“Political Correctness” and Lucy’s Football

We often hear that “political correctness” is to blame for the left’s failures. Though the fundamental message of the left is presumed to be automatically popular in itself, that appeal is obscured by language policing and the narrowly particular demands of “identity politics.” Only once the left purges its “politically correct” elements will it be able to command widespread appeal.

I agree that a fixation on “political correctness” contributes to weakness and division on the left, but in a different sense: too many of the most visible and powerful members of the left (mainly, though not exclusively white men) are absolutely obsessed with distancing themselves from the spectre of “political correctness” and are willing to publicly and repeatedly throw their ostensible comrades under the bus in the service of this goal. Often, it is these privileged leftists themselves who do the most to draw attention to the “politically correct” actions that they decry, using their public profile — which is often incomparably higher than that of the “politically correct” malefactors who are supposedly ruining the reputation of the left — to air the left’s dirty laundry.

Here it might be helpful to recall that the trope originated on the right as a way of belittling the left. They will never be satisfied with any level of purge of “political correctness.” If we sent everyone who expressed a “politically correct” sentiment to the Gulag, the right would just ratchet up its expectations further and unleash another torrent of “political correctness gone mad” hysteria.

The attempt to gain mainstream respectability and become a “good leftist” by denouncing “political correctness” is a classic Lucy’s Football maneuver. “Maybe if I throw this group of naive but well-intentioned young activists under the bus, I’ll finally have a chance to win over the white working class!” It’s never going to work, guys. “Political correctness” was made up to trap us, and we keep falling for it.

16 Responses to ““Political Correctness” and Lucy’s Football”

  1. Henry Says:

    Perhaps it would help to pinpoint a bit more clearly what “political correctness” means in various contexts. My own experience of it, as someone generally on the Left but not a committed Marxist, is that I often find it impossible to have a reasoned discussion with others whose political views I largely share. The moment I raise critical questions or doubts about the cogency of a given line of argument, I am immediately branded an enemy. This happens more on social media, but has happened in other contexts as well.

    To take a fairly typical example, I often find Left criticism of Israel and Zionism to proceed by means of sloppy, hasty or downright disingenuous forms of argument. Now, I have serious problems with the notion of a “Jewish” democratic state, and I abhor Likud policies and the Occupation. But when I point out in discussion that the term Zionism is more complex both semantically and historically than is typically assumed, and that this has important consequences in practical politics, I am often immediately and viciously attacked as an apologist for apartheid. This, to me, is sheer political correctness of the worst sort. It amounts to purging political allies under the flimsiest of pretexts by equating them with the worst offenders.

    And more subtle variations of this sort of thing happen routinely. Take the recent cop21 in Paris. Naomi Klein tweeted and posted relentlessly that any agreement *yet to be reached* there would by definition constitute a horror for the planet. Why? Because cop21 would not overturn capitalism and was therefore a cynical vehicle of corporate domination. So failure to adhere from the start to Klein’s own political agenda meant that anyone trying to reduce carbon emissions by means of this process was no better than the Koch brothers—worse, even, because at least the Kochs are forthright about their motives. Try and have a reasoned discussion about the merits of this or that provision of the agreement with someone already disposed to see any such discussion as a betrayal of the Cause.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Perhaps we shouldn’t expect or demand “reasoned argument” on social media or in the context of social activism. And perhaps there is a time and a place for the “but it’s more complicated than that,” and that time and place is not in a public forum. I’m thinking of how Marx had serious misgivings about the Paris Commune but was nothing but enthusiastic and positive in his public proclamations on the topic.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Debate over tactics (including precise arguments) need to take place in a context of mutual trust. A lot of people expect to be able to parachute into a conversation, simply assert that they’re leftist, and then do nothing but criticize. Why should people give you the benefit of the doubt? Maybe the problem isn’t that they’re not open to “reasoned argument,” but that you just don’t get how politics actually works.

  4. bzfgt Says:

    You’re probably right with those last two posts. To me that just means that “politics” is gross and disgusting and I have no interest in it. Of course I get what the possible “beautiful soul” responses will be but that’s where I’m at nonetheless.

  5. Henry Says:

    Wow, that’s essentially a defense of Jacobinism. And it’s incredibly condescending to suggest that someone who objects to dogmatism “doesn’t get how politics works.”

