human, freeing alternative to an exhausted, ugly, narrow vision of how human beings should behave.”
However, though a social liberal himself, deBoer argues that social liberalism has come to resemble its old enemy:
“It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them.”
He goes on to give an example featuring the American satirist Stephen Colbert, who was accused of racism after a quip was taken the wrong way. There are so many layers of irony involved that it would take too long to explain the affair itself, but deBoer’s point is that it has become impossible for liberals to debate such matters without tearing each other to pieces:
“Suppose you’re a young college student inclined towards liberal or left-wing ideas. And suppose, like a lot of such college students, you enjoy Stephen Colbert and find him a political inspiration. Now imagine that, during the #CancelColbert fiasco, you defended Colbert on Twitter. If your defense was noticed by the people who police that forum, the consequences were likely to be brutal. People would not have said ‘here, let me talk you through this.’ It wouldn’t have been a matter of friendly and inviting disagreement. Instead, as we all saw, it would have been immediate and unequivocal attack.”
None of this means that racism, sexism and all the other nasty isms don’t exist or that they shouldn’t be called-out when identified. However, we do need a way of distinguishing legitimate protest from the increasingly frequent attempts to turn political correctness into a blood sport.
In regard to the latter, three key characteristics stand out:
Firstly, anger is directed not at institutions or society as a whole, but at named individuals. Secondly, the worst possible interpretation is placed on the offending words, with no allowance made for context, carelessness or ignorance. Thirdly, the accusers call for the maximum available penalty – ideally, loss of livelihood and permanent professional exile.
The irony is that contemporary social conservatives owe the ‘outrage police’ a debt of gratitude. They have demonstrated that predatory indignation is not the innate, exclusive property of social conservatism, but a form of bullying that will always find its voice.