Much has been written about political correctness, and there is little I need to add to the literature defining the subject.
But I am interested in the psychological problems that are created by political correctness. At heart, the real difficulty with political correctness is that it prevents us from seeing things as they are. The central conundrum with respect to this politically enforced perceptual distortion is not so much that we cannot describe reality accurately, but that we cannot respond to reality morally.
It is well known that derogation of political correctness is a preoccupation of the right, and it is most often those on the political left who are branded with this label. In fact, all ranges of the political spectrum are hobbled by their own variants of political correctness, and the right is no less guilty than the left in this regard.
Why are we as a species prone to political correctness? I suggest that this is because moral choices are inherently painful and complex, and in fact, often agonizing. Therefore, we seek simple formulas to spare ourselves the agony of moral decision-making.
Without further preamble, let me illustrate some of the dilemmas faced by the politically correct on both the left and the right, using examples only.
A DILEMMA FOR THOSE ON THE LEFT
We entirely lack the societal resources to resolve the problem of egregious offenses against the wellbeing of the populace through the procedural maze of the present administrative and court systems. If we do not live within our means (that is, within all of our limits and boundaries) as we act to resolve ethical dilemmas, we will ultimately impoverish and thus incapacitate ourselves socially, financially and morally.
1. We cannot afford to resolve all criminal infractions through our present court and legal system, particularly the most serious as perpetrated by habitual antisocial offenders. It is illogical to devote millions of dollars in societal resources to balancing the rights of the habitual antisocial offender with those of the general public. We all know that some individuals are habitually destructive and dangerous to the wellbeing of all, and the fact that such individuals should be wholly restrained by permanent removal from society is quite obvious to any rational and compassionate observer.
Why then do we agonize over the rights of criminals while abandoning victims to their fate? Our human tendency to deliberate at length over the rights of perpetrators while recoiling from inquiry into the impact of their actions on their victims in my view also derives from a reflexive failure of moral courage of the same type that is at the heart of political correctness in all of its forms.
This particular dilemma is quite simple in its moral and psychological structure. Where punishment of the perpetrator is in question, it is our own direct or indirect action that will result in premeditated harm to this person, making us personally responsible for inflicting punitive sanctions (and therefore injuries) against another, no matter how callous, brutal and remorseless this particular individual may be. While extensive processes exist to enquire into the functional capacity, motivations and psychological functioning of antisocial offenders, we have virtually none to study the experiences, perspectives and agonies of their victims.
In the arena of the politically correct, the harm done to victims is inflicted by the “other” – the criminal whose rights we safeguard – and thus no harm has come to the victim through our personal action (though much may ensue through our subsequent neglect). As personal action weighs more heavily on our conscience than the actions of others, we permit dangerous offenders to return to society while simultaneously erecting few if any safeguards for their prior or potential victims, including those at risk of retribution.
The first step in the permanent exclusion of antisocial offenders from society lies in deciding where to draw the line as to who should and should not be designated for exclusion, and for how long – and so we erect complex, unwieldy, self-maintaining and correspondingly unreliable mechanisms to shelter ourselves from this distasteful task.
But underlying this first moral dilemma, difficult though it may be, is another dilemma far more difficult still, and that is the decision as to how our finite societal resources should be divided. Due to our distaste for judgement, we spare no expense in the allocation of money and manpower to evaluate the known perpetrators of offensive crimes, first through complex and often multiple trial proceedings, typically spanning many years and sometimes costing in the millions of dollars, and then through the ongoing monitoring and review of the perpetrator’s progress within the criminal justice system, all of this possibly extending for the remaining lifespan of the evildoer.
In the midst of our extravagant provision of lifetime services to the brutal and callous (and this is at the heart of the second and greater dilemma) we learn almost nothing, either publicly or systemically, of the impact of antisocial crime on its many victims and survivors. We have no parallel system of resources which monitors the safety or the ongoing mental or physical health of the victims of vicious criminal acts. Similarly, our victim services processes are private, whereas criminal proceedings are public. Therefore, victims suffer in silence, shielded from public view, and we, as members of the public, are sheltered from the torment of personal responsibility.
My professional work often brings me into contact with victims of violent and antisocial crimes, and in my experience, the decisions and actions of victims are shaped to a greater degree by their fear of perpetrators, whom they view as dangerous, powerful and likely to return unhampered to society, than by their confidence in the criminal justice system, which they almost invariably view as vacillating, weak, unpredictable, ineffective, and incoherent. As many know, it is not unusual for perpetrators to gloat in their impunity. In fact, through the eyes of the victim, the criminal justice system very frequently appears to be directly aligned with and empowering to perpetrators, and so aligned against and disempowering to victims.
