In your lifetime, how many times has everyone agreed about the significance of a major cultural phenomenon?
The symptoms of P.C. are well known: hyper-sensitivity to
perceived slights, vicious verbal attacks upon ideological enemies and deviants
within the ranks, and the use of authoritarian methods to enforce conformity
and silence dissenters.
So let my contribution
be an indication of how philosophy has
laid the groundwork for this phenomenon and how only philosophy can get us out
of the mess.
The worst manifestations are in universities and their cultural
spill-over zones. Campuses are the training ground. Within many university
courses, the reading lists are narrow, the other sides of debates are excluded,
and orthodoxy of opinion is enforced. Speakers with other perspectives are
dis-invited via protests, and those who do get invited are shouted down or even
assaulted. Consider the planned protests against Jordan Peterson in Australia
this February, 2019. When the student-trainees graduate, they become activists
and/or contributors to intellectual and activist causes and media.
Students, administrators, and professors all contribute to the
problem — and the professors are the most dangerous.
Young students are often wonderfully passionate but
impressionable. They can be steered in bizarre directions, whereupon their own
intelligence takes them with ruthless consistency into absurdities. They are
old enough to know that P.C. is a problem, but they are young, and I’m inclined
to cut people slack for stupidities they commit in their teens and early
fully adult professionals, and I blame them moderately. Yes, most
administrators are backbone-challenged. And they are led by university
presidents who are hired to keep the money flowing in and provide
administrative efficiency. Advocating an educational mission is part of a president’s job but in practice
that’s typically further down the list of priorities. And since government
sources provide a huge amount of the higher-education monies, directly and
indirectly, rare is the university administration that will not sacrifice
educational quality if it conflicts with a government mandate. The case
of Northwestern University’s professor Laura Kipnis and
her Title IX ordeal, as presented in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is a clear example. (And here at The Washington Post.)
A deeper problem is the philosophy that has led us to allow huge
government involvement in education in the first place. “He who pays the piper
calls the tune” — those who are suspicious of corporate-funding of education
have for a long time been blithely unconcerned about government-funding of
education and have urged its increase as a matter of political principle.
But even political philosophy is only a part of the
problem. Moral philosophy and philosophy of language have enabled more damage.
This brings us to the professors who have developed the theoretical apparatus
of P.C. over the last two generations.
The two leading
concepts in the P.C. lexicon now are triggers and microaggressions. University education is mostly a
conversation among writers and readers, speakers and listeners. The “Trigger”
analysis is first about the listener, while the “Microaggression” analysis is
first about the speaker.
Trigger theory says
that some people are highly vulnerable. They have suffered a major trauma in
the past, and their ability now to function normally depends on nothing
re-triggering the traumatic experience. But instead of expecting the
post-trauma victims to control their responses to the world and/or seek
therapy, Triggerism says that their vulnerability imposes an obligation on the
rest of us to avoid triggering them. But in an education context Don’t use the trigger words often conflicts
with Discuss complicated and controversial issues. And the
conclusion is that we should sacrifice the discussion to avoid the triggers.
All of that works with
the claim that we live in a society that is so racist and sexist that virtually
all minorities and women have suffered enormously. The university itself is a
microcosm of that sick society and itself manifests the same institutionalized
racism and sexism — but it should strive to become a safe zone where healing
can take place. The conclusion again is that the more rugged spirits who can handle the hard topics and the
rough-and-tumble of challenge and debate should stifle their expression to
accommodate the fragile sensibilities of the damaged.
And all of that is to say that the trigger generation is a
product of high theory — a set of claims worked out by academics that:
- The Trigger psychological theory is true.
Institutionalized-Racism-and-Sexism sociological theory
Sacrifice-the-Stronger-to-the-Weaker moral theory is
So how do we respond
to Trigger theory? Those unsympathetic argue that the anti-Trigger movement
will precipitate a generation of delicate “snowflakes” who melt in the least heat and a gutted
education in which no serious issues are engaged.
That unsympathetic response is true. But avoiding those
consequences also means understanding the source, and part of the power of
Trigger theory is that it can come from psychologically genuine phenomena.
We can imagine how it feels to show up at a big university as a
first-year student and feel out of one’s depth intellectually and emotionally.
One finds oneself surrounded by intimidatingly smart and assertive characters
and forced to take on challenges one feels unprepared for. One feels scared.
One feels like a failure. Profound feelings of weakness and failure can
generate pathological responses — seeking special accommodations or even
lashing out at others and trying to shift the fault to them. (Re-reading
Dostoevsky and Nietzsche is instructive here.)
