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Friday, June 10, 2016

Political correctness as a revival of etiquette

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a short talk at my advisor's book event in DC about the parallels between the recent speech-related demands from campus and online activists and the prewar rules governing social etiquette that the left had worked to subvert because they were hierarchical, artificial, constraining. Since then, I've come across two similar versions of this argument, from James Bowman and from Damon Linker. Linker writes about something I've been considering for a couple of years, since the Title IX controversy began:
Understood in this wider sense, we've been living through an extended libertarian moment since the early 1960s. Moral libertarianism presumes that no authority — political, legal, or religious — is competent to pronounce judgment on an individual’s decisions, provided that they don’t negatively effect other people. Thanks to this assumption, a grand edifice of inherited moral and legal strictures on sexuality have crumbled over the past half century, leaving individuals free to live and love as they wish, as long as everyone involved gives their consent.
Religiously traditionalist conservatives have rejected moral libertarianism from the beginning, while losing just about every political and legal battle over its spread. But left-wing dissent has been selective and sporadic...That may be starting to change.
Now, Linker overlooks the ways that the right has also appealed to so-called "moral libertarianism" during the past 50 years. What he's calling moral libertarianism is actually the principle of liberal neutrality, amenable to all partisans precisely because it transforms partisan demands into neutral rights. So, for example, in the 1970s and '80s, one argument for the legalization of homeschooling was that parents have a right to educate their children as they see fit, provided that they do not harm them or anyone else. Although this argument was advanced mainly by "religiously traditionalist conservatives," it was framed in a way that applies to anyone who wants to homeschool his children for any reason.

One of the most significant morally libertarian principles of this period has been the popular view of free speech. That view goes beyond what even the First Amendment permits, although First Amendment jurisprudence since the '60s has also expanded the limits of free speech. But I think the popular view is that speech should not only have no legal limitation, but that even moral or social sanctions are suspect. People shouldn't lose their jobs or even their friends just for expressing their opinions, especially their political opinions. Of course, this hardly reflects reality, where people are socially sanctioned for being disagreeable all the time, but it's a not uncommon aspiration. And it reflects a neutral or morally libertarian view of speech, even though everyone who holds it preferentially applies it to his own fellow-partisans. But, since it's pretty obvious why "free speech for my side only" is not sustainable, even partisans frame freedom of speech as a neutral right: the "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" principle.

Linker is down on moral libertarianism when it comes to sex, but I suspect he's more content with it in the realm of speech. But he's right that the moral-libertarian consensus, embattled as it may always have been, is starting to break down in every realm. In some cases - the pornography with which Linker is concerned, for example - breakdown will mean a change in the laws. But in others, it must mean a change in - or, more accurately, a revival of - manners. These manners, as both Linker and Bowman point out, are a distinctly "progressive" attempt at etiquette, but they're not in purpose and sometimes even in substance all that different from the etiquette that moral libertaranism overthrew. Before, for example, men had to avoid vulgarity and displays of sexual aggression around women, and now, men must...do exactly the same thing. Before, this was to defend women against offense. Now, it's to defend women against offense as part of a vague strategy to liberate everyone from gender sometime in the distant future.

