Political correctness was not such a bad idea in the beginning. Western societies have become terribly complex, and a healthy control of language can curb the rise of conflict—although often all it takes is a touch of politeness. This is the great lesson from sixteenth-century European wars of religion: some actions and words must be left outside the public space.
Five centuries later things have escalated, and PC is now a nightmare. It does not only define some areas where it now seems impossible to say anything (for example the so-called “safe spaces” of U.S. universities) but also fails in its basic function: instead of appeasing, it provides new and endless reasons for conflict.
By identifying victims at all levels and complaining about aggressions and micro-aggressions behind every exchange of communication, PC ends up fomenting a “just war” available to everyone. It is easy to see who profits from this permanent conflict: the social class that manages it. The victory of the super-incorrect Donald Trump, a white person tit for tat, is nonetheless a sign of the frailty of this model of integration.
How Tolerance Became Crucial to Peace
Earlier, political correctness functioned differently. When the sixteenth-century political philosopher Michel de Montaigne lived, for example, those who wanted to preserve the neutrality of the public sphere were simply called “politiques.” To end the civil war between Catholics and Protestants it was imperative to break down the vicious circle of vengeance.
The starting cause of violence among factions—a “trigger,” in the language of PC—was often a mere insult, a rather bold theological opinion, or an oath. Thus rulers convened and decided that to guarantee public order there was no other solution but to intervene in the sphere of language, extending the monarch’s jurisdiction over gatherings, theatrical shows, and printed books.
The great jurist Jean Bodin invented the principle of absolute sovereignty to free political power from the constraints of a specific religious faction, the Catholic one. It worked. In time, all these neutralizing devices, at the service of a super partes power, simultaneously designed a certain idea of public space (neutralized) and a certain idea of the state (neutralizer). Within this sphere, inside an accurately established perimeter of freedom, arose the modern liberal society. In the seventeenth century, philosophers such as Pierre Bayle and John Locke defined this system more accurately under the name of “tolerance.”
Americans, who experienced civil war more recently, have not forgotten some pragmatic adjustments. An exemplary case: when the massacre at Charlie Hebdo took place, the media decided not to publish the offensive cartoons that provoked the terrorist attack on the French satire magazine. It was a technically “secular” choice, if by secular we mean the exclusion of the divine—albeit in the shape of blasphemy—from public space.
It was undoubtedly a politically correct choice that took into account the sensitivity of part of the American public. Some intellectuals, including Salman Rushdie, questioned its cowardice; others instead hailed such carefulness as heritage of Abraham Lincoln’s political genius or the influence of British colonial know-how.
The Neutralization of Culture
There was also a more recent influence on outlets’ decision to not republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons: the debates about multiculturalism over in the last 30 years within universities and the liberal blogosphere, where concepts such as “safe space” and “trigger warning” had been theorized. It basically concluded that minorities must be sheltered from all that might offend or provoke them.
The problem is that the list of triggers is subjective and potentially infinite. So at the precise moment when their leaders decide to make the press or universities safe, their ability to transmit and elaborate knowledge is compromised. It is the PC dilemma, which through ellipses and euphemisms runs the risk of offering us a completely non-sensical reality. To what extent can we remain neutral?
A perfect safe space, in effect, is merely an empty set. According to these criteria, the cultural precept on which Western societies are founded is certainly not safe. As PC activists have long since denounced, the authors studied in universities were previously mostly white, male, heterosexual, and dead. Values and knowledge previously considered universal are rooted in a precise historical experience. According to Difference Feminists, even abstract disciplines such as logic may be an expression of phallocentrism, while according to anti-colonial activists human rights are an instrument of imperialist domination.
With theories like these minorities can perceive Western culture, even in its apparently neutral aspects, as the ideology of a specific faction. Thus the preference accorded to certain authors in the public debate—even if they are called Montaigne or Bodin—becomes a trigger, as it indicates an oppressive relationship.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor defended the need for an “identification policy” to avoid low self-esteem among minorities. To be truly politically correct, therefore, university programs should guarantee as much space to Montaigne as to Judith Butler, as much to Shakespeare and to the Antilles version of his works created by the poet Aimè Cèsaire. This vaste programme, however, presents first of all a resource-allocation problem: financial, temporal, and intellectual.
The first to criticise this system was Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago professor who in his book “The Closing of the American Mind” in 1987 highlighted an American academic culture corroded by relativism. According to Bloom, this so-called tolerance is a form of indifference to truth and falsity, to right and wrong. The identification policy side-effect was therefore some sort of “allotment” of cultural life: the urge to please everybody produced a system that failed in its primary mission, which was to pass on knowledge.
The Microwar of Everybody against Everybody
Obviously a racial, religious, or sexist-based insult might trigger a reaction. But what about a trivial “faux pas” like asking someone with Oriental somatic traits if he was born abroad? In guide-books distributed to students in American universities, this behavior is specifically condemned: it’s not a faux pas but a “micro-aggression.” The politically correct world owns plenty of potential victims asking for acknowledgement, compensation, and reparation. But are these really the foundations that can hold together a multicultural society?
According to philosopher Michael Walzer, who dedicated to military doctrine in 1977 a now-classic book, “Just and Unjust Wars,” “Aggression is the word used for a crime, and that crime is war”. If we believe in the meaning of those words, identifying a micro-aggression means to lay the foundations for a legitimate reaction in the contest of a micro-war.
It is not by chance that the most fervent defenders of PC in the United States are called “social justice warriors,” for behind their claims lies the idea of an already raging conflict, a permanent war named “unjustice.” But a war against unjustice is an endless war, and one anybody could declare on anybody, anytime. If the century of religious wars taught us something, it is that no peace is possible until justice is settled.
When in 1988 the Black Student Union managed to erase the list of compulsory first-year readings at Stanford University after judging them “racist” because they contained only white allegedly heterosexual male authors, among the cancelled books was Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” It’s a real pity, because inside that text perhaps for the first time was exposed the ratio of the system upon which our societies are based: the principle of the politician’s autonomy.
According to the Florentinian secretary, a prince must be in some way unscrupulous. In other words, he must be above morality to be super partes. The century of wars of religion also taught that if the king wants to guarantee peace he must contain all the attempts from different factions to moralize each other, protecting public space from interference from all directions.
“Men offend for fear or for hate,” Machiavelli wrote: there is no way to maintain social cohesion unless the spiral of resentment is broken. Here comes the paradox: public space should be neutral, but it is not the place where you confront each other and establish what should be neutral. Unless you decide to live in a state of permanent war.