Another part of the Trigger strategy, though, is more calculated
and involves turning others’ natural benevolence against them.
By analogy, think of
the very poor. Some individuals who find themselves in poverty feel it to be a
matter of shame, and as a matter of pride they hide their
poverty while trying to work their way out of it. Others turn to asking or
begging for support and will gently request help.
They hope that most people’s normal empathy and helpfulness — toward the
elderly, pregnant women, those with handicaps, and so on — will come to their
There are those,
however, who will go further and demand assistance
as a matter of obligation. Perhaps you have encountered beggars on the street
who will say as you are passing by, Oh sure, pretend you didn’t see
me or Go enjoy your extra cappuccino or
something like that. The strategy is to make you feel guilty and uncomfortable in the face of possible
confrontation — and so more likely to give.
Other types of beggars
will use their weaknesses as a positive asset.
Ordinarily we hide our sores, infirmities, and deformities, again as a matter
of personal pride and to avoid making others uncomfortable. But for some,
making others uncomfortable is part of a calculated strategy — a tactic to put
them off balance and so more malleable.
The point is not that poverty and injuries are not real and
serious issues to grapple with. The point is that the same tactics are at work
in the Trigger strategy — the explicit use of weakness, trauma, victimhood in
order to put one’s perceived enemies off balance and to manipulate them.
It’s the difference between (1) I have a weakness, but I will
hide it and/or fix it, and (2) I have a weakness, and I will cultivate it and
use it against you.
theory is thus a front in the “Social Justice” wars, one version of which believes deeply that
society is a brutal battleground of strong-versus-weak conflict. In that battle
we are supposed to empathize with the weak and condemn the strong. And we are
to feel that in that battle any tactic against the strong is legitimate,
because it is for a moral cause — that of the downtrodden.
A generation ago,
Jonathan Rauch captured the dynamic in his now-classic Kindly Inquisitors. The benevolence of kindness in response to
weakness was, he worried, being transformed into a strategy of inquisition.
Presciently true, Mr. Rauch.
Now consider Trigger theory’s partner in arms, Microaggression.
Microaggression theory could be seen as a sign of
progress. The luxury of obsessing over tiny hints of racism or sexism implies
that the problem of macroaggressions has
If your physical environment — to draw a parallel — is dirty and
unhealthy, then you focus on the big messes first. Only when those are cleaned
up will you consider bringing out the microscope to look for dirt in tiny nooks
Trigger theory wants
us to put first the needs of hyper-sensitive individuals who could be damaged
further by hearing certain words or
phrases. Microaggression theory goes on the offensive against the speaking of certain words or phrases, on the
ground that they betray unconscious racism, sexism, or some other unsavory -ism.
Of course there is an ideological agenda at work, and it is
enabled by some heavy-duty theory.
The context is the apparent great progress that we have made
against social prejudices. Sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism were stains upon
human existence everywhere until the Enlightenment of the 1700s. Since then we
have made huge progress towards liberty, equality, and tolerance.
Good data show that in
many parts of the world we have made great strides. And especially in higher education, where I
spend my days, virtually everyone is sensitive to race, class, and gender
issues (sometimes excruciatingly so), and they are careful to avoid any
possibility of being perceived as making a slight or giving offense or giving
an unfair grade.
For most of us anti-racists and anti-sexists, the progress is
excellent news and a matter of pride.
But for a minority of intellectuals and activists, the progress
seems fraudulent and a threat to their very being. If one’s identity and one’s
career are dependent on fighting racism and sexism, the absence of racism and
sexism is a serious problem.
Microaggression theorists therefore feel fortunate to
have learned from Marx and Freud. When the lot of workers improved dramatically
under capitalism, contrary to Karl Marx’s prediction, many Marxists did not see
this as a defeat. They told themselves that the capitalist exploitation must still be there and went hunting for hidden structural exploitations. When patients
told their therapists that they had no deep traumas from childhood, many
Freudian therapists dismissed that as a false-consciousness defense-mechanism
and went searching for repressed neuroses.
is a variant: one of its core claims is that racism and sexism have not gone
away or even declined but have gone underground and become embedded in our institutional structures. Hence, Institutional Racism and Institutional Sexism.
theories are thus a kind of doubling-down on a bad bet. In the face of
unexpected progress made by their intellectual adversaries and a lack of
evidence of the kind of prevalent racism and sexism their theory requires, they
turn to quasi-conspiracy analyses. The cultural progress must be merely apparent — and the job of the critically-trained
theorist must now be to detect and expose the culture’s hidden racist and sexist machinations.