Of course, you could easily point out that since conservatives love manners, they should cheer all these speech demands made by social justice activists, and form a strategic alliance like the one between the anti-porn feminists and the socially-conservative right in the '80s. Perhaps. But as Bowman points out, there is another axis to consider here that runs perpendicular to the left/right opposition, which is the many/few opposition. Manners are inherently exclusive; they always preserve a division between mass and elites.
Social elites have always defined themselves—and justified their elite status—by their manners. I think we must have forgotten this since the word “uncouth” became, well, uncouth. Originally meaning “unknown” or “unknowing,” the word was in common use by the eighteenth century to indicate someone who was unfamiliar with the manners of what was once called “polite” society...The manners of the postwar American elite do not admit of any such overt exclusions, which are now seen as wrong and undemocratic. But the elite would not be an elite if it did not retain some means of excluding the uncouth—something that it has accomplished in our time by turning its manners into morals. 
This is what so-called “political correctness” is all about. Now we are meant to show our fitness for membership in the elite by knowing that you must refer to “people of color” but never, ever “colored people,” a locution which, dating from the benighted past, is deemed to be racist and offensive... But the dictionaries would not be doing their job if they did not warn you off committing such social faux pas as these and others with the discreet notation: “Considered offensive.” 
Offensive, you may wonder, to whom? Not necessarily to the members of those minorities towards whose feelings the dictionaries have become ostensibly solicitous. You may be sure that The Washington Post’s recent discovery that the term “redskin” is not considered offensive by 90 percent of the American Indians it surveyed will not be taken into account the next time the dictionaries are revised. That is because the feelings that matter are not those of the minorities alleged to be offended but those of the elite who have moralized our linguistic manners so as to be able to exclude the unwanted and the uncouth—that is, those who do not signal their fitness for inclusion in it by adopting the elite’s vocabulary. Lacking the means of excluding such people merely on social or aesthetic grounds, the elite must turn the social and aesthetic into the just and ethical so as to be able to exclude them on moral grounds.
Because they're elitist and exclusive, manners - progressive as well as traditional - are anti-democratic and run counter to the populism of both the left and the right. Bowman thinks the main challenge to the elitist progressive effort to revive a moral code of conduct is conservative populist opposition (or just Trump, our great savior). I'm not sure. Why wouldn't the deep tension within progressivism between populism and elitism, the effort to reconcile these into an inclusive and egalitarian code of conduct that will continually result in exclusions, issue in a more thorough demise?

Another plausible, completely different explanation for all this is David Brooks's account of "shame culture."

11 comments:

Alex said...

Outstanding post. As you say, PC is elite manners in an egalitarian guise. Well, by its nature neo-Victorianism is both elitist and hypocritical.

Helen Andrews said...

I watched the lecture and read this post to the end, and I still have no idea whether you support political correctness or not. Okay, so it's anti-populist and etiquette-esque. In a good way or a bad way?

That being said: My objection to the old "PC is just like manners" argument is that it rests on an unrealistically nightmarish idea of how manners used to function. The rules of etiquette our grandparents grew up with were actually quite humane! They said "Speak as you find," i.e. don't take the crowd's word against someone's if they've always been decent to you. The elite was perfectly aware that other, coarser subcultures existed, and had no problem coexisting with them, albeit at a distance. Instead of shame-storming random strangers for transgressions in their private lives, people of all classes were happy to say "It takes all kinds" or, better yet, "It's none of my business."

Whereas SJWs seem to have gotten their mental pictures of pre-1965 manners from the PTA scene in Field of Dreams or something, which frees up their inner fascist on the logic that turnabout is fair play. But they only think PC resembles the old manners. Look at the previous paragraph — really it doesn't at all.

Personally I think status anxiety is behind the current PC uptick. You have an unprecedented number of people graduating from Nowhere U in nothingburger studies, and since their jobs suck and they quite rightly don't feel very smart, they harp on "intersectionality" as the best available way to signal that they went to college. To which I say, fair enough, but maybe find a status marker that doesn't involve ruining the lives of total strangers? (Which I guess means I come down on the side of "anti-populist in a bad way.")

Miss Self-Important said...

Helen: Cut me some slack here, I've been in grad school for seven years. I neither support nor oppose anything controversial, and I certainly do not do so publicly. I just provide value-free, judgment-neutral descriptions of social reality, ok? So, let's put it this way: if I ever make a public statement in favor of political correctness, the most likely reason is that I'm trying to save my job to prevent my children from starving.

Yes, I'm sure that pre-war manners were less terrible than what, say, Phillip Roth has depicted. I also think that the current method or criterion of exclusion from the elites (meritocracy) is importantly different from the old one (family background). Thoughtful people never believed that lineage was really the definitive measure of an individual's worth, even if society used it as a proxy for it and they countenanced that use. Christianity, philosophy, capitalism continually cut against a too-easy faith in that standard. Meritocracy doesn't include such useful counter-currents. So any code of etiquette conceived on a foundation of meritocracy is bound to be less humane than its predecessors for the simple reason that it will be more totalizing and there will be fewer ways to point out its failure to account for every case.

