April 20, 2004


Political Correctness: Or, the perils of benevolence (Roger Kimball, Winter 2003/04, National Interest)

[T]he roots of political correctness go back a long way. To some extent, I suppose, political correctness can be seen as part of the perennial human attraction to moral conformity, to be part of what the American art critic Harold Rosenberg memorably called the "herd of independent minds."

Political correctness can also be enlisted in what Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, called "democratic despotism." In pre-democratic societies, Tocqueville noted, despotism tyrannized. In modern democracies, it infantilizes. Democratic despotism is both "more extensive and more mild" than its precursors: it "degrades men without tormenting them." In this sense, Tocqueville continued, "the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world."

Tocqueville's analysis, although written in the 1830s, seems remarkably contemporary. Let me quote a few sentences. The force of democratic despotism, Tocqueville wrote, would

be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood. . . . [I]t every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. . . . [T]he supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided. . . . Such a power does not destroy, . . . but it enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Thus Tocqueville, who might have been writing about the latest initiative from the European Union.

Yet the impulse to conformity and democratic despotism are only part of the story. We come closer to the heart of political correctness--to the reality if not the phrase--with figures like Robespierre and St. Just. They and their comrades sought to bring post-Revolutionary France into line with what they called "virtue", the heady feeling that one was in the vanguard of enlightenment, an angel of truth, a beacon of uncommon wisdom.

It was--it is--a daring as well as an intoxicating vocation. In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had warned that "Those who dare to undertake the institution of a people must feel themselves capable . . . of changing human nature, . . . of altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it." Robespierre & Co. thought themselves just the chaps for the job. The fact that they measured the extent of their success by the frequency that the guillotines around Paris operated highlights the connection between the imperatives of political correctness and tyranny--between what Robespierre candidly described as "virtue and its emanation, terror."

Nearer our own time, Chairman Mao, with his sundry campaigns to "re-educate" and raise the consciousness of a recalcitrant populace, offers a classic example of political correctness in action. Add to those efforts the linguistic innovations that George Orwell described in the Afterword to 1984 as "Newspeak" and you have limned the basic features of political correctness. The purpose of Newspeak, Orwell wrote, was to make "a heretical thought . . . literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words."

The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as "this dog is free from lice" or "This field is free from weeds." It could not be used in its old sense of "politically free" or "intellectually free", since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.

Just so, the politically correct of our own day seek to bring about a moral revolution by changing the way we speak and write about the world: a change of heart instigated and embodied by a change of language. Examples are legion. We are told to scrap the phrase "learning disabilities" and replace it with "learning differences." The announced hope is that little Johnny, who is a bit backward, poor thing, will not feel stigmatized; the secret hope is that by refusing to speak the truth, we can change the truth. The bbc tells its employees that they must use the word "partner" when referring to their wife or husband, since using "wife" and "husband" might seem to imply that the married state was somehow preferable to other possible modes of sexual cohabitation. Major newspapers in the United States refuse to accept advertisements for houses to let that mention that their property has "good views" (unfair to the blind), is "walking distance" to the train (unfair to the lame), is on a "quiet street" (unfair to the deaf). I know it sounds mad. It is mad. Nevertheless, it is true.

Kipling, de Tocqueville, Orwell, Bagehot and Stove in one essay? Be still our beating hearts.

Want to see political incorrectness? Try this one.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 20, 2004 1:22 PM

It used to be a capital offense against political correctness to doubt the power of witches. Plus ca change . . .

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 20, 2004 6:43 PM


No, the crime was to practice witchcraft. Should still be a capital offense.

Posted by: oj at April 20, 2004 7:17 PM

Well, no one can fault Stove for being faint of heart. IIRC, IQs of men and women have the same mean, but men have greater variance - more morons and geniuses, while women occupy a greater fraction of the fat portion of the curve. Stove was commenting upon achievement, not IQ, so there are hazards in advancing this argument, but it should be kept in mind.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at April 20, 2004 8:11 PM

Yes, I've read that notorious Stove article on women.

Much as I enjoyed it as a really good un-pc rant, I had to admit that Jenny Teichmann's reponse (PDF">http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/sloth/Teichman-contra-Stove.pdf">(PDF here) rather beats the old devil to a pulp.

Posted by: Brit at April 21, 2004 8:49 AM

Except that the critic is wrong. Achievement remains a male province, with women's opportunities largely an artificial construct of men.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 8:59 AM


You know that. And I know that. But who's going to tell the missus?

Posted by: Brit at April 21, 2004 1:14 PM

David Stove.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 1:29 PM

OJ, you mean for the really important stuff, right? Like throwing objects and killing things? Then I agree with you.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 21, 2004 1:35 PM


No, Nobel prizes, moral and political leadership, etc..

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 1:44 PM

And would you be prepared to tell that to Maggie Thatcher?

Posted by: Brit at April 21, 2004 1:55 PM

She led post-modern Britain, not a real country.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 2:03 PM

Wrong on the facts again, Orrin. If you're going to preach about witchcraft, you should at least find out what the deal was.

The Holy Office position, formally adopted from an argument put forward by the theologian Del Rio, was that questioning the existence of witchcraft was itself an irredeemable heresy (vehement suspicion, the concept I mentioned yesterday) and therefore the punishment was death. No trial and no exceptions.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 21, 2004 2:39 PM

And who was so punished?

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 2:51 PM


Ten bucks says at least one of Harry's relatives.

Posted by: Peter B at April 21, 2004 5:47 PM

No, the lady down the street was going to be but his grandfatherfaced down a crowd of millions--the only decent man in TN....

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 6:23 PM


Thanks for the PDF link. She gave Stove a right walloping. Although he did present something of a fat, slow, target.

To the list of other examples, I might add the notably unaccomplished Dr. C. Rice.

And Golda Meir. I could go on.

But more importantly, one would think that being fully committed to the American idea would entail judging people as individuals, not as faceless masses.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 21, 2004 9:31 PM


Quota hires.

Posted by: oj at April 21, 2004 11:17 PM