What is Political Correctness?

Jonathan I. Katz

Professor of Physics

Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

[my last name]@wuphys.wustl.edu

What is political correctness, where did it come from, and why is it so influential at universities? It is the object of widespread ridicule, usually a very powerful weapon, so why doesn't it go away?

I used to think it was a simple matter of conformism, but there is a lot more to it than that. Political correctness is also sometimes regarded as synonymous with ``left-wing'' politics, but I think it is a tool rather than a specific set of political positions, and it appears in apolitical contexts also.

Consider, for example, the indignant letters that appear (as did recently in my local paper) when a newspaper publishes a picture of someone bicycling without a helmet. These letters criticize the newspaper for publishing the picture. We may be justified in criticizing hazardous or reckless behavior, but why should a newspaper suppress the fact that people act that way?

One day I felt politically correct thoughts myself, and understood them better. My local newspaper ran a series of articles on the dangers to living donors of organ donations, illustrated with stories of donors who had suffered serious damage to their health, or even death, as a consequence of donating. My emotional reaction was ``They shouldn't have run those articles.'' Why? The articles were apparently factual (though unbalanced---there was no discussion of the benefits to the recipients). Why should the public be denied the facts on a matter of wide interest? The reason for my reaction was that I was afraid the articles would reduce the willingness of people to be living organ donors, which would cause the deaths of people needing and waiting for a transplanted organ.

My reaction (that I reject rationally) was that the truth should be suppressed because it might cause harm. This is a totalitarian impulse, and it is the root of political correctness. A democracy depends on the widest possible dissemination of facts, and the freest possible discussion of them.

I was reminded of an event that happened around 1980, in the early days of political correctness. I was at UCLA, and there was a controversy about the safety of the campus research reactor. I went out on the roof above it, stood in the exhaust of its ventilating system, had someone photograph me there, and sent the photograph to the student newspaper, which published it. Someone came to me and said ``You shouldn't have done that.'' Why? To those opposed to the reactor, the truth that it was not discharging radioactive waste threatened their cause, so they wanted to suppress it. The harm they were afraid of wasn't the real harm done to a patient unable to get an organ transplant; it was harm to their political cause. The only acceptable position was that the reactor was dangerous and had to go, and anything that might suggest that this was incorrect was socially unacceptable, even if truthful.

On all issues there is a range of opinions people are willing to consider, outside of which opinions are rejected without consideration. Sometimes this rejection is justified on grounds of common sense, independent knowledge, or morality. For example, it is possible to defend many positions about the causes and consequences of the American Revolution, but pretending it never happened is outside the range of reasonable discourse.

Political correctness is the narrowing of the range of acceptable opinions to those held by a small group that enforces it. It is a attempt, often successful, to coerce the majority to accept the opinions of the enforcing group by suppressing any contrary opinion and making independent thought unacceptable. The enforcing group may be afraid of the the consequences of open discussion, or of making the facts known. It generally has a practical motivation: it wants something of value (money, jobs, special privileges) to which it has a weak claim. So it attempts to enforce its claim by ruling any disagreement from it outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. This is unnecessary when the claim is self-evidently strong, but may be the only means of getting the claim accepted when it is weak.

Political correctness also comes with an admixture of moral indignation. It removes the issue from the ordinary give-and-take of rational argument or the political process by injecting intense emotion. In my personal episode of politically correct thought, thinking of people dying for lack of an organ aroused strong feelings. Political correctness uses language with strong connotations, such as ``discrimination'' and ``racism'', or evokes ancient wrongs in order to associate any disagreement with support of past abuses. This emotional blackmail is effective in a self-consciously privileged environment, and what environment is more self-consciously privileged than an American university, populated with undergraduates who have been spoiled for eighteen years by overindulgent and affluent parents and with tenured professors, many of whom are still racked with guilt for having dodged the draft during the Vietnam war?

A current example is the movement to get the legal and tax privileges of marriage for homosexual couples. Its advocates express their case in terms of ``discrimination'', a powerful term because it evokes the past history of racial discrimination in America. Use of this term is an attempt, often successful, to make discussion of the genuine moral and policy issues ``politically incorrect'', that is, outside the range of acceptable discourse. Few people want to be accused of supporting ``discrimination'', even though there is a strong case to be made, on grounds of public health as well as morality, for public policy to discourage and discriminate against homosexual behavior. Not all ``discrimination'' is Jim Crow.

