Why has political correctness proved so enduring? This is the subject of cover pieces in The Spectator by Brendan O’Neill and Damian Thompson, which follow an article by American liberal columnist Jonathan Chait on the subject.
We tend to think of political correctness as something from the late 1980s and early 1990s but in the internet age it has become more powerful than ever. Chait’s point is that - as Gerry Adams might put it - it hasn’t gone away you know.
This is puzzling because much of the ideology is quite extreme, hysterical or absurd (microaggressions?) and extreme movements tend to burn themselves out or become ridiculed out of existence. The reason for PC’s survival and expansion is curious.
PC is a puzzling term because it describes both a set of views and a mindset for dealing with bad-thinkers. Political correctness is the military wing of progressive politics; sometimes it’s a source of embarrassment to the Left and sometimes its adherents go too far, but in the broader scheme of things they’re all fighting for the same cause. Those with opposing views should be 'shown the door' (that is, removed from their jobs, like Brendan Eich).
One way to understand the success of political correctness might be to view it in terms of inclusive fitness: if holding politically-correct views gives an individual an advantage, then more people will come to hold that opinion; even if the benefit is very small, then like a variation of a gene that gives a small advantage, it will spread.
Expressing mildly PC views is most certainly an advantage in academia and the broadcast/broadsheet media on both sides of the Atlantic; having even extreme PC views would not be a disadvantage, while opposing the ideology certainly would be. No one is likely to have to resign for arguing a PC point, in the way that Jason Richwine or James Watson did for making arguments that upset politically-correct dogma.
Because PC is high-status, and associated with what the blogger Moldbug called ‘the Cathedral’ (that is, the academia-media-government complex and its progressive consensus), it also attracts sceptics or at least silences opposition.
In Big Gods, his evolutionary study of religion, Ara Norenzayan explained how religions of the elite were often taken up by the masses: ‘People also care deeply about what the prestigious or successful individuals in their local societies believe, and often selectively adopt beliefs or behaviours from these potent cultural models,' so that religions ‘get a big boost in the cultural marketplace if they are already endorsed by… the high-status opinion-makers in a group.’
That is why the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ has a low-status, tabloid air that attracts scorn – it’s just so C2DE, so Ukip. And it’s why, as
Christopher Caldwell once wrote, PC succeeded by being able to ‘advance under cover of its own ridiculousness’. It’s a faith, and it does not matter how daft the belief systems of a faith appear to a rational mind; if its critics sound backwards and out of touch and rural – literally ‘pagan’ – it will succeed.
Norenzayan also made the point that the most successful religions tend to be those that have the right mix of everyday wisdom and moral authority but also implausible tenets of beliefs that work as a test of faith and membership. At its heart, political correctness is a quasi-religious movement with its origins in the Protestant sects that founded America and its universities. It’s the very implausibility of PC ideas that make them so attractive to true believers.
Central to all these implausible beliefs is one theme that runs through it like Blackpool rock – the blank slate view of humanity. All PC themes rest on the belief that human beings are infinitely malleable creature and that, with enough money and effort, social justices can be ended and equality achieved. This is clearly untrue, and lots of impeccably liberal people in academia, politics and journalism secretly know it to be untrue; it’s just that, whereas once you had to at least pretend to be an Anglican to go to Oxford or Cambridge, conformity comes in different guises today.