Of course you’ve all heard about the new poll on political correctness. About 80 percent of people say it’s a problem. That does not mean it is a big problem, and it does not mean we would be better off without it. Think about taxes. Nobody likes taxes. Most people would say high taxes are a problem. But we all appreciate why they should exist. Let’s ignore Ron Paul for a moment. After all, I like roads. And, since I might not be able to stop my future children from getting dance degrees, I support Medicaid, too. But if you asked me on a poll, “are high taxes or deficits a problem” there’s at least an 80 percent chance I would say yes.
On the other hand, as Matt Yglesias has noted, there can be a “problematic culture” around political correctness. People, especially young people, enjoy judgement, and that’s annoying. That’s all there really is to say about the meaning of that 80 percent number, and if you took any more or any less out of that statistic, you are wrong.
So ignore that for a moment, and get a bit philosophical.
First, I want to propose a model of what “political correctness” is. Political correctness is a social force, or a regulation on your behavior where the legislature imposing it is people blankly staring at you and your friends having to apologize for you behind your back.
So what is this regulation? I say it’s a price floor on talking politics. What’s the price? A certain kind of political awareness. What do I mean by that? I mean that you have to know a certain amount of what is going on and what people will find acceptable to talk shop without losing status-points. You also have to choose to follow the rules once you know them.
Take, for example, the statement, “I have no problem with gay marriage, but I worry about gay parents adopting kids. I think having a mother and a father is important for children.”
This is not, a priori, an unreasonable statement. It turns out it’s false. In fact, gender of parenting does not affect children at all. But, it could have been true.
Still, you definitely aren’t supposed to say this in polite company. Jordan Peterson got in “trouble” for it. Now, is that because most people know the research on child development? No. It’s because the social enforcers (us) know you just don’t say that.
So who is pushed out of political discussion by political correctness? Well, the model would imply that it is the kind of people who are not politically involved, and do not have the awareness-cash to burn. After all, the two demographic groups most likely to have a problem with political correctness were Asians and Latinx people, who happen to have the lowest voting rates.
The second group is probably who political correctness is intended to antagonize: devoted conservatives. This fits the model, because people who oppose the ideological goals of speech codes will, of course, oppose the codes themselves. I’m a fan of Burke, Eisenhower, Cicero, Chesterton, Ross Douthat, Jeff Flake, John McCain, etc. But considering the pipe bombs just sent to CNN, I’m not that upset about the unfairness of this.
So what’s the takeaway? Well, every policy should have a cost-benefit analysis. The question of political correctness isn’t just whether the punishments doled out fit the crimes, but whether it’s all worth the unintended costs. Judge informedly.
Other than that, I have only one axe to grind. When you talk to, say, anyone, read them charitably! Try to understand what they are saying and why they would say that! Dismissing someone because they use an unacceptable word or phrase is dicey. You’re probably not enacting sweet justice on the privileged and misanthropic. You are quite likely excluding a legitimately confused person who doesn’t know what will upset you. You might agree a hell of a lot more than you think you do. And none of that means you can’t condemn the genuinely cruel.
And that’s not even touching on possible legitimate disagreements.
Tom Hanes is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.