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The Political Dangers of Rising Political Correctness

When I was inducted into the academic honor society at the Phillips Exeter Academy, we heard from an outside speaker, an academy graduate and a professor who happened to be an African American. Among various inflammatory remarks, he said he was surprised to hear an Irish name on the list. I shrugged off his comments, and my father, only a generation removed from the old country, still treasures this anecdote more than any other from my education.

At Phillips Exeter today, there is less tolerance for certain kinds of provocations—or even pre-provocations—than others. Last month an academy graduate and former Congressman was prevented from teaching a guest seminar because he was alleged to be an Islamophobe based on his connection with a Washington think tank. although his proposed seminar had nothing to do with Islam. (I would link to discussion of the matters in the student newspaper, but references appear to have been deleted recently—itself perhaps a sign of censorship and cover-up). On the other hand, one of Exeter’s own teachers penned an essay attacking “white privilege.” Thus, I guess it is not entirely clear how the comment at my ceremony would be treated today.

That’s one of the problems with political correctness: its high double standards informed by Left identity politics. And PC seems to be becoming a much greater problem at our high schools. A recent article reported on outrage that a white student at Boston Latin, an elite public high school, may have said that being black would ease the way to college admission. But this kind of comment is rooted in facts. African American students are admitted to elite colleges with substantially lower grades and test scores. Perhaps such racial preferences are a sound policy, but it appears that the Boston public schools are determined to suppress casual references to it.

The descent of political correctness into our high schools—particularly elite ones—suggests more political trouble ahead. The strength of Sanders and Trump—our two most illiberal candidates for President—comes in some substantial measure from the distortions of our education system. Sanders is the new candidate of the faculty lounges (a lot of my colleagues support him), and his ideas appeal to young people who have not heard the powerful critiques of socialism given the composition of academia today. Trump, on the other hand, cloaks his illiberalism in a shout out against political correctness.

It is not surprising that such candidates arise in an illiberal intellectual culture. Classical liberalism was born from its opposite: the liberal intellectual culture born of the Enlightenment, where many spoke harshly about norms that were considered sacred in their own era. Voltaire may not have been an Islamophobe, but he was certainly a Christophobe. Free thought promotes freedom generally. Our politics are only likely to become healthier when our elite educational institutions promote an even-handed tolerance of provocation and debate.

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on February 03, 2016 at 10:05:18 am

It is not surprising that such candidates arise in an illiberal intellectual culture. Classical liberalism was born from its opposite– the liberal intellectual culture born of the Enlightenment, where many spoke harshly about norms that were considered sacred in their own era. Voltaire may not have been an Islamophobe, but he was certainly a Christophobe. Free thought promotes freedom generally. Our politics are only likely to become healthier when our elite educational institutions promote an even-handed tolerance of provocation and debate.

Ah yes, the golden age of intellectual pursuits, where free thought flourished because there were no impediments to sharing ideas!

Yes, Voltaire had some remarkable ideas. But tell me, what did women think of those ideas? It shouldn't be too hard to find out -- just check the copious publications of the women of that day. Oh, and while you're at it, how about the views of blacks and Asians? And of the poor, and the uneducated?

Alternatively, we could acknowledge that our contemporary era, burdened as it is with political correctness, provides a VASTLY RICHER ENVIRONMENT for sharing ideas of all perspectives than the 1700s could ever pretend to provide. The only reason McGinnis subjects political correctness to greater scrutiny than the prejudices of prior eras is because it impinges upon the prerogatives of people in McGinnis's social class, whereas the prejudices of the 1700s merely burdened the speech of people who didn't matter.

But we've had this conversation before. Can't we think of some empirical way to compare the burdens of each era's prejudices on speech and association?

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nobody.really
on February 03, 2016 at 10:12:09 am

Two things:

1) You should visit a grade school someday - you may see that PC has also taken over grade schools.

