Sunday 28 April 2024

Political Correctness: How The Few Try To Rule Over The Many

Red Dog Designs Who's 50th Anniversary: Silence Will Fall | Pointless Cafe

The recent history of the term 'political correctness' and its association with the contemporary left and the tedious culture wars obscures its true character and ubiquity. Political correctness is real, significant, and arguably the dominant mode of politics since before humans could even talk. It is the few trying to rule over the many by persuading the many that they are in the minority.

The goal of this form of politics is the manufacturing and maintaining of 'pluralistic ignorance' where members of a group mistakenly believe that most other members disagree with them. As a result, a well-organised minority is able to dominate the group as a whole by convincing them of a fictitious shared consensus supporting their rule or values. Taken separately, many individuals may recognise that they don't agree with what is being done in their name. But at the same time they believe they are one of a very few who think this, and so they go along with the thing they disagree with.

How is this rule of the few established and maintained? It is essential that the majority never realise that their views are in the majority, or they will withdraw the grudging acquiescence on which the minority's precarious rule relies. Therefore on certain issues, silence must fall. By one means or another, members of the majority must be dissuaded from speaking truthfully about what they believe in places where others might hear them, believe them, and say 'Yes - #metoo!' For such a cascade of personal disclosures would quickly unravel the delicate fabric of the fictional consensus.

The Emperor's New Clothes fairy tale is a classic example of this mechanism in action. Each individual can see with their own eyes that there are no clothes. But they are persuaded that they are in the minority because everyone else publicly claims to see them. The reason they each lie is that they believe the con artists' declaration that only stupid people can't see the emperor's clothes. But they only believe this declaration because everyone else acts as if they can see clothes. Of course, once one person does break the silence, the collective epistemic delusion immediately collapses.

As the fairy tale makes clear, the minority needs not only to prevent the majority from revealing what they actually believe or value. They must also persuade the majority to positively believe that most people see things differently than they do. That means that the dominant views that people hear should be the ones that suit the minority.

This can be achieved by having the minority shout louder than everyone else, until they drown out numerically superior alternative views by their sheer volume. This is what we see in social media, whose business model allows domination by minority views that represent a tiny percentage of what people actually believe, but a very large percentage of what people come to think that others in our society believe. For example, the super woke, super white 'progressive left' views that so dominate online politics even outside America are held by a mere 6% of Americans (Pew). 

However, there is another method by which to achieve the domination of your minority's views in public discourse. This is by credibly threatening to punish anyone who dares to express a contrary view. Hence we arrive at the familiar 'cancel culture' and the policing of views according to their 'political correctness'. The disproportionate and public punishment of a few people with the wrong views serves as a sufficient example to cow everyone else into careful self-censorship, and hence ensures continued ignorance about how widely shared those views are. Consider for example, how the MAGA minority have succeeded in taking over the Republican Party:

Caucused for @NikkiHaley in Missouri today. Made to feel intimated and scared for standing up for what's right. Haley supporters were told to line up 2 x 2 in the middle of the floor of the gym, while Trump's supporters, who are also our neighbors, booed at Nikki's candidacy.

— Lynn Schmidt (@SchmidtOpinions) March 3, 2024

To emphasise further that political correctness is not limited to the leftwards end of the political spectrum, consider the case of the decades long suppression of white dissent against racism and segregation under the Jim Crow regime. According to a fascinating paper by HJ Gorman the highest support for segregation in 1968 was in the Southern states, but even there it was a minority position (supported by only 32%). However, the majority (61%) in those states believed that most other people favoured segregation. Presumably this was because those whites who dared dissent publicly faced social punishment by the well-organised segregationist minority, which escalated to outright terroristic violence in the early 1960s as the segregationists desperately tried to preserve the perception of the legitimacy of their rule.

In a liberal democracy the power to cancel people is somewhat limited by civil rights, since officially people are allowed to have the wrong opinion. This means that the loud people who complain about someone expressing the wrong view on trans rights or Israel can only effectively punish those who are vulnerable to the social pressure they can muster, such as negative online attention to the organisations they work for. Woke activists can't get Tucker Carlson canceled because he operates in an economic ecosystem immune to their threats. But they can get New York Times editors or university lecturers fired or forced to make humiliating apologies for their thought crimes because those people work in organisations much more sensitive to criticism from that community. Effectively, then, political correctness in a democracy consists of policing the views that may be expressed within the spaces controlled by a minority group.

Of course, sometimes the minority coercing the rest of us into
submission is more obvious,
 and lacks a wider political agenda

But political correctness is also an inherently expansionary mode of politics. This is after all a technique for enabling the rule of minorities, so the key limitation on how far it can go is not the numbers of actual supporters a view has, but the effectiveness of those supporters in preventing those who might disagree from being able to come together in organised opposition. Like criminal gangs, there is a continuing contest between the adherents of minority views to take over new spaces, and hence to subject more people to their rule, as trans rights activists took over key parts of several countries' medical systems, or Trump activists took over the Republican party. Also like the way gangs work - there is very little that a single individual can do to resist such take overs.

Outside democracies things are of course much simpler as the ruling minority has total control of the broadcast media and a free hand to terrorise its people into expressing whatever views they want to hear. In North Korea the people compete to express their emotions of devotion to the regime, always aware that failure to demonstrate sufficient enthusiasm could lead to their arrest and murder by the state, and perhaps also the murder of their families. It doesn't matter that most North Koreans don't really believe the regime's manifestly absurd propaganda. So long as they can't tell whether other people are real believers or not they have no way to even start thinking about opposing the regime or figuring out what the actual truth is.

Other authoritarian states are less extreme than North Korea, but only because the methods of political correctness they employ work well enough for their needs, and terrorising people is expensive. Carefully constructed surveys reveal that popular support for the Chinese Communist Party is far from universal (and would probably fall even further if people were allowed to compare notes on its many moral and governance failures). But that doesn't matter so long as the system keeps people sufficiently ignorant of what their fellow citizens believe and too afraid to ask.

It is fairly obvious that political correctness is anti-democratic. It is after all designed to prevent the majority view from being recognised as such in order to sustain the rule of people, institutions, and ideas that the majority disagree with. Of course, real democracy is not just about the rule of the majority, but the rule of rights. So it is also significant that political correctness is thoroughly illiberal in character. It concerns manipulating and coercing individuals into becoming reluctant accomplices in a scheme of mass self-deception. There isn't really a difference in kind in what the dictators and political activist mobs are trying to do (although there is a difference in degree that is very important!).

Moreover, political correctness undermines the effectiveness of democracy by preventing people from talking freely and hence thinking together. On the one hand, people are prevented from criticising ideas and policies that they find incoherent or mistaken. This makes it more likely that bad ideas and policies will be adopted, and that they will run for longer before being dropped. For example, the almost terroristic campaign waged against even thoughtful criticism of the transgender rights movement prevented proper scrutiny of gender affirmation medical protocols for children before they were implemented (e.g. in the UK).

On the other hand, political correctness also prevents people from having their mistaken views challenged. A great many people continue to hold transphobic views but not to express them because they are afraid of social punishment. That doesn't mean they stop believing silly or hateful things though, and perhaps voting for them when granted the anonymity of a secret ballot. Political correctness robs people of democracy's gift: the opportunity to talk freely, and hence to think together with others and subject their opinions to scrutiny, challenge, and improvement.


Note: An earlier version of this essay was published on 3 Quarks Daily