The classic example of political correctness was the reaction to the book ``The Bell Curve''. The theses (there were several) of this book, which was essentially the popularization of several decades of psychometric research, may be summarized: 1. Intelligence (more particularly the quantity called ``g'' or general intelligence by psychometricians) is a meaningful description of mental functioning. Measures of it in an individual are reproducible and stable across time. 2. Intelligence is a key to success in life. More intelligent people have, on average, higher incomes and better jobs, and are less likely to commit crimes, use recreational drugs or have illegitimate children than less intelligent people. 3. Intelligence is strongly heritable. This is difficult to quantify, but at least half the variation in intelligence is explained by heredity. The remaining variation is environmental, in poorly understood ways. 4. The mean intelligence is different in identifiable racial groups, and this explains the large variation in their success in American society. The most successful groups (East and South Asians) have the highest mean intelligence, Americans of European ancestry have somewhat lower mean scores, and Americans of West African ancestry have the lowest.

The fourth thesis was, naturally, the most controversial and aroused the strongest attacks. In fact, the first three probably would interest few other than professional psychometricians were it not for the general belief that the fourth follows from them. Of course, it is consistent with popular belief (held by most people, including most members of the groups asserted to have lower mean intelligence). And it isn't a new idea: for example, the English explorer Francis Younghusband said in his book ``The Heart of a Continent'' (1896) recounting his explorations of Central Asia (p. 396): ``In mere brain-power and intellectual capacity there seems no great difference between the civilized European and, say, the rough hill-tribesman of the Himalayas; and, in regard to the Chinaman, I should even say the advantage lay on his side.''

Given the uncertainties and limitations of social science (even of psychometrics, which lies between social science and biology) it would be futile to try to decide if ``The Bell Curve'' securely demonstrated its conclusions. More interesting is why it aroused such a strong reaction.

The facts regarding the mean success or failure in life of the various American racial groups are well-known and are a matter of everyday experience. One can hardly open a newspaper without reading about them. Curiously, the people who dwell on them the most are the friends of the less successful who want compensatory action, but by dwelling on them they only strengthen the conclusion that their failures must be deeply rooted and that efforts at compensation are futile. If they have not been remedied by a generation of compensation, then they are nearly immutable, and it hardly matters whether they are a matter of heredity or environment.

Everyone knows that identifiable racial and ethnic groups differ, on average, in many ways even aside from defining racial markers such as skin color. Scandinavians are heavier and taller than people of Mediterranean ancestry, the world's best sprinters come from West Africa and its best marathoners from East Africa, Pygmies are short and the Masai tall (because of geography and climate Africa has more human diversity than any other continent), etc. Why couldn't differences extend to psychometric measures? More important, why should that suggestion arouse such a strong attempt to push it beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse?

To some extent, it is a matter of group pride (a fashionable euphemism for racism; recall that pride is one of the seven deadly sins). But do people really take more pride in intelligence than in athletic ability (how many people pay to watch chess matches, in comparison to professional sports?)? I doubt it. And group averages tell nothing about individuals---the fact that intelligence is correlated with income doesn't make Bill Gates smarter than you or I (judging by the quality of his software, he surely isn't). The question isn't injured pride, it is the attempt to exclude a hypothesis with significant empirical evidence in its favor (and some against, despite the failure to identify ``cultural bias'' in intelligence tests) from the field of acceptable discourse.

The reason is that accepting, or even seriously considering, this hypothesis would injure some people's material interests. There are many people in America who make their livings from programs to address the supposed racial imbalance in American society, and more who are beneficiaries. The justification for these programs is always that if members of a certain group aren't, on average, doing well this must be the consequence of ``discrimination'' (which seems to be lost in the mists of ``disparate impact'' theology, because actual examples in modern America are few and hard to find) that must be remedied by some ``affirmative action'' program, and, yes, I'll manage such a program for you. And if you don't agree I'll organize a demonstration and call you a racist and there will be lots of bad publicity. You really don't want that, and we can negotiate the price. If the reason members of that group don't do well is that their aptitudes or preferences extend in different directions then the justification for ``affirmative action'' and some people's careers evaporates, so the possibility must not even be thought of.

Of course, if people weren't intimidated by threats of being called racist (or of demonstrations) they might decide that the supposed ``imbalance'' was of no more significance than the fact that right-handers are ``underrepresented'' among baseball pitchers---that's just the way the world happens to be, we may not understand why, but as long as we treat each individual fairly we needn't be concerned with it. That would put a lot of affirmative action coordinators and diversity administrators out of work.