2) Yes, Voltaire was a Christianophobe and as part of his exposition against Christianity he, along with other notables of the time, advanced a certain brand of Islamophilism, in which the Mohammedans were said to be the great victims of Christian persecution (Crusades, of course), and he also helped advance the myth of the "glories" of Islamic civilization whilst Europe suffered through the "Dark Ages" which incidentally was a fiction of these same Enlightenment sages. All this, of course, to combat the supposed evils of "Popery."
Sounds like a certain form of received PC wisdom is not so new after all.

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gabe
on February 03, 2016 at 10:26:14 am

My goodness, nobody!

It is said that the problem with Generals is that they are constantly fighting the last war.
I think it is fair to say that the problem with Progressives is that they are fighting the social evils of the last century.

Yes, things were bad BACK THEN. No, I do not see McGinnis applauding the silliness of those days, nor do i detect even a hint of disdain on McGinnis's part for the increased "open access" for some of the folks you mention.

The world has been saved - stop trying to "re-save" it!

Or as Oakeshott said when speaking of the *activities* a civil society needed to attend to:

"There are some people, of course, who allow themselves to speak;

"As if arrangements were intended
For nothing else but to be mended"

but for most of us, our determination to improve our conduct does not prevent us from recognizing that the greater part of what we have is not a burden to be carried or an incubus to be thrown off, but an inheritance to be enjoyed. And a certain degree of shabbiness is joined with every real convenience."

It appears that even when the "shabbiness" of olden times has been thrown off, some of us desire to do nothing else but mend things.

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gabe
on February 03, 2016 at 11:33:08 am

Kevin Drum:

[E]veryone agrees that racism was endemic in the 50s, and everyone agrees that it's improved since then. But among whites, a majority believe that racism against blacks has improved so much—and reverse racism against whites has intensified so much—that today there's literally more bias against whites than against blacks.

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nobody.really
on February 03, 2016 at 11:36:02 am

...the supposed evils of “Popery”....

Supposed evils? If you have allergies, potpourri can be deadly! Just sayin'....

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nobody.really
on February 03, 2016 at 12:02:39 pm

1) From your statement, it would appear that you are saying that "whites are not part of everyone" - that is what follows from your phrasing. Clearly, you don't mean that.
2) i contest Mr. Drums assertion that "whites believe there is more bias against whites than against blacks."
Survey error, perhaps? Poor choice of phrasing for the questions? or is it the more predictable result of the "employment" of the term "everyone knows"? - you know as when someone says "everyone I know believes X, Y and Z."

What I suspect is that respondent (if this was in fact a survey) and not simply another (predictable) outgrowth of the "everyone knows" school of social polling is that many, but perhaps not *most* whites may simply have grown tired of being constantly reminded of the sins of their fathers - and quite simply wish that people would just leave them alone and stop the "denigration by association."

In other words, stop the constant "a-mending." It is neither necessary nor conducive to effective communication.

Just sayin!!!

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gabe
on February 05, 2016 at 10:52:19 am

McGinnis argues that political correctness impinges upon liberal norms of discourse.

E. Milco argues that we shouldn’t be surprised. Why should we expect liberal norms to prevail at a school in the absence of an explicit framework of values imposed by the school itself, or by society?

In Ruminations on the Role of Liberalism in the Collapse of American Undergraduate Education, E. Milco offers two archetypical schools for examination: Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) and Amherst College. TAC has an explicit worldview. It welcomes debate, put only on its own terms. Amherst has a “marketplace of ideas” attitude. Clearly someone exercises a modicum of censorship -- at least in determining which professors get hired to teach which classes, and which do not – but the ideology advanced by this power is not made explicit.

In the absence of an explicit mechanism for promoting norms of almost any kind, why should we not expect students (and others) to fall into a Hobbesian war of all against all? Yet to promote any norm necessarily requires rejecting contrary norms. In short, imposing liberal norms (or any other norms) is, at heart, an illiberal exercise.

http://paraphasic.blogspot.com/2016/02/ruminations-on-role-of-liberalism-in.html

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nobody.really

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