All of this includes
our linguistic structures. Microaggressions are words
and phrases that are codes for
racism and sexism, even if the speakers are unaware that they are speaking in
code. Ordinary politeness asks us to be careful about slurs, but
Microaggression theory tells us that we are not the best judges of whether our
words are slurs, and it redefines slur to include
the substantive positions that it disagrees with on controversial issues.
A leading theorist is
Derald Wing Sue, whose Microaggressions
in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation is the work that leaders at universities
such as Berkeley and Michigan are using to enact soft speech codes that silence
views they disagree with. Professor Sue’s purpose in his text, as he says, is
to identify the many “hidden insulting and hostile messages” in academic and
Consider the debate
over affirmative action as an example. Opponents of affirmative action
say: We can and should strive to be gender- and color-blind in
admissions and grading and hiring and promoting, so affirmative action is a bad
idea. Advocates of affirmative action say: We still need to take color and gender into account, so
affirmative action is good.
To the chagrin of the Advocates, the Opponents have often
carried the day and affirmative action is popular only with a minority of
intellectuals and activists of a certain sort. So, the Advocates conclude, the
case for affirmative action needs new tactics.
One such tactic is to
reinterpret the Opponents’ statements as themselves being slurs. We should strive to be colorblind, for example, can be
said to be a secret code for
opposing affirmative action — which in turn is a cover for racism. Whether they
know it or not, those who promote color-blindness are propping up a system that
disadvantages people of color, and their mouthing We should be colorblind makes them complicit. That
is, they are micro-aggressors.
So if an opponent of
affirmative action says We should be colorblind,
the Microaggression-theory-informed Administrator can announce: That statement cannot be expressed, because it expresses racism.
The opponent of affirmative action will reply in shock: I’m not a racist! But that claim can be dismissed
as naïve — its maker has merely been constructed with a false consciousness and
doesn’t know how to decode his own statement to reveal its real message.
A further benefit is that the fear of being accused of racism
will put most people on the defensive, and those foolhardy enough to persist
can be shut up formally by speech codes.
The point is not that there are no subtle insults. Of course
there are. The point is not that there
are no subtexts. Of course there are. The point is the strategy of finding insult or subtext when there isn’t one in
order to intimidate one’s intellectual adversaries and suppress the expression
of their views.
But there’s a question
here: Why is the Microaggression theorist’s interpretation of your words better
than your own? Microaggression theory is also given support by subjectivist
theories of language. Just as aesthetic subjectivists
will say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and ethical subjectivists will argue that moral value
is in the feelings of the beholder, linguistic subjectivists
will argue that meaning is only in the mind of the user.
It follows that if
words do not have objective meanings, only relativistic subjective ones, then
language is no longer a tool that one
uses to learn about reality and communicate with others. Language then becomes
a weapon of social conflict. It’s your word against
mine, and your group’s words against my group’s — always and everywhere. Ad hominem is no longer a fallacy because language
is always about the subjective, and it’s my group’s “truth” that your group’s
ideas and values are alien and threatening. Your intent no longer matters; only
what we hear does.
And especially if the
hearers are members of a weaker and oppressed group, their interpretation must
be given precedence. Microaggression theory thus incorporates a kind of linguistic altruism: the meaning of the powerful
oppressors must be sacrificed to the meanings of their weaker victims.
In his great
novel The Man Who
Laughs, Victor Hugo
described the Comprachicos – a group of traveling
entertainers who intentionally distorted young children’s growing bodies so as
to be able to use them and sell them as freaks to earn a profit. Ayn Rand
analogized Hugo’s example to indict those educational theorists who distort
children’s developing minds so as to make them fit their ideological agendas.
Trigger and Microaggression theories are now a higher-education
version of the same phenomenon. Trigger theory sabotages the impressionable and
causes them to think and act as victims, and Microaggression theory then uses
the victims as weapons against those who challenge the Micro-theorists’ ideological
My intent in this
analysis of pathological versions of political correctness has been to point to
where solutions must be found. A reinvigoration of liberal education, including
its principled use of free speech, will require two pairs of developments, one
pair financial and one intellectual.
The financial developments must include lessening the
dollar-leveraged power of the government (at all levels) over the content of
education. And until that happens, the intellectual autonomy of universities
must be protected by administrators with enough backbone to overcome their fear
of losing government dollars for not toeing the line.
The intellectual developments must include an updating of the
case for academic freedom as essential to real education — with its fearless,
open-minded, and often adversarial pursuit of the truth. And that in turn, as
we can see from the kinds of claims the Trigger and Microaggression theories
use, will require some serious psychological, moral, and linguistic work.