When Douglas Carswell defected to UKIP he made a statement that contained the following words:
“What was once dismissed as ‘political correctness gone mad’, we recognise as good manners. Good.”
He’s quite right. We should not characterise politeness as political correctness. However, the reverse also applies.
For one thing, the shift in public discourse towards tolerance and respect for marginalised groups and individuals predates any notion of PC. For instance, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus challenges the prejudice of mainstream society towards a despised minority.
In our own nation’s history, we’ve seen attitudes towards disabled people change not just in the last few decades, but over the last few centuries. In the 18th century, fashionable figures like Beau Nash could get away with viciously cruel jests aimed at the crippled, the blind and the mentally ill. The great social reformers of the subsequent period transformed attitudes, building the foundations of civilised modernity.
To credit the progress we’ve made as a society to the contemporary left (and its antecedents) is to ignore the contributions made by others – many of them conservatives. It is also to ignore the reality that PC is not some vague ethic of sensitivity, but a specific ideology presenting an explicit challenge to free speech.
This point is explored by Samuel Goldman in a brilliant essay for the American Conservative. He argues that the origin of PC lies in a reaction to the ‘rational’ liberalism of John Stuart Mill:
“According to Mill, the truth is most likely to emerge from unrestricted debate. Although Mill did not use the metaphor, such a debate is conventionally described as a ‘marketplace of ideas,’ in which vendors are free to offer their wares and customers are at liberty to purchase only the best goods…
However, this free exchange was to be restricted to those Mill thought capable of exercising reason:
“He also argued that the liberty of thought and discussion was not appropriate for ‘those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.’ When it comes to ‘barbarians,’ Mill reasoned, it is appropriate to use coercion, just as it is appropriate for parents to monitor their children’s reading. The implication for contemporary politics was that Britain was justified in practicing a kind of tutelary imperialism.”
In the post-war period, leftwing thought mutated. Out went the worship of ‘pure reason’, in came a post-modern moral hierarchy based on perceptions of privilege:
“What we now call political correctness was first articulated in the 1960s by the brilliant German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse’s achievement was to turn Mill’s argument for free discussion, at least in a modern Western society, against its explicit conclusion.
“Marcuse undertakes this inversion, worthy a black belt in dialectical reasoning, in the 1965 essay ‘Repressive Tolerance.’ In it, Marcuse argues that the marketplace of ideas can’t function as Mill expected, because the game in rigged in favor of those who are already powerful.”
Whereas an earlier generation of left-wingers wanted to redistribute the means of production, the contemporary left wants to redistribute the means of communication. To quote Marcuse:
“It should be evident by now that the exercise of civil rights by those who don’t have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise…”
For the politically correct left, free speech is a zero sum game – for some people to find their voice, others must be silenced. We can see how this works in student union ‘safe space’ policies (in which certain groups are granted the ‘right’ not to be offended) or in the language of ‘micro-aggressions’ in which the slightest infelicity of speech or behaviour is taken as evidence of extreme prejudice.
Of course, the Marcusians have a point – some people have more influence over public discourse than others, just as some people have a stronger market position than others. But as with old-style socialist economics, political correctness offers a truly disastrous solution: the aggregation of all influence in the hands of a new and hugely more powerful elite.