Thursday, August 23, 2007

Political Correctness Gone Mad

As a member of Amnesty International, I clench my stomach in annoyance whenever someone writes off this organisation (or any similar organisation) as "politically correct." There is some truth in this kind of dismissal, but there is so much error that it is not at all misleading to ignore the truth completely and concentrate on the mistake. And the mistake here is not just a factual mistake (thought it is often that). These dismissals have their root in a broader and more dangerous mistake, one that we should cut out of our thought before it does too much damage.

Writing off AI etc. as "politically correct" is a double insult. It suggests that the cause is inauthentic, that it serves no worthy end. But it also suggests that the members of the organisation are motivated by desires that are unadmirable, even blameworthy. "Politically correct" brings to mind groups of well-meaning but mean-minded beaurocrats, all getting smugly together in the spirit of middle-class righteousness. The conclusion is that these are not the sort of organisations you should connect with, or even what you would want to associate with.

Now it just so happens that AI and many other organisations like it do contain many people who do worthwhile work for the best possible motives. Even if this were not the case, however, the source of the "politically correct" mistake would be worth talking about. In general, the mistake is to have an emaciated conceptual and explanatory life, and hence to apply the most fashionable phrases in the most unsuitable contexts.

In this particular case, the mistake is to call AI etc."politically correct" not because one knows it to be so, but because one knows it to bear an accidental resemblance to pursuits that are "politically correct" (insofar as the phrase has a clear meaning). The mistake is also to attribute "politically correct" motives to AI members not because they evidently possess such motives, but because people who possessed such motives would act similarly.

Occasionally these fashionable phrases will result in true statements. But this hardly gets around the problem: for those statements are likely to have such indeterminate meanings that they cause more confusion than otherwise; and the speaker is likely to use them without thinking, which is not a good habit to get into. At any rate, the consequence of applying "politically correct" falsely are enough to urge caution in all cases. The consequence is the denigration of causes that society would be well-advised to support, and which have little enough support as it is (what with complacency, ignorance, etc.) without adding intellectual carelessness to the list of deterrents.

Sometimes the problem seems not only that phrases like "PC" are applied vaguely and unthinkingly. It is also that "political correctness" is regarded with such loathing that there is (somehow) no need to do anything more that apply the label to a person or practice. Simply calling a thing "politically correct", without actually showing that it fits this description, is enough to discredit the thing. (I seem to remember that mere accusations of "witchcraft" were enough to blot forever the reputation of a member of certain past societies, regardless of any evidence for or against the accusation. Accusations of "political correctness" seem to have a similar power to them, and a similar absurdity).

Moreover, the vagueness of the term tends to disarm any objections to its use. How does a person respond to a statement that carries a strong tone of disgust but no clear meaning? One response is to differentiate the various meanings of the term, and ask the speaker to say which one they meant to use. Perhaps a more effective response would be to ask the speaker what they really mean to say - and if they can't say it, then there's nothing more to say.

How do these problems arise, and how can we avoid them? They arise partly because certain phrases become popular (which is understandable enough), to the extent that other phrases, which would otherwise offer more accurate shades of meaning, are no longer used (which is dumb). But the other part of the confusion is the vagueness of these phrases: with frequent use they grow meaning like new limbs, until they are as clumsy and hard-to-handle as a baby with five arms.

Hence, one sense of "politically correct" is just "pursuant of healthy social causes." But another is "foolishly self-righteous about minor social causes." And because these senses are not spelt out and differentiated, a cause that answers to the first description is automatically hit with the second. Moreover, the senses are so strangely mixed in the speaker's mind that the association goes unquestioned: it's as if a group who pursues healthy social causes must do so, necessarily, in a foolishly self-righteous manner.

I'm not sure if there is any more precise antidote to this sort of confusion than general intellectual carefulness. Faced with a mis-used word or phrase or explanatory pattern, a community does have a number of options. They could do away with the item altogether, and start anew. Or they could retain the item, but take care when using it to clarify its meaning when misunderstanding is likely.

Either of these routes would send us in the right direction, I think. The former would have the advantage of forcing people to find new ways of expressing the old ideas, and this practice would hopefully lead to a more fine-grained language. But it would mean doing away with terms that may actually be useful when used in the right way. The latter would keep what was valuable in the old items; but it would risk a slippage back into the former, undesirable, usage.

Perhaps there is a middle way, where the offending term is retained, but pared back to a single clear meaning (with members of the community encouraged to fill in the gaps with new, more nuanced terms). But the main problem here is not deciding which route to take, but ensuring that it is taken. It is notoriously difficult to control popular thought and popular language usage: one can legislate, but one cannot very easily enforce (and in many cases there will be ethical objections to the latter). Perhaps the best that any individual can do is to avoid these fashionable errors in their own work, and point them out when they appear in the work of others. Hopefully, writing about them explicitly will help out as well.