The politically correct person on the left refuses to make the costly decisions which would acknowledge initially that violent and antisocial offenders require permanent exclusion from society, and then that societal resources must be directed preferentially to victims, and this at the expense of inhumane, remorseless and habitual offenders.
2. We cannot afford to hold the free enterprise system itself hostage to the infinite moral dilemmas of the general populace by extracting massive cash settlements to redress the real or imagined injuries of the aggrieved through class action (tort) lawsuits for wrongs that in their very essence reflect the inescapable risks and hazards of our mortal nature. The fundamental dilemma is that life is inherently risky and ultimately fatal, and that businesses which provide products to meet our needs cannot possibly remove all risk from living by selling guaranteed harm-free products.
a. The politically correct person on the left holds tobacco companies culpable for the sale of tobacco and its resultant harms, whereas society, through its legal system, makes tobacco a permitted – even a promoted – substance with the full sanction of the very governments which extract legal penalties from its purveyors.
b. Similarly, asbestos was valued by society as a whole for its insulating and fire retardant properties. It was only with the advance of medical knowledge that the hazards of asbestos became known. The harms caused by asbestos are in no way the responsibility of those who mined, processed and sold it to members of a society who desired it for its useful properties.
c. It now requires in many cases hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to develop and test new pharmaceutical products over periods of decades in order to address the illnesses and frailties to which we as humans are prone. Extensive evaluation is required to assure safety, and this is rational. But should unintended side effects occur following such development and testing, we punish the pharmaceutical companies for their efforts, rather than acknowledging that not all consequences of a medication’s use can possibly ever be comprehended or foreseen. For failing to exercise such mandated infinite oversight, we then punish pharmaceutical companies with massive lawsuits, rather than acknowledging that no set of safeguards can protect us against all conceivable harms and unintended consequences of the use of pharmaceutical products. In response, the pharmaceutical companies avoid risk, developing medications to treat only a narrow range of illnesses, and the prohibitive costs of drug development result in independent companies developing drugs in most (fortunately not all) cases to treat only a minute fraction of the spectrum of the illnesses of the world’s richest people – those who can afford to pay the massive risk premium required to fund contemporary pharmaceutical research. As has been well-established, even aspirin can be extremely dangerous in certain delineated circumstances (I personally have an adverse response to this commonly-used medicine). It is only through the intervention of charitable foundations which are willing to undertake the staggering costs and associated liabilities that any treatments at all can be developed to alleviate the suffering of the world’s impoverished majorities. Through our aversion to risk and uncertainty, we have transferred responsibility for the ineluctable hazards of living from ourselves both as individuals and as a society to the pharmaceutical industry, with the result that innovators are excoriated and presumed guilty for the inherent liabilities of our mortal nature.
The politically correct person on the left is unable to acknowledge that life itself is hazardous to the point of certain death for all. These individuals seek to establish a way of life without risk in an imagined utopia of accountability that is sought through endless prosecution of the purveyors of the products and services that in our fickle nature were once desired, and now spurned due to changes in our understanding or perception of the balance of risk and benefit in their use. What the politically correct have created is in fact a suffocating and blatantly exploitative regulatory framework (within which accountability has become an infinitely displaced end) that quashes creativity and affixes so many penalties upon innovation and productivity that our capacity to continue to create the goods and services necessary to sustain and potentially enhance the quality of our lives has become critically compromised, with far greater costs to human wellbeing and freedom than their regulatory efforts could possibly ever forestall.
A DILEMMA FOR THOSE ON THE RIGHT
We inhabit a moral universe fraught with complexity. Multiple and ultimately competing perspectives that we often have no right or ultimate capacity to modify place demands upon us and dominate our lives. The ultimate dilemma is not one of right or wrong, but of engagement or escape. Ethical living demands engagement with the full spectrum of human experience.
1. At its core, the struggle to survive is not a tenet of political ideology (as in “Social Darwinism”) but a biological reality. Across the 4.5 billion year history of our planet, a mere atom in a galaxy which in turn is a speck in a cosmic web of galaxies and galactic clusters, multitudes of species have arisen and passed away, and multitudes more will do so, including at some inescapable point our own. In most species, the great majority of individuals do not survive to maturity. Across the span of the history of life on earth, most species themselves do not survive, as they are displaced or die away due to changing environmental circumstances (and all of this is in the context of the drama that Darwin referred to as natural selection). Over most of our own history as a species, it was unusual for human individuals to survive through to maturity and old age prior to relatively recent times. I am not at all suggesting that the preservation of life is not a virtue, and in fact I hold to this principle quite dearly. But I do submit that it is in the very nature of life itself that only a miniscule fraction of germ cells survive to become embryos, and that there are infinite hazards faced by embryos on their journey to becoming human individuals.
