Thursday, March 03, 2016

Political Correctness

Many defenders of Donald Trump say that they are tired of "political correctness".

What many actually mean by this is that they are tired of treating "inferior" people and genders with dignity and respect.

The term "political correctness" is used to set up a rhetorical trap. It takes a huge bundle of goods, puts it in a big box, and puts a common label on the whole thing. Some of the things in this bundle actually deserve criticism. The hope, used by those who embrace this term, is that this taint can then rub off on other items that they put in the box - items that are legitimate concerns.

These days, the term and related concepts are also being used in the other direction. There are now cases where people put objects in the bundle called "political correctness" in the hopes that the virtue of some of the elements in the box can be attacked to these new items.

In both cases, "political correctness" becomes a rhetorical trap. Reject one item in the box and one is then assumed to be rejecting everything in the box. Accept one item in the box and one is then assumed to be accepting everything in the box. This mistaken inference is turned into a club for beating on others.

For example:

I object to "jokes" and figures of speech that depend on and promote stereotypes. People have a right to be judged on their individual merits (or demerits), without having to deal with the baggage that prejudice and bigotry heap upon them. This includes not only blatant discrimination, but - and perhaps even more so - the subtle forms of bigotry that heap one small cost on top of another to lower the quality of an innocent person's life.

On the other hand, there are no "cherished beliefs" that an individual ought not to be permitted to question. If somebody claims that a flying horse flew Mohammed from Mecca to Jerusalem and back, I say that this is nonsense. It is utter, complete, nonsense. It fits right up there with "aliens built the pyramids" and "the Apollo moon landings were faked."

Of course, if this cherished belief is a trivial belief with no real-world consequences, then perhaps the worst response that is warranted would be an expression of deep incredulity.

However, absurd beliefs that motivate people to take action harmful to others may require something more. If a person quotes scripture to advocate killing homosexuals or the "honor killings" and maiming of women, then we have a right - a duty - to respond with more than incredulity. We have a duty to respond with condemnation.

At this point, if the person being criticized responds, "You are criticizing my sincerely held religious beliefs," a fully appropriate response would be, "Get yourself a new set of religious beliefs and we will not have this problem."

WARNING: There are many - way too many - bigots who would take this "get yourself a new religion" response to imply, "abandon Islam" or "abandon Christianity". This is far too broad. If a person's religion calls for killing homosexuals, then "Get yourself a new religion and we would not have this problem" is fully satisfied by getting any religion that does not command the killing of homosexuals - even if it is a different version of Islam or Christianity.

Also, please note, I am talking about condemnation and criticism here, not punishment. Violence is not a legitimate response to mere words - but condemnation and criticism can be.

Here is where the "politically correctness" trap gets sprung.

By putting both of these things in the same box marked, "political correctness," people draw an inference from opposition to institutional prejudice to opposition to criticizing the beliefs of those who advocate killing homosexuals on the basis of religious faith. Because the latter position is objectionable, the inference is that the person's attitudes regarding institutional prejudice are objectionable as well.

Or, when approached from the other direction, one takes the claim that one defends the practice of criticizing sincerely held religious beliefs when they call for maiming and killing innocent people that one objects to "political correctness". From this it is inferred that one must also reject objections being made to institutional prejudice. Since the person who defends institutional prejudice is to be condemned, the person who criticizes sincerely held religious beliefs calling for the killing and maiming of others also deserves to be condemned.

This type of rhetorical trap has no place in a serious discussion of the merits of different policies. People who use a term such as this seem more interested in promoting invalid inferences than in understanding the merits of a different proposal. The very use of the term suggests that a rational discussion of merits is not in the cards.


Eneasz said...

Of possible interest - the "putting multiple things in a big box in order to spring a trap" thing is being popularized by Scott Alexander as the "Motte-and-Bailey" tactic.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

That motte-and-bailey tactic is actually quite applicable to my standard objection against egoism.

The psychological egoist says that everybody acts always and only for their advantage or best interest.

When challenged, the psychological egoist retreats to the position that everybody acts so s to fulfill their desires (ignoring the fact that one can desire the well-being of others and even desire their well-being more than one's own).

When the attacker leaves, then the psychological egoist goes back to saying that people only act in their own, selfish interest.

There are definitely relationships between the two. I think the bundling of things so that the taint of the bad can rub off on the good, or the sweetness of the good can run off on the bad, is a distinguishing characteristic. However, they are quite close.