• My adversary today is what I’ll refer to as PC-shame culture.

    If you are an advocate of political correctness, fear not, I come not for your hopes for a kinder society. Admittedly, I am a critic of political correctness because I believe it stunts conversations, disallows nuance, and causes “ism”-fearing people to agree to policies they would otherwise argue against. Nevertheless, I believe that many advocates of political correctness make their case not because they want to hinder dialogue, but because they hope to promote a voluntary, respectful standard in that conversation. And that’s certainly a value that I support, even if I don’t think PC culture gets it right every time.

    My argument today, then, is not with political correctness, or at least the goal of kinder conversation, but with its leading enforcement mechanism, that of PC-shame culture, which demonizes those who don’t follow its edicts. This shame culture is especially powerful because our usual watchdogs in academia and the mainstream media—clearly afraid to be shamed, themselves—rarely investigate PC shaming attempts with the depth they would a less dangerous topic.

    I believe that shame culture instigators can be produced by any ideology (including my own favourite values). However, given that identity-based political correctness is currently the point of view with the most ability to shame (since almost no one wants to be seen as a bigot), it is PC shame culture that I am focussing on.

    I see seven leading ways in which PC shame culture is dangerous to our society’s health.

    1. CONTEXT ELIMINATION

    Those in the forefront of PC-shaming are not big fans of context. Recently, Evergreen State biology professor Bret Weinstein criticized supposed anti-racism activists for the 2017 version of their “Day of Absence.” Dr. Weinstein says he had always supported their annual protest, in which students and teachers of colour continued a 1970s-initiated tradition of taking a day away from the campus to highlight issues of race. However, in this particular case, he argued that the updated Day of Action policy was racist because it called for white students, in particular, to absent themselves from campus to make room for the activism.

    Weinstein has been charged with racism by the activists, who gathered outside the professor’s in-progress classroom on the day of action, and called for him to resign for his “racist” comments. Yet, if one allows oneself a few moments to check for context, and reads Weinstein’s offending letter, there is nary an iota of racism, just a criticism of one of the methods utilized by the group claiming to represent anti-racism.

    As I’ve argued before, criticizing a person or group, who purport to be the official champions of anti-bigotry, is not the same as supporting bigotry, itself. But, for PC shame culture, the context and details within criticism is irrelevant. You are either with us, or you’re a bigot.

    2. POISONING THE EXISTENCE

    Once again, I ask you to consider the case of Nobel Prize recipient, Dr. Tim Hunt, who, during a speech in which he was promoting women in science, made a joke about women in science.

    A feminist in the room twittered the joke to her followers, and the shame culture brigade soon had him fired from all of his scientific positions. Far from intervening on rude and/or even bigoted language by criticizing it, PC shame culture dismisses the offending speaker’s entire existence as broken. Even if Dr. Hunt’s joke was intended to sincerely belittle women scientists, it is dangerously disproportionate that one flawed remark overruled Dr. Hunt’s career contribution to cancer research.

    3. HIGH ACHIEVERS MAY SOMETIMES HAVE QUIRKS

    Unfortunately, the best and the brightest are not always the most socially adept. Consider Dr. Matt Taylor who led a team of scientists to land a spacecraft on a comet. During the press conference, he wore a shirt decorated with skimpily dressed cartoon women.

    The shame culture response to this shirt, led by TheVerge.com’s, “I don’t care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing,” resulted in Dr. Taylor having a second press conference in which he tearfully apologized for “[making] a big mistake.”

    Again, whether or not one thinks Taylor’s shirt was sexist and/or inappropriate, PC Shame Culture’s dichotomy is scary: you either perfectly align with PC values in everything you say and wear, or you are unfit for participation in public life.

    4. PRIVACY IS ONLY FOR THE MORALLY VIRTUOUS

    PC-shamers do not limit themselves to that which is said in public. Recall NBA owner Donald Sterling, who was recorded by his girlfriend stating a racist opinion during a private conversation. He was subsequently removed by the NBA as an owner after his former paramour published the results.

    I don’t doubt that Silver is a morally questionable guy, and if there’s good evidence his racist heart has shown itself in his NBA dealings, then by all means the NBA should have kicked him out. However, as it was, Silver was dismissed for his private contemplations.

    If that doesn’t make you check on George Orwell’s grave to see if he’s rolled over, think of the most politically incorrect thing you ever said in private to someone close to you, and imagine that utterance was recorded and played in your future job interviews.

