The following talk was delivered at the 2010 H. L. Mencken Club.
The title of my talk is PC: The Cultural Antichrist.
It's an odd title, but political correctness is an odd tendency. It's a bit uncanny. It doesn't fit in with how we normally think about things. That's why we don't know what to make of it. People try to laugh it off, but it doesn't laugh off.
It seems too stupid to be real but it trumps everything all the same. If a thieving employee shoots and murders his co-workers the big question is whether any of them were racists. When an affirmative action army officer does the same, because he wants to do jihad, what top brass worry about is whether it will make diversity look bad.
A New Religion
Something that trumps normal considerations so completely must have transcendent importance. It's clear that PC relates to something big.
What it relates to, in fact, is a sort of new religion: the gospel of inclusiveness. It's a religion of salvation, and what PC stands for is the salvation of the world. It's going to destroy the demons of the past--hatred, bigotry, division--and open up a new age of freedom, equality, unity, world peace, and unbounded horizons.
It's heaven on the one side, hell on the other. With that in mind, it's not surprising people are willing to do and say strange things for the sake of political correctness. Nothing could possibly be more important than doing whatever it tells us to do.
The new gospel, we are told, is the same as the old, only better. It completes and corrects the previous version, and cuts out a lot of stuff that's not really to the point. I went to a wedding recently in a rather beautiful Episcopalian church in an old Pennsylvania town. Instead of the Stations of the Cross on the wall, they had the stations of the UN Millennium Development Goals--gender equality, fighting HIV, global partnership, and the rest.
The people at that church evidently believe what nice people believe today, so I think it's safe to assume that they've accepted pretty much the whole of the PC gospel. That's the sort of thing progressive Episcopalians do.
So What is PC?
I also think it's safe to assume, since they're nice people, that they don't know what they've bought into. On the most basic point, which is the promise of a better world, the gospel they've accepted is going to bring them the opposite of what they expect. The new world is not going to be utopia, it's going to be a mess of stupidity, brutality, and corruption.
Political correctness is the gospel of radical inclusion. It's treating all identities and ways of being as equal. As such, it follows quite naturally from the present-day liberal principle of equality, that everyone's as good as everyone else.
That principle is comprehensive, and it's invincibly strong. It's not just a claim that all human beings are equal on basic points, so they all have souls, or they all have the right not to be murdered, beaten, robbed, or swindled. It's a claim that everyone, or at least every kind of person, has equal, or at least equally valuable, capacities and ways of acting. Every way of living is as good as every other way of living, and if there are distinctions they can't be distinctions of value. We're all equally special, each in our own way.
If you don't agree you're a heretic. You've separated yourself not only from respectable society but probably the human race. It's people like you who are responsible for Auschwitz. That's why possible racism trumps actual murder. If you might be a racist, you can be murdered and maybe that's not such a bad thing.
The principle of comprehensive equality has to be as strong as it is because it's so evidently false. People and groups are obviously different in all sorts of ways, some of which matter a great deal. So to exist at all the principle has to be a super-principle that crushes all obstacles. Otherwise the normal competition of ideas would wipe it out.
That's why you're suspect if you moderate the principle in any way. If you believe that individuals differ with regard to characteristics like intelligence, even though groups don't, or if you believe that groups differ in some ways, but the differing qualities are equal in value, you're under suspicion. Anything short of simple-minded adhesion means you aren't going to be reliable.
To get back to the Antichrist, one way super principles show they're super is by displaying super powers. PC shows its power by transforming reality. It makes Islam a non-problem. It abolishes the differences between the sexes. It makes every 17-year-old in Los Angeles able to understand trigonometry and quadratic functions. If you doubt those miracles, you're a heretic.
The promoters of PC, then, are classic false prophets. They're miracle workers. They claim to speak for what amounts to divine justice. They don't take kindly to contradiction. Everything has to give way to them.
What makes them special even among false prophets, and brings on the Antichrist comparison, is how very bad PC is. It really does mean--almost literally--the end of the world.
The problem is that PC in principle and by intention destroys culture simply as such. On the face of it that may not be obvious, since PC claims to like culture so much that it insists on equal standing for all cultures. That principle is supposed to allow a thousand flowers to bloom. Instead, it kills them all.
Culture is a complex of habit, attitude, expectation, and belief that gives a people a common way of life. It provides a common understanding of what the world is like, what people are like, how we should act, and what we should expect from each other.
Those understandings enable us to live socially. Since man is social, they enable us to be human. Feral children--children raised apart from human society, maybe by wild animals or maybe on account of abuse--have apparently existed, but they haven't been at all like Mowgli in the Jungle Book. They've been radically defective as human beings because they have lacked culture.
The problem with PC is that culture isn't something we do by ourselves. It involves habits, attitudes, expectations, and beliefs that we are entitled to rely on when we deal with other people. PC tells us we can't rely on any of those things because some people--Somalian refugees or whatever--don't share them, and their view of things has to have equal status in every setting.
So PC says culture can't exist. Since culture creates the social world that we inhabit as human beings, PC means in principle the end of the world. In its perfection, it would turn us all into feral children. It's as destructive as anything could be.
In fact, of course, PC doesn't really destroy all culture, since society couldn't function without some sort of common habits, understandings, and expectations. It just disrupts and makes a hash of things, and gives us is a crude makeshift culture pieced together mostly from advertising, political propaganda, and half-baked therapeutic concepts. That's bad enough, and the results are likely to be the end of anything civilized and humane, if not of humanity as such.