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s not Jacobinism to point out that not everything can always be up for debate in every context. It’s not Jacobinism to point out that politics requires mutual trust and that requires time and investment. The people you try to have reasonable debate with about Israel come across as close-minded to you — what if you come across as presumptuous? What if you sound just like the dozens of bad-faith interlocutors who always come out of the woodwork for discussions of Israel? What if they just don’t have time for you? Are these people you know well, or just random people on the internet you decided to talk with?

  7. zunguzungu Says:

    Obligatory observation that we need words like “purging” to describe things that are actually that, and not a hyperbolic embellishment of “calling me names online.” See also “viciously attack” and “lynch mob.”

  8. Henry Says:

    Where are all these bad-faith interlocutors? I’ve had countless discussions of Israel/Palestine online and have NEVER encountered any devious participants who pretend to speak reasonably while secretly pursuing an anti-Palestinian agenda. I’ve certainly faced lots of blowhards who openly espouse such an agenda, but never the Trojan Horse variety.

    But suppose they’re out there—lots of them. What’s the harm in “falling for” the ruse of explaining the rationale for one’s views to them? Why do we need a shibboleth that confirms in advance that we already agree on everything before we can have a serious conversation?

    Imagine the following situation. I’m pro-choice, but I wander into a discussion where most participants are pro-life (this has actually happened). In their view, the question is settled: human life begins at conception, and destroying it is morally indistinguishable from murder. They are now engaged in vigorous political struggle to end abortion in the US. I conceal my true beliefs and use a deviously measured, reasonable style of questioning to prod them to explain and defend their views. Obviously I do not expect or want to be persuaded; in this sense I am a troll. But why is this a problem? The worst case scenario is that I manage to raise some genuinely vexing considerations or—the horror!—identify fatal flaws in their reasoning or assumptions. If they wish to continue their fight against abortion, they’ll have to overcome these problems. So either 1) I’ve helped them strengthen their arguments, or 2) I’ve demonstrated that ultimately their aversion to abortion is not warranted in the way they imagine, and is instead rooted in something other than moral reason. They may not *like* being confronted with this realization, but they may nevertheless benefit from it. So the most undesirable outcome of my deception is still an ethical and political benefit to all parties.

    Now, if they “don’t have time” because they’re just “random people,” well, I’m not holding a gun to their heads! They are free to exit or ignore me. But instead, they opt to heap abuse on me for nothing other than posing probing questions. And remember—these are people I agree with on 95% of their practical policy preferences. This sort of explanation is just another way of saying that people are justified in vilifying anyone who asks them to entertain the possibility that their reasoning is flawed. That’s simply the definition of political correctness.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That kind of stuff happens, yes, and it’s not always justified. I still maintain, however, that you would be unjustified in writing a NYT op-ed denouncing those rude people on the internet as the biggest problem facing the left.

  10. John Meech Says:

    That last comment, Adam, made me laugh and clarifies the issue for me. Thank you.

  11. protoplasm Says:

    Now that “political correctness” means, it seems, almost nothing more than the language, behaviors, and thought patterns adopted out of conscientiousness by those with a concern for their fellow earthlings, aka basic human decency, what do we call that which was initially picked out by the phrase?

    That is, the (certainly regrettable) sort of restriction on discourse that Adam, bzfgt, and Henry are discussing. The same kind of restriction which would stop a leftist (or a liberal or a conservative) from expressing a notion, though entailed by their values and worldview, whose expression the extant political situation makes counterproductive to the achievement of those very same values and worldview.

    For example, for a certain species of leftist: until we have the bastards up against the wall, trust and solidarity are more important than the subtleties of truth. Or: all guns must be melted down, with no exceptions made for hunting or police. Or: the violent seizure of all but, say, 1% of the wealth of the richest entities of the world is morally obligatory. Or: stopping global warming is orders of magnitude more important than preserving Western (or any other) culture. Etc. One may believe these, but when speaking with those outside the tribe it is best not to say so, certainly not in those terms, not yet anyways.

    Cleverly though not quite precisely: what now is the politically correct phrase for “politically correct”? “Politic”, in the older sense that maintains its essential connection to politics?

  12. protoplasm Says:

    I like it.

  13. Nicholas Ballesteros Says:

    What about yesteryears polemics about anarchism vs socialism? aren’t we experiencing a similar crux albeit dressed in new conceptual garb?

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Not sure I know what you mean.


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