Objective. Impartial. Neutral. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Open-minded. These are fascinating concepts, but are we humans able to apply this level of thinking towards complex social issues?
Suppose we gathered five or six of the world’s most dispassionate and objectively-minded thinkers in a room. “We brought you all here to do an intellectual analysis of political correctness,” we explain to the group. “Apart from any preconceived assumptions about the merits or faults of political correctness, we need you to determine: has political correctness gone too far?“
The think tank gets to work: they start by developing concrete terms of reference. “Let’s define political correctness as language and policies that do not offend or disadvantage any particular group in society,” one suggests.
“But who has the power to determine what is offensive?” asks another. “Can anyone claim that something is offensive? If everyone can legitimately cry foul at any time, will society not become little more than a cacophony of special interests?”
“Isn’t this the idea behind freedom of expression in the first place?” asks a group member. “Isn’t the point that anyone can cry foul at any time?”
“What do we mean by ‘disadvantage,’ anyway?” another interjects. “We must explicitly define what constitutes a ‘group’ that should be able to claim exemption from offense or insult by others.”
“If we go down that road,” another interrupts, “political correctness is simply going to be synonymous with ‘a progressive orthodoxy‘ on particular social issues — like ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or ecology.”
Yet another voice is raised: “Political correctness is a belief structure and political orientation that emerges in aggregate when specific personal values and personality traits are found in combination.
Discourse about political correctness seems inherently divisive. (Perhaps this observation is the one and only ‘objective statement’ I will dare to make about it!) I suspect that a room full of the most calculating minds in the world would soon find themselves sharp disagreement. Is an ‘objective analysis’ of political correctness — an unbiased statement about its merits or faults — even possible?
No matter how we frame the issue of political correctness, it invariably leads to the fundamental and ‘ultimate’ questions of society: what is the personal responsibility of the individual to the community? should everyone be treated the same or should recompense be made for the inequities of the past? who determines the operational and normative definition of justice? These questions do not have ‘objective’ answers. These are profound and timeless human dilemmas. We learn, develop, and evolve our beliefs and convictions about these questions over a lifetime.
We have given our imaginary panel of objectively minded experts an impossible task. None of them can analyze the quality of political correctness as a specimen in a petri dish. They must all drag their personal histories into the discussion.
To imagine that you are looking at political correctness as a neutral observer is to be blind to your own values.
(I am convening an Oxford-style debate about political correctness on Monday, October 17. Please come to the live event or join the discussion from anywhere at #WHDpc. Also, check out this video I recently wrote and produced: it is a point/counter-point ‘minidebate’ about political correctness that, I hope, highlights the profoundly personal nature of the issue.)