Political correctness begets social reciprocity

It’s a sure sign of the weakness of any ideology when its partisans’ best hope for defining themselves is to rail against all those things which they think they are not. As the last refuge of the insecure, building strawmen to burn at least allows someone the pretense of a worldview without the usual difficulty of enduring critical thought. As ever, it’s easier to lob bombs than to build. It’s no surprise then that the ill-defined and conveniently flexible concept of “political correctness” continues as the target of choice for any right-wing commentator who wishes to signal their political virtue by taking aim at fantasies.

To hear them tell it, by its existence alone political correctness has kept terrorists in business, the economy sluggish, crime rates high, and is further responsible for any other ills you may wish to lay at its feet. It is, in its omnipresence, the ‘but-for’ causality of every bad outcome. This last Sunday on Fox and Friends,  fault was again found in the idea of political correctness, apparently because it restrains us from herding people into camps according to their religion or torturing anyone we judge suspicious (or brown) enough.

That Nigel Farage and James Mitchell (and their hosts who failed to challenge them) think that it is merely an aversion to voicing controversial ideas which restrains right-minded people from torturing or arbitrarily imprisoning others exposes the rot in their minds. Their version of political correctness has nothing to do with Overton windows or reclaiming ground for debate. They reject it not out of principle, but because they don’t particularly care for anything beyond triumphing over opposition. Struggle for its own sake. Winning for its own sake.

James Mitchell is, after all, a torturer, and that is a profession open only to those who can cherish action alone, who can think that the good is in doing, not in what is done. What he values is so much less important to him than what he opposes, and in that vein his version of political correctness is a forever accessible slate upon which he can project his latest oppositional ambition. One day if he wishes to feel particularly manly he might decry political correctness as the spawn of effete modernity, and so doing he will construct his own masculinity. Or, as he did last Sunday, he might criticise political correctness as the tool of cowards who are too weak to make real decisions, and thereby attempt to justify the enormity of his own choices. This spectral version of political correctness is therefore the vehicle de rigueur through which lackeys like James Mitchell can claim virtues which they never possessed by declaring themselves enemies to villains which never existed.

It’s tribalism in its basest form, and it’s nothing particularly new. As Edward Said described the phenomenon, “often the sense in which someone feels himself to be not-foreign is based on a very unrigorous idea of what is ‘out there,’ beyond one’s own territory.” Sometimes if you don’t know who you are yourself, it might seem sufficient to know who you are not. And, to the benefit of Nigel Farage and James Mitchell, the idea that your opposition exists only on an ethical plane entirely separate from your own makes the contemplation of atrocities such as internment and torture trivial rather than momentous.

The ideology on display last Sunday was that of us and them, such that us is valuable precisely and only because us is not them. How easy it therefore is to pretend to serious concern and solemnly intone that “the calls for internment will grow,” as if those calls arise passively from the aether. And, how much easier it is to denounce the still faceless interloper political correctness so that one’s own ambition — torture — need not be defended.

That small minded mentality, however, is amazingly short sighted. Though they seek to ingratiate their complaint against political correctness into the mainstream by presenting it as a criticism of liberal frivolity, their actual intent strikes much deeper. They do not seek dialogue so much as license. They do not seek debate, but rather they hope to simply end it in their favor.

Their complaint is not about political correctness at all, at least not in the sense that most would understand the term. When they complain that it is merely political correctness which has left our societies vulnerable to attack, they are taking aim at the traditions which guard against the bestial impulses of frightened people. For a given value of security a closed society will always be safer than an open one, so long as you are willing to cast aside the freedom to live, think and feel without the consent of domineering authority.

Nigel Farage and James Mitchell’s real complaint is not with overzealous college students who rile themselves up whenever provocateurs come through on the lecture circuit. In nodding towards internment, and in accepting torture, those two stand squarely against the hard won ideals which hold that all humans are created equal, and that all humans share an inherent dignity which can never be rightly transgressed. In opposition to that ideal, they seem to accept strength alone as an absolute good, and so doing they cast aside the foundational democratic philosophy which allows the world to be seen as more than a competition for scant resources and space. They forget the value of political reciprocity, and the rule of law.

And, James Mitchell, who made his money inventing new ways to make people scream, forgets that it is those ideals which shelter him from a world where he might die as he lived.

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