In my essay on the movie Vera Drake, I have dealt already with what I regard as the inherently unsolvable moral dilemma of abortion. Here I would like to establish a quite similar point, that the competing rights of the human embryo and of the developing or mature human who might benefit by the fruits of embryonic stem cell research is not at heart a moral problem, but a biological one. That is, it is in the nature of the very struggle of life that what is beneficial for one individual will at some point harm another (whether of the same or different species), and vice versa. Here I can only assert that embryos are known to me to have neither greater nor lesser rights than mature individuals, and that the death of embryos which were never intended by their parents to enter into human form will generate certain benefits to individuals with genetically-based illnesses that might yield to the fruits of embryonic stem cell research. Conversely, to withhold such benefits out of respect for embryos whose parents never intended for them to breathe life seems a patently illogical, counterproductive and ideologically-based stance to take, where no benefit can in fact derive to the embryo, and clear harm will result to those with genetically-based illnesses if the research does not proceed apace.
2. In an entirely different sphere, North American conservatives, and here I refer predominantly but not exclusively to those in the United States, have embroiled the globe in a series of ill-considered ideologically-motivated military adventures in which the enormous but finite resources of the United States are pitted against those of far less wealthy and powerful, but far more determined, adversaries, who perceive American incursion to be an insult to their sovereignty and freedom. Little investigation is required to establish that the actions of the United States have been incoherent to the point of apparent dysfunction.
Let me clarify at the outset that I am not approaching this challenge to the political right from the ideological left, and I hope this will become evident in my subsequent discussion.
Historically, the United States seems to have careened off course shortly following its rise to the position of dominant world power at the close of World War II. With the rise of anti-communism, the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene seditiously in the affairs of state of governments around the world, and it is well-known that the United States initiated actions to destabilize the governments of such countries as Chile, Nicaragua, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to oppose the will of the vast majority of the citizens of Vietnam in America’s greatest debacle of the 20th century. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, suffered and died as a result of America’s ill-considered actions.
In my own view, the disruptive spilt in the American psyche must be traced to its roots, though I am of course uncertain as to its ultimate source. My intuition suggests to me that a predominant factor in the genesis of what Richard Hofstadter referred to as the “paranoid style” in American politics (originally a 1964 essay in Harper’s) is the fact that many early American settlers were members of persecuted minority groups, both religious and ethnic. Thus their traumatic experiences of sustained persecutions, many unimaginably severe, would seem to have been transmitted intergenerationally to our present era. Yet many Americans are also open, fair-minded, selfless, charitable and ultimately supremely balanced persons, and this achievement can be attributed in large part to the country’s dearly-attained democratic and pluralistic innovations and traditions. The United States therefore conducts itself in a dissociative manner when it behaves internationally, and this is baffling to others in the far-flung corners of the globe where Americans almost invariably mis-step.
Another tragic mis-step, of course, has been taken recently in Iraq (in my view, the Afghanistan combat is a quite different and far more complex intervention for many reasons). So what has the United States done wrong in this case? Well, we must be historical. To begin, the United States equipped, financed, trained and then abandoned its historic allies but ultimate enemies in the mountains of Afghanistan in its ill-conceived anti-Soviet interventions in that country now decades ago. With shifting alliances which parallel and perhaps exceed those of Orwell’s 1984, the United States has been with and against Iran and Iraq, and against and with and now in an ambiguous relationship with the former Soviet bloc countries.
With ideological fervour, the United States has in fact fought on both sides of many of the ethnic, cultural, religious and ideological fissures which rend the Muslim world through the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. And what has the United States encountered there but a mirror reflection of itself, a similarly dissociative cultural and political environment also shaped by centuries of persecution and ridden by paranoia? Faced with an adversary whose psychological conflicts mirror its own, the United States has responded incoherently, unable to transmit its deeply cherished democratic and pluralistic ideals to a population that in at least some respects admires and appreciates these same ideals (almost certainly the democratic more than the pluralistic), due to their being enshrouded in a paranoid overlay which with seemingly unerring accuracy perverts and distorts almost every American foreign intervention, whether well-intended or otherwise (in my view, there has been much of both).
Let me now explain why my present criticism of the United States is not drawn from the ideological roots of the left. As an American citizen myself, I believe that the United States has, in its peak accomplishments, attained to a series of principles of immeasurable value. Among these I include pluralism, free speech, due process, the rule of law, the right to hold private property and to vote, and a deeply held belief in the irreplaceable benefits of economic freedom. In almost all cases, America’s adversaries have been less advanced in many if not all of these critically important dimensions.
