June 22, 2021

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Why political correctness fails

6 min read

News that Jews are being attacked, both verbally and physically, on the streets of American cities and around the world has sent me back to painful memories of my own childhood. They are memories of bigotry, bullying, and abuse — along with earnest efforts to combat the problem ever since.

Things have changed. But not as much as one might have hoped.

I’m Gen X, born in 1969. While growing up in southern Connecticut in the early 1980s, everyone I knew had a copy of a thin paperback book published by a division of Random House called Truly Tasteless Jokes. We’d keep it in our lockers or carry it around in our back pockets and whip it out on the fifth-grade playground during recess. The book, which sold millions of copies at the time, was divided into chapters: Jewish, WASP, Black, Hispanic, Polish, homosexual, handicapped, etc. It was a feast of stereotypes and prejudice. If you belonged to the group being mocked by one series of jokes read out loud by a peer, it was uncomfortable. But you knew that the reader would move on soon enough to another group, directing the animus elsewhere.

Fast forward a few years to high school — 9th or 10th grade. A boy from the American South who’d moved to our town a few years earlier brought a level of anti-Semitism with him that I’d never encountered. I was Jewish, but I didn’t talk about it much. I didn’t observe the sabbath, attend a synagogue or Hebrew school, or wear a yarmulke. Yet I was known as a Jew — one of a relatively small number in my high school. Which is probably why this kid decided at some point to make an example of me by yelling “Hebe!” in my face when he’d pass me in the hall. Soon a group of other kids in an overlapping circle of acquaintances took up calling me a kike.

This was nearly four decades ago. There was no official anti-bullying program at school, no school counselor on duty. The headmaster didn’t proclaim the school district was “No Place for Hate,” as the leadership of the public schools in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood now does. It was simply understood that there were bullies out there in the world, and that it was terrible to be the target of abuse, but that this was life, and it would pass. There was nothing much to be done about it in any kind of systematic way. Boys would be boys and bigots would be bigots.

Was that an acceptable response? Probably not. I understand why well-meaning people reacted to searing experiences like mine by encouraging a new form of moral education in schools — an education that began in the late 1980s, got labeled “political correctness” by conservative critics during the early 1990s, slowly made its way through the culture over the intervening decades, and finally exploded into the “woke” revolution that began to roil workplaces during the mid-2010s and became much more pervasive after George Floyd’s murder a year ago.

The effects of this moral education can be seen all around us. It is impossible to imagine Truly Tasteless Jokes coming out from a major publishing house today, let alone it becoming a runaway bestseller that children read aloud in public. A student who hurled racist or anti-Semitic slurs at a peer would promptly be expelled from public school today, at least across wide swaths of the country. Instead of singling out members of various ethnic, racial, and religious groups for verbal and sometimes physical abuse, it’s the would-be abusers who are called out and criticized, their behavior (and the thoughts and assumptions behind the behavior) treated as shameful.

The ultimate goal of these changes has been the creation and perpetuation of a better world — one of greater equality and mutual respect, with less bigotry and cruelty.

Is this what we’ve gotten? Are we really that much closer to the goal of universal equality and respect than we were when I was in high school? In some respects, yes. It’s good that my own kids don’t carry around joke books ridiculing classmates and their families. I’m happy that (as far as I know) no one in their schools is yelling slurs in the faces of peers — and that if it happened, the student flinging the epithet would be punished.

But in other respects, we seem to be moving in the opposite direction, with movements explicitly opposed to political correctness on the rise at home and in countries around the world, and anti-Semitic attacks spreading like contagion. In response, those behind the project of moral reformation insist that efforts need to be redoubled — and that the backsliding must be blamed on a reluctance to shame the perpetrators even more aggressively. We simply need to do a better job of calling people bigots, of drawing lines and excommunicating larger numbers from the public square.

The solution to the failure of political correctness is more political correctness.

I submit this only makes sense if one assumes that the opposition we’re seeing is a function of certain people failing to get the point. Like an exterminator who falls short of eradicating an infestation and is called to return with a bigger dose of poison, or a teacher working to reach a classroom full of students struggling with learning disabilities, those leading workplace consciousness-raising sessions are doubling down on a message of moral condemnation. The presumption is that moral education is unidirectional: Teach them and they will be transformed. Discover that they haven’t learned their lessons and the solution is to teach them more of the same until they finally get it.

But there are, of course, other possibilities.

What if there are limits to how much guilt and blame people are willing to accept, especially when the transgression follows not from a specific act for which one might plausibly repent and be forgiven but from a “structure” of systemic oppression with which one is supposedly complicit simply by virtue of an inherited characteristic like skin color or gender? What if the insistence on pushing this approach is bound to trigger a defensive and resentful response that can manifest itself as anger directed at the very groups the reformers wish to help and defend?

Or what if human beings are tribal creatures who tend to divide people into groups, associating with and valorizing some, dissociating with and demonizing others? In that case, what we call bigotry might be much harder to drive out by moral education than we tend to assume, since new experiences and provocations can always reawaken it.

Think of Palestinians and those passionately committed to their cause associating Jews who have no direct connection to Israel with the actions of its government in Gaza and occupied areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank. When they act out with verbal and physical violence against Jews, it is recognized as anti-Semitic bigotry. But it’s the underlying, unjustified association — the lumping together of an American Jew walking down the street in Los Angeles with the Israeli government — that is the bigotry’s source. And yet woke activists regularly insist that white people everywhere are inherently guilty of moral transgressions against people of color simply by virtue of being white. How does that act of association differ from the one underlying pro-Palestinian violence against Jews around the world?

Or think of the way political correctness often simply changes which groups get valorized and which demonized. Back in my youth, mild-to-moderate levels of demonization among a wide range of groups was quite common, fueling the popularity of the Truly Tasteless Jokes book, which then encouraged the perpetuation of that demonization.

Today, that book would be considered beyond the pale. Yet demonization hasn’t been eliminated, even among the fully “woke.” Rather, it’s been redirected to others, with attacks aimed at individuals and groups presumed to be the perpetrators of moral crimes, including storied figures from the American past, white men, white women.

The point isn’t at all to defend the bigotries of old or to denounce all of today’s attempts to bring about a better world. But it is to indicate that there may be limits to efforts at moral shaming — because human beings incline toward bigotry and the rendering of prejudicial judgments. Accepting this reality doesn’t mean we stop doing what we can to temper that tendency, and to mix it with as much reason and decency as we can. It just means we should do so fully aware of how intractable the task really is — and how prone it will be to generating the very backlash it seeks to avoid.  

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