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This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Politically incorrect

America doesn't have a problem with political correctness.  America's tribes have a problem with political correctness.

You can say anything you want in America.  You can't say anything that you want and still remain respectable in the eyes of various cultural groupings.

In America you can say that institutionalized racism and police brutality are so ingrained in our law enforcement services that it's impossible for the community to maintain confidence in the police.  If you say that in my academic circles you'll be regarded as speaking a common-sense truth that too many people deny.  If you say that in front of some of my non-academic Facebook friends they'll see you as Part Of The Problem.

In America you can dispute the claim that 1 in 4 female college students will be raped, and suggest that it's an exaggeration proffered to score political points.  You can't say that and retain credibility in certain academic circles.  You can say that and gain credibility in certain conservative circles.

In America you can say that abortion kills children.  You can say that and retain credibility in many religious communities.  You can't say that and remain respectable in a lot of liberal circles.

In America you can say that signing up for military service is morally questionable when America's wars for the past generation (or longer) have been so morally questionable and so remote from the stated purpose of defending freedom.  You can't say that and be electable, or be respectable in the eyes of a lot of my Facebook friends.  You can say that and be credible in certain left-wing circles (not to be confused with centrist liberalism).

In America you can say that America's gun obsession is irrational and primitive.  You can say that and be credible in many cultural and political contexts.  You cannot say that and be seen as credible in many other situations.

Finally, in America you can say that there is no God and religion is a lie.  You can say that and be credible in many cultural groupings.  You cannot say that and be elected to statewide office, let alone US Congress or the Presidency.  And depending on which (if any) Abrahamic faith you do or don't single out, you might get people to change their reaction from sympathetic to wary or vice versa.

Now, I happen to agree (at least to some extent) with some of the things that I wrote above.  I dissent from some of them.  Others I view as dramatic over-simplifications to the point where agreement and disagreement are equally meaningless. There's no need for me to demarcate for the reader which ones I agree or disagree with. But all of these are examples of protected speech that simultaneously get a lot of heads nodding while getting other people to reach for the torches and pitchforks.  Switch some of the statements and some people will switch sides.  Consequently, whether or not political correctness is a problem, whether or not orthodoxy is enforced, and whether or not a topic is radioactive, is a highly contextual matter.  Complaints about political correctness are almost as dubious as dismissals of those complaints.

I was thinking of this in the context of the Timothy Burke essay that I blogged a couple months ago.  If claims to truth are strengthened by being on the margin, then academics have a two-fold reason to contest complaints about political correctness and deny that it exist.  There's the obvious one: We academics have a genuine interest in ideas and debate, so we certainly don't want to admit it to ourselves if there are times when we stifle the exchange of ideas.  People can simultaneously hold a value in their hearts but also fall short of the ideal embodied in that value, but who wants to admit it?

Then there's the less obvious one:  If the marginality of the speaker is relevant to the truth value of their statements then enforcement of orthodoxy is self-defeating, and if somebody were to prove to us that we are enforcing an orthodoxy they would have taken a step to refuting the truth value of our claims.  We thus have to push back and deny that this is what we're doing, because otherwise we lose intellectual credibility both on our own terms (we've just loss our claim to the high ground of the margins!) and the terms of more rational people.

People are strange.

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