2016-09-01

Is The Problem With PC Its Political Agenda?

At EconLog, Scott Sumner writes a blog post on what he feels is wrong with political correctness. It's not that he opposes student safety and comfort, but that the PC movement aims to prevent discomfort "for the wrong reason." What is that reason, according to Sumner?
The primary agenda is to advance a partisan political cause, not to make people feel comfy.
He continues (emphases added):
People on the left don't see the political aspect of PCism, for roughly the same reason that liberals don't see that NPR is liberal, and fish don't notice that they are wet all the time. (Disclaimer, NPR is my favorite radio station--but I do see its liberalism.)
In other words, Sumner believes the point of the PC movement is to advance left-liberalist politics. Against this narrative, I have an anecdote to offer.

When I was a young boy in elementary school, we all hit puberty at about the same age and were invited to a "maturation program" provided (officially) by the school faculty. Some students from very conservative families were excused from the program if their parents provided a formal written request that they be excluded. Instead, they stayed in their primary classroom and worked quietly on their homework.

We didn't have the language of "safe spaces" back then, but the comparison is a perfect one. Very conservative students were given a safe space to avoid being triggered by frank talk about human biology.

Long story short, I don't think it's reasonable to say that all PC demands align with the same political agenda, thus I don't think Sumner's criticism here is fair. There are some instances in which political correctness has served non-leftist political agendas, too.

So if political correctness isn't about one political agenda in particular, what is it really about?

I will speculate that people - and therefore also students - are growing increasingly hyper-sensitive to narratives that don't support their own beliefs, whatever they are. The postmodern insistence that perception is reality has unwittingly encouraged us to manage our perceptions in an effort to control our reality. If the only difference between my reality and yours is my perception that, say, minimum wage can increase the poor's quality of life without reducing their employment rate, then I can claim that this is true for me. After all, I perceive it to be so.

In such a world, facts start to become irrelevant to perceived reality. If I only allow myself to see blue light, then the whole world is blue. Your efforts to shine red light on my reality could be perceived as a threat - how dare you attempt to forcibly alter my perception?

This is only a story, of course, but it's one intended to cast light on the thinking of the politically correct. I don't believe these folks are actively trying to promote a political agenda so much as they are afraid to consider any reality beyond the one that they have carefully curated for themselves. Accusations that these folks are too sensitive are more accurate, in my opinion, than accusations that they are too politically motivated.

Long before the university years, we should have taught our children that perceptions and beliefs can be highly inaccurate, and that the proper way to live one's life is by dismantling one's own illusions and relentlessly pursuing truth, wherever that leads. But our modern-day philosophers relish opportunities to cast doubt on the existence of both truth and reality, and therefore a lot of us are simply ill-equipped to teach our children how to exist in a world in which some ideas are hotly contested, and no one group has a monopoly on reality (perceived or otherwise).

I'm relentlessly criticized for referencing Ayn Rand, but she accurately predicted and described all of this in her essay "The Comprachicos," from The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. There is much to criticize in that book and that essay, but the thrust of her ideas still rings true despite whatever discussions we might have about her tone or the details of her philosophy.