I observed another example when I posted on my web site an essay Don't Become a Scientist! arguing that the job prospects for scientists are so poor that young people should look for careers elsewhere. One of my colleagues, a quite distinguished man whom I formerly respected, said he wanted to censor this. Why? Because if young people realized how poor the job prospects are in science he wouldn't be able to find graduate students to work in his laboratory. The later fate of these students in a flooded job market did not concern him. Political correctness is found even in matters that aren't overtly political, when someone wants to further his interests by suppressing facts or opinions.

Universities are the institutions most vulnerable to this extortion and its most enthusiastic participants (though large corporate and government bureaucracies do it too). One reason is that it is almost impossible to measure their success (no sales or production figures), so their leaders can indulge their prejudices freely. Another is that many universities are very authoritarian institutions (my own, Washington University in St. Louis, may be among the most so) in which neither students nor faculty have any voice or influence. Students are vulnerable because they have few legally enforceable rights. They can be given bad grades or subjected to discipline on subjective grounds (this also leads to sexual exploitation, something that still happens, despite the near-hysteria about ``sexual harassment'').

Students have come to expect indoctrination in their classes. They often fear that disagreement with their instructors will bring reprisals in the form of bad grades and that disagreement with administrators will lead to disciplinary action. In this climate university administration and teaching attract bullies who enforce political correctness. Universities themselves are terrified of bad publicity, because what they are selling is chiefly an image. This makes them vulnerable to the tactics of external enforcers of political correctness, whose chief weapon is the threat of bad publicity.

A few years ago I posted a web page In Defense of Homophobia. The title was deliberately provocative; the content was a temperate and reasoned discussion of how homosexual promiscuity had caused, and is morally culpable for, the AIDS epidemic in America. I fear homosexuality because it has created a deadly epidemic. For some years no one seemed to notice. Then one of my students did, and published an opinion column in Student Life calling for its censorship. (To my surprise, the administration has not attempted to do so.) This was followed by a wave of similar calls, including an editorial. After this first wave, my critics, most of whom probably consider themselves liberals, seem to have realized that censorship is not a liberal position. The next wave consisted of a mixture of name-calling, irrelevancies (one girl wrote how much she loved her wonderful homosexual ``Uncle John'') and attacks on positions I did not take (most commonly, the erroneous idea that only homosexuals get AIDS). Most disturbing was the concern, voiced by several students, that disagreeing with a professor would bring reprisals. Apparently this abuse of professorial authority is so common that students expect it.

No one took issue with what I actually wrote; it was as if I had triggered a nervous reflex rather than thought. While the published comments were mostly negative, private emails have been running about 2:1 in agreement with me, suggesting censorship by social pressure of public comments. One favorable email follows:

[Identifying information removed from following message:]

Your personal web page tells it like it is.

I am a [institution deleted] faculty, not tenured, who finds your ability to frankly state the obvious refreshing. Unfortunately I do not feel the academic freedom within this system of higher learning to voice non polically correct sentiments.

For now I'll toe the line, make the papers, work for the rank and tenure to be free to once state my real beliefs without fear of repression, censure, or job loss from from the Right.

[End of anonymized message; presumably he means Left rather than Right]

The negative comments, both private emails and letters and columns in Student Life (from late September through October, 2005) were frequently near-hysterical tirades, filled with name-calling and insults. These don't bother me, and I take the fact that I aroused their rage (and that none of them has attempted to meet my actual argument) as a compliment. But people who care more about the opinions of others might be intimidated; this is one of the ways in which the ``thought police'' enforce political correctness among those who do not accept the official line. No one responded to my challenge to a public debate; insults and name-calling are the response of those who know their positions are too weak to defend.

Political correctness can be found any time people are afraid of the consequences of an idea or a fact, and use social pressure to suppress discussion of it. The intensity of their reaction is usually an indication that they know or fear that the objectionable opinion is valid, but that they are invested (emotionally or literally) in its falsity.

Political correctness can be resisted by insisting on free, open and public discussion of even the most sensitive issues. The more it makes some people uncomfortable, the more important it is. A healthy society requires a free marketplace of ideas. You have a right to your own opinions, and to express them freely.

Jonathan Katz
Thu May 13 12:39:11 CDT 1999