Nov 10, 2016

To PC or Not to PC

Political correctness isn’t a good reason to support something—or to oppose it.

“Politically correct” statements and positions are a favorite target of many libertarians and libertarian groups. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), for example, posted an article about “disinvitations,” “i.e., efforts to prevent invited speakers from conveying their message on campus,” saying that such incidents have increased over the years. “This report,” writes FIRE, “demonstrates that disinvitation on campus is a two-fold problem: Students and faculty are demanding the exclusion of opinions with which they disagree, and campus administrators and invited speakers are increasingly willing to give in to these demands.”  This trend is disturbing not only from a libertarian point of view but for anyone who values free speech. Mind coddling is far from the purpose of education. College, or for that matter, life, is not about hearing only what you like or agree with.

Other recent examples of outrageous PC-ism include criticizing anyone who is anti-Zionist as “anti-semitic,” even when the person doing the criticizing is Jewish. There are in fact legitimate reasons to argue against Zionism. There are likewise good reasons to argue against helicopter parenting—it’s a bad idea from a developmental psychology point of view. Or the concept of “microaggressions,” which can be too easily employed as a tool for suppressing dissent.

But there is another side to this issue—anti-PC-ism that is just as dogmatic as many of the PC positions it purports to oppose. One recent example among libertarians are the attacks on Gary Johnson because he has skated close to positions that some libertarians consider too PC. It’s one thing to demand philosophical purity in the abstract but another to demand that politicians trying to be heard must exactly toe some imagined ideological line.  Nonviolent change comes about slowly, in increments. To think that it can happen all in one fell swoop, as the purist position implicitly assumes, is simply childish. Other “favorite” anti-PC views among some libertarians include poo-pooing racism and attacking feminism.

Ill-conceived anti-PC position among libertarians is hardly new; take, for example, Walter Block’s 1976 book Defending the Undefendable, which I reviewed it for Reason magazine shortly after it was published. In this book, Block goes out of his way to be obnoxious and provocative. He even attacked the idea that sexual harassment is a problem in the office, claiming that secretaries know they will be harassed if they accept the job so they should just shut up about it. No matter that sexual harassment is not only socially unacceptable behavior but arguably an invasion of rights. It’s like saying blacks should expect and accept racial slurs in the South. How can that be libertarian?  Yet many libertarians still talk like Block.

The real issue for libertarians—and nonlibertarians, for that matter—should be not political correctness but whether there is ample evidence and reason to support the position. This seems obvious to me, but then I taught critical thinking for many years and learned to examine my own biases. However, for many, critical thinking arguments go only one way—outward toward others. I have twice taught workshops on critical thinking for libertarians. Both times a number of them got mad at me for suggesting that libertarians need to examine their own thinking too. Libertarians are not immune to being led astray by their biases! Everyone, without exception, needs to examine their views and think about whether their positions are supported by facts or are just opinions. No one is exempt from making mistakes in reasoning. Not one person.

Others have noted that libertarians, too, need critical thinking. Libertarian philosopher Roderick Long has, for example, framed the point incredibly well:

There are two ways of letting political correctness control your mind. One is to reject viewpoints not because they are false but because they’re politically incorrect. The other is to embrace viewpoints, not because they’re true, but because they’re politically incorrect. We libertarians are seldom guilty of the first mistake. But we are often guilty of the second.  Those who commit the second mistake are as much slaves of political correctness as those who commit the first.

Hear, hear. 

Let me give you one example of a PC position that is supported by the bulk of social science evidence—acceptance of nonsexist or nongendered language. Some libertarians, as well as others, may grump about abandoning the so-called inclusive term “man,” or about giving up the word “he” as a supposedly gender-neutral pronoun. But several studies of children reading stories with the generic “he,” as opposed to stories with “they” or “he/she,” found that such children subsequently generate fewer stories about females. If “he” were truly generic, there shouldn’t be any difference. Instead, however unconsciously, they are being taught that men are the standard and women the deviation from the norm.

As another example, in one study of the use of the generic “man” in a sociology textbook, researchers found that the participants who thought the title of the chapter was “Urban Man,” compared with those who thought it was “Urban Life,” chose significantly more “male only” photographs to illustrate the chapter. The images chosen were more likely to be ones like “urban bachelor apartment” as opposed to a (more appropriately) wide variety of photos, including parks and ghettos.

Thus sexist language, however unconsciously, dismisses females through use of language that does not include women. It thus works to keep women in a secondary place, hardly an outcome that reasonable libertarians could desire.  So there’s actually no good reason to use sexist language and very little to commend it, except a petulant anti-PC-ism or an enthrallment with Ayn Rand’s devotion to the word “man.” I think it’s obvious what well-meaning libertarians should choose.

Those libertarians who poo-poo or complain about discussion of racism as a problem are on the wrong side of the evidence as well. When I taught forensic psychology, the textbook I assigned had a whole chapter full of studies about discrimination against blacks just in the justice system alone. Why should we not speak about it? According to libertarian theory, every individual deserves respect. This implies that every person should be judged as an individual not as a stereotype.  Anyone who thinks discussing racism or homophobia is simply “being PC” is living in a tiny bubble.

The same is true of feminism. Some anti-PC libertarians apparently think it is de rigeur to attack feminist as statists, as if feminism were one monolithic bloc, all in lock-step to one socialist beat. Why should that be remotely reasonable?  That’s just another stereotype that is on a par with those who think all libertarians are selfish monsters. You know that’s not true. Why then would you think in comparable stereotypes about feminists? Yet we get these kinds of people frequently on the Facebook page of the Association of Libertarian Feminists, an organization clearly not of the same strain as the feminists politically incorrect libertarians abhor.

What knee-jerk anti-PC-ism leads to is not dealing honestly with the issues, to say nothing of making libertarianism look silly. Many libertarians are eager to rant against anti-discrimination laws but often fail to point out that since the government is morally obligated to treat all its citizens equally, anti-discrimination rules for government positions or funding is entirely appropriate. How well those rules work is, of course, another issue. Dogmatic anti-PC-ism can also lead to failure to point out, for example, that laws against slavery and laws that brought suffrage to women are entirely within the libertarian purview. No one has a right to enslave another and if men have the vote, so should women.  Not every legal intervention is morally wrong and that needs to be said, rather than just ranting about how bad government is as a general rule.

The better way to deal with issues is to stop and think about what the pros and cons are. Why might a person of good will believe that other position?  What evidence is there on both sides of the issue? Or at least acknowledge that the other side has some good points. Sure, that takes more time but isn’t it better than making libertarians look like crass ideologues? I think so.

I think many libertarians could also profit from reading a critical thinking book or two. They will help you be, well, more critical, and less likely to automatically jump to PC or anti-PC conclusions.  Here’s a review of a number of critical thinking books; for my part, I recommend the textbook that I used, Critical Thinking by Moore and Parker.

The bottom line: Eagerly embracing either PC-ism or anti-PC-ism without question is a copout. It is not critical thinking in the least. It is intellectual laziness, and libertarians should eschew it.