It looks like we’ll be captive to Donald Trump’s endless stream of crude bluster at least until November now, and with the resurgent campus social justice warriors for probably longer than that. These phenomena have thrust political correctness back into public discussion to a degree not seen since the ’90s-era culture wars. That’s a good thing, because political correctness needs to be studied—and challenged.
It’s important to first nail down what political correctness actually means. No, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, refusing to waterboard prisoners or worse is not “political correctness.” Neither, in my opinion, is supporting accommodation for transgendered people in bathrooms and locker rooms. One might agree or disagree with waterboarding or allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom of their choice, but “political correctness” is not and should not be code for “anything conservatives disagree with.” Neither should denouncing political correctness be license for taking a sledgehammer to decency and decorum.
PC has a particular, specific connotation: it denotes the “language police” impulse that imposes a somewhat arbitrary and shifting orthodoxy on the general public, compliance with which signals progressive and right thinking. Of course, that definition is as old as PC itself. That’s because it’s a valid and useful one. But I propose a new spin on it: political correctness, so understood, is a social tax on communication.
How PC Taxes Communication
A social tax on communication? Well, taxes generally discourage the thing that is taxed; political correctness discourages, by raising up barriers against, speech and human interaction. Taxes impose a “deadweight loss,” econ-speak for the value of transactions the tax has rendered impossible; the “deadweight loss” of political correctness is the unselfconscious communication that fear or uncertainty about potential consequences renders impossible.
Lastly, the worst thing a tax can do is be regressive—and the “political correctness tax” is regressive too. Its impact falls hardest on minorities and those who do not attend the elite colleges and read the elite publications that would teach them to navigate whatever orthodoxies and language conventions happen to be in vogue.
This is far from a repackaging of Trump’s critique of PC, which is mainly that it prevents us from being as crude, offensive, and transgressive as we might like to be without norms of decency. In reality, political correctness properly understood silences speech that is entirely inoffensive, or offensive only to a radical fringe. In fact, even liberal Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum sort-of endorsed this “social tax” understanding of PC. It’s worth quoting Drum at some length:
I don’t generally have a hard time avoiding objectionable language myself because (a) I’m liberal, (b) I’m good with words, and (c) I write rather than talk, which gives me time to get my act together…the reason I don’t mind it [the ‘PC police’] is that I can navigate it reasonably well and I mostly agree with the aims of the PC police anyway. People who have trouble with navigation obviously feel a lot more constrained….
Much of this I’ve learned from reading stuff by academics, who are the masters of acceptable language. As an example: If you were to call something ‘black behavior,’ you’d probably get mauled. The solution? Call it ‘behavior stereotypically coded as black.’ This accomplishes so many things at once. However, it’s also phraseology that no ordinary person would ever think of. This means they literally have no acceptable way of expressing the original thought, which makes them feel silenced.
Although Drum won’t quite say it, this drives home the point that PC hits the poor and less-educated the hardest. In fact, according to Drum’s own explanation, PC functions something like the infamous British accent system: it confers privilege on those who are wealthy enough or lucky enough to be, or become, fluent in it.
Let’s Try This Out for Size
But is it true? Does PC really function as a regressive social tax on communication? Let me give some examples, from my own experience and from the news.
A friend of mine from college, of partly Taiwanese descent, told me once that whenever friends asked her if she wanted to order Chinese food, she couldn’t help but wonder if the question was a subtle reference to her race. I can understand that. But knowing this made it just a little bit harder to talk to her, because I now wondered whether I might—completely unintentionally, of course—make a remark that made her uncomfortable.
I did not resent her sensitivity; I resented a system of thinking that made it impossible for us to interact as independent, unselfconscious human beings rather than as avatars of group identities, a system in which words can never be assumed to mean what they plainly do mean. Perhaps if that were not in the back of my mind, our friendship would have been richer.
I also knew in college an international student from Ghana who had long, beautiful hair, and at least once a week she would wear a different hairstyle. Unaware then of the explosive socio-political ramifications of discussing black women’s hair, I remarked to her once that every time I saw her she had a different hairdo. She laughed and said, “Yes, I love to play with my hair!” It was a simple, human moment we shared that would not have happened if I had been afraid of making the remark, as I would have been had I known the history of that issue.
You might notice that these examples involve me, a white male, interacting with nonwhite women. My complaints aren’t very…PC. Thankfully, courtesy of Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, it’s clear PC can hurt minorities even more.
Friedersdorf reports the following incident: in the midst of campus protests at the University of California-Davis against the university’s chancellor, a few students decided to follow the chancellor around campus while filming her and making snide remarks. One of the activists says, in response to an impromptu conversation between the chancellor and a black male student, that she is “grabbing a person of color as a shield—that’s a tactic that the chancellor likes to use.” You see, because PC ideology dictates that power differentials between groups inform the content of speech, a black student and a white administrator cannot be seen as having had a simple, equal, human conversation.
Never mind the elite flavor of the comment, which is not unlike Kelly Osbourne’s “Who is going to be cleaning your toilet?” burn directed at Trump, supposedly made in defense of illegal immigrants. The incident shows that PC doesn’t just complicate the calculus of white people in interacting with non-whites. It goes the other way too, and if anything the treatment of minorities who don’t sufficiently toe the line is even more humiliating.
The alt-right is fond of calling non-racist conservatives “cucks,” a slur meant to denote something like “gleeful race traitor.” The PC police, with a similarly disdainful attitude, are more than happy to imply that a black student who deviates from the prescribed PC orthodoxy is less than fully human and autonomous. That’s far worse than the “tax” on white people. Frankly, I’d rather be called a racist than a pawn in an ideological battle I cannot be expected to fully understand.
Political Correctness Divides Us
It takes an enormous amount of mental effort to navigate an uncertain and arbitrary set of pieties, and it raises the costs of engaging in frank, forthright, human conversation. Ironically, this is especially the case with people who are different than oneself. Rather than promote mutual respect, PC reinforces identarianism by preventing people from seeing each other as individuals rather than as members of an identity group. It subverts real, unselfconscious human solidarity, the only foundation on which we will ever build true social equality. It hits and hurts hardest those who are least-equipped to learn its lingo.
I would love to see a society in which people of all backgrounds, races, religions, sexual orientations, you name it can get along with each other as fellow human beings, no more, no less. I would love to see it cost less to engage people who are different. That’s why I want to repeal the political correctness tax.