However, the United States has proven strikingly ineffective in transmitting these values and ideals to the countries in whose internal affairs it has intervened, and one must at this point ask why a people driven by such noble ideals have proven unable to deliver them to others by means of military force. Let me also submit that in the question lies most of the all-too-obvious answer, and that is that freedom cannot, by its inherent nature, be imposed. It must be invited in. And it is delicate work to create the receptive psychological climate within which the process of giving birth to freedom can occur. In my view, the “military-industrial” megalith of United States power is an all-too-blunt instrument to accomplish this highly refined objective in most circumstances. In fact, and it has often been demonstrated, Americans possess the skills to win others over through precept and example, but America refrains from this method when its leaders (and the citizens who support them) are driven by fear.
Unlike many who criticize America from the left, I am deeply troubled by the evils that I perceive in the world of Islamic extremism, and I am concerned that much of the Muslim world is rapidly slipping into a new dark age, and this seems to parallel, but lag by several centuries, the developments that swept Europe almost a millennium ago (and that led in great part to the persecutory history of our current adversaries in the Muslim world through the crusades). While Islam boasts a proud history of intellectual, cultural, social, scientific and spiritual achievement, much of that history is now being erased by a wave of jihadist extremism against which the evils I have just described in the United States pale in comparison.
In my view, there is no greater evil than terrorism, which strikes intentionally at the innocent in order to inflame them to a level of fear and hate which mirrors that of the perpetrators of this most heinous of all offenses against humanity. And while the United States has selfishly blundered and intruded, staggering about both thoughtlessly and blindly, and thereby engendered needless suffering for untold millions through ill-conceived military-industrial activism, the adversary it has recently encountered is more evil still. It is thus one of the paradoxical sins of the United States that through confused and naïve action (driven by what Hofstadter described as the dual burden inflicted by the addition of paranoid fantasies), the United States has contributed to the unleashing of an already existing evil against which its own pales in comparison – and I think this needs to be explicitly stated.
That is, and I wish to be quite clear, the evil of terrorism greatly exceeds the evil of imperialism. The one is far more repugnant than the other, though, in our present age, both must by all means and in all circumstances be avoided. There is no place for either terrorism or imperialism in our modern world, and those who practice them must be held accountable to desist by the leaders of the world community in all of its quarters. The freedom which we enjoy in the west is a precious treasure to be guarded, but also not to be squandered, and I wish to argue that that the cost is far too great to persist in our ill-conceived activism.
Islamic extremism poses many dilemmas to our society, and the arming of Iran and the rise of the jihadists are but the tip of the iceberg in a vast region of the world where pluralism is rejected, and minorities, including in particular many Christians, are persecuted. There is no easy response, but I do maintain that we must cease using blunt instruments, and act first by understanding and then accurately estimating our enemy prior to engaging him. We must respond strategically rather than in a haze of fear (or pride).
At a minimum, we should consider how to act to stop feeding the sinister processes which breed new terrorists by the hundreds each day, then to isolate the most extreme and disruptive of the jihadists, simultaneously to provide meaningful protection to minorities suffering under persecution by Islamic extremists, and then – and only then – to confront militarily those whose brutal designs can by no other means be resisted.
In summary, then, my criticism of the political correctness of the right is that the web of frightening fantasies must be swept away, enabling a clearer vision of the actual risks and opportunities that lie ahead. We must acknowledge that while there exists an evil in the world far greater than that which we ourselves have perpetrated, our own excessive (but ultimately inadequate) use of power and our self-absorbed and reactive interventionism appear in fact to be feeding the very evil which we seek to restrain. We must still combat our own evil first and more directly so that we can see clearly to combat the evil which clouds the vision of our Islamic neighbours. It is this supremely uncomfortable fact to which the political right must either accede or succumb.
The politically correct person on the right is able to acknowledge the existence of evil in the world, and also to recognize the requirement of bravery to confront it. However, in my view, this person has become entrapped by unwillingness to acknowledge the complex interplay of multiple viewpoints, and so denies his or her own participation in the origination of our world’s inevitable evils. Thus, the politically correct individuals who inhabit the political right respond reflexively rather than strategically to complex moral issues, disregarding and thereby alienating others, leaving them standing incoherent in response to their own isolation in a world where black-and-white characterizations of problems create imagined solutions that are unworkable for those with needs or viewpoints different than their own.
The purpose of the present essay is not to “answer” the questions I have posed, but to portray clearly how certain popularly chosen paths to their remediation are in fact inherently unworkable, and thus must be abandoned, to be replaced with new answers based on new ways of thinking which have not yet in fact been generated. It is my hope that in the resiliency of our human nature, and particularly in our ability to communicate honestly with each other at deep rather than superficial levels, the answers to these dilemmas may reside.