    5. ALL YOU HAVE TO BE IS PERFECT FROM BIRTH

    (A) In the last Canadian federal election, two political candidates were dropped for comments they had made online in their young adulthood. I don’t object to scrutinizing people for words they freely expressed in public even if they were naïve at the time. But there seems to be no room for personal development in this politically corrected society.

    Instead of, “Hey, I see you said this controversial thing before you were politically active. Do you still support it? If so, why? If not, what changed your mind?”, we go with, “Hey, I see you previously said this controversial thing. You’re off the team.”

    (B) Along with disallowing young adults to make stupid mistakes (in a social media world where one’s mistakes are increasingly public), such a policy also limits good faith public introspection. That, is if one questions or criticizes values they’ll later adopt, their career is over before they get a chance to have their epiphany. This means that all members of the public discourse must arrive on the public scene with all of their views in perfect condition. That’s going to cost us otherwise valuable contributors, particularly those with the ability to think outside the soap box.

    6. THE END OF NUANCE

    Notice that, as the PC Shame Squad becomes more powerful, their restrictions are growing more general. It’s not just directly bigoted comments that cause one to be exiled, it’s also any statements that do not conform to politically correct conclusions.

    Recall General Lawson, who had the “wrong” opinion regarding the genesis of sexual harassment in the military because he suggested such faulty characters were formed by nature and not nurture. This was found to be “unacceptable,” not because Lawson was making a nihilistic claim that sexual harassment wasn’t bad, but because he wasn’t falling in line with feminist theory that nurture (by which they mean our allegedly patriarchal society) is always to blame. Even if Lawson was himself oversimplifying his argument, there was no evidence that he was using his perspective as a basis for not taking sexual harassment seriously.

    So, instead of provoking a useful discussion calling upon experts to weigh in on the balance of nature vs nurture, no further contemplation was necessary: Lawson was a transgressor and nothing less than his unconditional apology would suffice.

    7. SELF CENSORSHIP

    The more we don’t allow people to ponder out of bounds, and consider the intricacies of settled moral questions, the more we risk ignoring legitimate trouble spots in our best intentions.

    For instance, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used a quota system to select his cabinet in 2015 (consequently elevating 1 out of 3 female MPs compared to 1 out of 9 male MPs), the only question I heard the media ask him was the soft-as-pudding query, Why did he think a gender balanced cabinet was important? His home run response was, “Because it’s 2015.”

    Even if one believes in quotas, surely we can acknowledge that discriminating against/in favour of people on the basis of race, sex, and other immutable traits is serious business deserving of some critical questions from our vital protectors in the media. A simple, “What evidence do you have that women et al are discriminated against in Canadian politics today?” would have been a decent start.

    I am sure there are good people who support quotas. However, if we are to hold onto our claim of being an enlightened society, we must allow the discussion of such weighty issues to take place without demonizing those with the opposing, politically incorrect opinions as unfit to take part in the conversation.

    HIS BITE IS NOT AS BAD AS HIS BARKLEY

    When I was a youngling, superstar basketballer Charles Barkley was quoted as saying, “That’s why I hate white people.” I recall that I wanted to exile “Sir Charles” as a racist, partly because I thought he should be treated to the same condemnation as a racist white public figure would have been. Yet, after receiving a few “Tsk, Tsk”s from the media, Barkley was left alone. And so, irritated by the double standard, I often noted in my conversations that he ought to be demonized.

    However, when Barkley retired and became a broadcaster, I noticed that—in spite of my shaming bias—he was a rather likable fellow, and never again showed any evidence of racism. So I’ve come to appreciate Charles Barkley, and am glad he wasn’t cut from the conversation per my hopes at the time of his indiscretion. I suspect now that there was context to Barkley’s racist remark that would make it less despicable. But, even if there wasn’t, I’m glad that his entire existence was not measured by that one utterance.

    THE HIGHER ACHIEVING YOU ARE, THE HARDER YOU FALL

    Humans, including the best and the brightest, are fallible. So, when public figures say things that we find objectionable, I suggest that—instead of destroying them—we simply criticize their words and arguments, and allow them to live to reconsider their ideas (or even provoke us to reconsider ours).

    If kindness is at the heart of political correctness, then I appreciate it for that worthy motivation. But PC shame culture—like McCarthyism before it—requires us to sacrifice all that enlightens our society to enforce it. And that’s a shame.

    Posted by SethBlog @ 3:09 PM

  • 8 Responses

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    • Tom Says:

      Right on, Sir! I couldn’t agree more. What can I say? So many of the so-called racist or sexist remarks attributed to the condemned are simply nonsensical, ill-considered, off-hand comments that are best taken with a sense of humour and a generous acceptance of human differences. I think your comparison with McCarthyism is quite correct. Once you start looking for “communists” or “racists’ or “sexists”, you’ll find them everywhere. Thanks for an important and well-written article.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, Tom! Yeah, it’s unfortunate how quickly people are willing to destroy others to make themselves look more enlightened.