PC is nonetheless salable, but why? More than that, why do people insist on it? If people have odd beliefs that they stick to no matter what, it probably shows there's something wrong with how they're making sense if things. In other words, it probably shows a basic philosophical problem.
Basic issues matter. People have to believe that the world at bottom makes sense, and that it's ordered in a way that doesn't thwart human life. In other words, they have to have something that amounts to a religion.
That's almost a logical requirement. To understand their own actions people have to understand how they fit together to advance something worth advancing. Otherwise action seems pointless, at least in the long run. We can't look at our own lives that way. To get literary, we can't--and don't--live in the world described by Samuel Beckett. We have to believe that what we do is part of a comprehensible structure of how things are.
That makes radical secularism a problem. If you try to get rid of religion, you aren't going to get rid of religion. Instead, you'll get some scheme of attitude and belief that functions like a religion but pretends to be something else and will probably go off in strange directions because nobody's allowed to think about what it really is. In short, you'll get something rather like the Antichrist.
Officially, at least, the modern West has given up on the idea of an intrinsic moral structure of things. That's part of what's understood as the scientific outlook. The world is just atoms and the void, and it has no purpose other than whatever purpose we give it.
That view may be useful for some kinds of analysis, but it creates problems when applied directly to human life. One is that purposes differ, so saying the purpose of the world is the purpose we give it tells us nothing. Another is that it seems odd for a purpose we invent to be a rationally compelling reason for doing something. Rightness is the guide and justification of decision. How can it be created by decision? How can something become the right thing to do just because somebody decides to do it?
There are two basic solutions to those problems within modernity, the fascist one and the liberal one. The fascist solution is to say that purposes are objectively binding and therefore provide a standard of what's right if you get beaten up when you don't go along with them. On that view the purposes that count are the purposes of whoever's in a position to do the beating--that is, whoever is the top guy on the top team. So the basic principles of government are "we're number one" and "the will of the leader is the highest law."
That's a nice clear system, and it's got some logic behind it, but it doesn't work very well. It was tried and it lost. For that reason, the liberal solution won out.
That solution is a bit more complicated. It starts by noting that all our purposes are equally purposes, and infers that everybody's purposes equally confer value. Each of us is equally able to make things good or bad just by thinking of them as good or bad. That makes each of us in a sense divine. Our will creates moral reality. Instead of the wonder-working leader of fascism you get the divine me of liberalism. It's every man his own Jesus.
It's important to notice that the view is not that nothing is really good or bad so we might as well do what we feel like doing. That view would make our actions at bottom irrational. We do what we feel like doing, and that's all there is to it. People can't live that way, though, because man is a rational animal. We have to believe that what we are doing genuinely makes sense. So the view has to be that our choices make things truly and objectively good, thereby changing something real in the world.
It's a subtle distinction, but it's important because it explains the moral world our contemporaries live in. The basis of political correctness is the divinity of every human being. I'm a god and you're a god and every disabled Zulu lesbian is a god, so it's blasphemous to speak slightingly of any of us. The gods are inscrutable, so to rank them and subordinate them one to another is presumptuous. True piety--which is the same as recognition of true moral reality--requires us to treat each person equally as an ultimate principle.
That view is the view that people today find morally compelling. They need inspiration, and it inspires them. Besides, it's flattering. You have to put up with what other people want, but your purposes get divine status too. And anyway, you get called names and driven out of polite society if you don't go along. In Europe they'll even put you in jail. So why not get with the PC program?
The religion of the divine me does create some problems. A big one is that it makes the problem of conflicting goals worse. If the great leader is deified, it's easy to know what to do. You do what he says. But what do you do when we're all gods and we disagree?
Liberalism solves that problem by defining conflict out of existence. The way it does that is by distinguishing legitimate and illegitimate goals. Legitimate goals are goals that accept everyone's equal divinity. I want other people to stand in awe of me and what I want, so I have to stand in awe of them and what they want. What could be more obvious?
The result is that the divinity within each of us gets domesticated. Its goals get cut down to size and made manageable so conflicts can be avoided. In practice, that means we're only allowed to have three sorts of goal:
- Private satisfactions that are consistent with other private satisfactions--shopping, sports, hobbies, video games, and other indulgences. You can do whatever you want as long as it's consensual and it doesn't affect other people very much.
- Careerism. Careerism keeps the system working, because it makes people do their jobs, and it gives them something to do so they don't cause trouble. It also gives energetic and talented people a motive to keep their heads down and always say the right thing. It's very effective that way.
- Support for the managerial liberal state. So it's OK to obey the law, pay your taxes, agitate for PC, and vote for the EU. It's not OK to attend TEA parties, let alone Mencken Club conferences.
The only legitimate thoughts and actions are those that accept that principle. That's one reason for the PC insistence on rejecting ties and distinctions like sex and heritage that are neither necessary for a commercial and bureaucratic regime nor reducible to tastes and satisfactions understood as purely private.
If you don't go along with all that, and you insist on adopting illegitimate goals, then you can't be made part of the system. Since the system of equal freedom is the only legitimate system of human life, that means you're an enemy of humanity. You've pretty much quit the human race. In fact, you're no longer a god but a demon. That's why if you get murdered it's no big deal. So says the PC Antichrist.
Naturally, PC creates other issues, but time is short and I can't go into all of them, and I've probably said enough for you to decide whether you're interested. If you are, I go into more of them in my book The Tyranny of Liberalism.