    • Tarrin Says:

      Great essay, I’m with you on everything except perhaps #3.

      Why are you giving high achievers a pass when it comes to being criticized for ill-conceived comments / wardrobe? Should we not also attempt to enlighten them when they are being insulting and insensitive?

      And in this case, the dude ended up apologizing for his transgression. I’m not sure that this wasn’t inappropriate. Maybe I’ve missed something here.

      Your comments about remarks made in private are right on point though. I suspect very few of us would withstand a full audit of all our lifetime remarks. Unfortunately it’s difficult to un-hear a particularly vivid ugly remark by someone in the entertainment industry. I doubt I would subsequently enjoy their entertainment product after that, whereas in the case of a racist cancer researcher, I think I would happily hold my nose.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, Tarrin.

      Regarding the high-achievers, my point is not that we shouldn’t necessarily criticize wardrobe choices if they are work inappropriate (although, I don’t think Taylor’s shirt was meant to be insulting to women). My argument is that the criticism in this case seems to be out-of-proportion with the crime of wearing a shirt that is off putting in the workplace or at a news conference. And I worry that our shame culture is going to cost society high-achievers that would benefit us all.

      Hee, hee, yeah I think most of us would match your willingness to accept the work of a racist cancer researcher.

    • Janice Fiamengo Says:

      Great and comprehensive essay, Seth. About the Matt Taylor shirt, it is far from evident that the shirt *was* inappropriate (it was made for him by a feminist friend, apparently–and might just as well be considered pro-feminist as anti-feminist); there was no reasonable discussion of what harm it could possibly cause or whether it had harmed anyone; and the fact that the man broke down in tears during his ‘apology’ strongly suggested to me that this wasn’t a moment of ‘Oh, I made a mistake. Thanks for enlightening me!’ It was a forced confession upon pain of social ostracism. You don’t make people good by forcing them to be ‘good’ with threats of job loss, reputation loss, or social shunning. You make people scared and resentful that way. Virtue is a choice or it is nothing.

      Personally, I must confess that I have become far *less* tolerant than I was previously as a result of PC social shaming. Where I was once inclined to accept that I, as a relatively privileged white person, should be extra-sensitive to the marginalized in our society–the sexual minorities, the non-whites, the differently abled–I am now sick and tired of the many issues on which I am not even allowed to opine without a torrent of self-righteous accusation being unleashed immediately. Perhaps only I am this way, but I doubt it. I would have to say that I have become *more* suspicious, resentful, and frustrated, and far less empathetic, curious, and open-minded, than I was before the PC machine assumed its present-day proportions. I don’t think Canada has become a more tolerant place in the past 20 years–the exact opposite.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Janice!

      That’s an interesting interpretation of Dr. Taylor’s tear-based apology. Perhaps you’re right that he was more fearful than ashamed. And I’m somewhat ambivalent on whether the shirt was inappropriate or not; it seems an odd choice for the workplace, and yet I too doubt the shirt was harmful to anyone. Regardless of where we land on any of these points, I wish we could dial the PC rage down from 11 to something that would allow contemplation without condemnation for wrong consideration.

      I too find my tolerance for PC-puritans to be waning. Yet, perhaps naively, I still think that compassionate and measured arguments are the best way for anti-PC-shamers to make it back into the debate.

    • Erik Says:

      Should low achievers be allowed to have the occasional PC faux-pas too? I would say no. We as a culture need to stop dressing like we are heading to the gym or hanging out at Comic-con. I don’t trust “Intellectuals” who don’t even know how to dress properly.

      Why did DR. Taylor wear such a hideous shirt? Regardless of what was printed on it, how could anyone listen to a word the man had to say, while wearing such an ugly shirt. The man needs to put on a tie, shave his beard and cover up his tattoos. The PC police were right to jump on him, maybe next time he’ll care about his appearance before stepping in front of a camera.

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Erik.

      Thanks Erik.

      Good point re my apparent excluding of low achievers from shame protections. I vote to avoid PC shaming of the rest of us, too. However, I think it’s the high-achievers who are more likely to be in the PC gotcha catchment area.

      I don’t object to criticizing people for their clothing-based statements, but I believe the PC shaming has stretched far beyond proportion. The notion that we disregard someone’s ideas because of a faux-pas and/or an aesthetically-displeasing fashion choice worries me.

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