But I don't necessarily think that average people were less inclined to shame-storm as a means of enforcing their rules, just that they didn't have the means to do it. They didn't know what total strangers were doing in their private lives unless the (much limited) media brought it to their attention. And then they couldn't access these transgressive strangers even if they did want to threaten and punish them, unless they already lived next door. But the bare impulse to publicly shame - doesn't Rochelle Gurstein give a pretty convincing account that it's been something that journalists could whip up for a long time?

That said, I'm interested in playing up the parallel because I think it heightens the contradictions in current progressive priorities (inclusion vs. liberation). For this purpose, it's fine to emphasize the bad of prewar etiquette over the good. I'm also not sure to what extent the new outlook really does track the old one. This would require more research than the anecdotes of our grandparents. Another reason I'm interested in this is b/c I think that the free speech defense against PC is weaker on campuses than it seems to those outside the universities. Universities are not legally required to defend very much student or even faculty speech. If the law is not a reliable backstop against speech policing, then all that's left to work with is culture. Almost everyone - right, left, and center - has given in to the rhetoric of "community," and the idea that the university is one, and communities need "shared values" that are often informal and supercede the formalities of law.* It may help to understand this rhetoric differently, and perhaps less positively than "shared values" implies.

*Seriously, even air traffic controllers are an "aviation community" according to the WSJ. It is one of the most heinous usages of our time, along with "folks."

Withywindle said...

So, from my research:

1) the nifty part of the Enlightenment project included the extension of manners to One and All. Always in conflict with its use as a marker of the elite, but applying the democratic aspiration to manners was real in effect (see the spread of the use of silverware, and of the vague, dawning realization that other people's feelings matter) and also another one of those Enlightenment universal imperatives. Everyone can be polite! Everyone should be polite! (Or else, the guillotine.)

2) The crucial pendant to "do not give offense gratuitously" is "do not take offense gratuitously." If you miss that, you're doing it wrong. The point is behavior that forwards the search for truth--conversation. Manners properly done encourage free speech in search of the truth. (Broadly defined.) Using manners to shut up other people makes you an Enthusiast in disguise.

3) The characteristic flaw of manners is to shut off certain topics from conversation. But the characteristic flaw of philosophe free speech is that you speak with such free and disputatious jerkishness that you shut everybody else up by wielding the tongue like a sword. Yet knowing that manners has a characteristic flaw doesn't mean you have embrace it; just as you can favor monarchy without favoring tyranny, or democracy without favoring cooking Socrates slowly to death over a pancake griddle while yelling at his crispening features, "Ask me a question now! Ask me a question now!" So one can be in favor of good manners, knowing they can go wrong, and working consciously to prevent them from their characteristic lapses--although knowing that this is never a battle that can be won for good.

4) Jane Austen in heaven notes that the PC love of good manners expressed with complete thuggish vulgarity would be the subject for a good character sketch in chapter 8. Cf. Whit Stillman's Future Movie of My Dreams, although hinted at already in his oeuvre to date.

Miss Self-Important said...

Everyone should be polite. But not everyone should know how to converse with the duke's son, or how to dance the quadrille, or how to entertain guests with French cantatas. So perhaps you want a distinction between civility and etiquette? But I don't think that the failure to produce the most updated term to describe a group is a baseline of civility. That's already quadrille territory.

Also, are you sure people were less touchy and better shrugging off offense in the past? What about dueling? That doesn't seem to be a custom for a restrained people. Or should we call that pre-modern etiquette, since the Enlightenment was anti-dueling.

Finally, I think you do have to embrace the speech-stifling aspect of manners and see it not as manners gone wrong, but manners working correctly. The prohibition on raising certain topics or speaking in a certain (profane) way presumes that not every subject merits open discussion in every context, because such discussion may be harmful to some auditors, and it may degrade the society as a whole. If that weren't true, manners would be speech suppression for no reason at all. So more distinctions need to be made about precisely how speech suppression worked. One important one is that people who are trained in these rules are also more sensitive to minor deviations, which can be much more meaningful. It's a lot easier to convey dislike by subtle gesture, so you don't have to scream profanities at someone and then stab him to get your point across.

Miss Self-Important said...

Also, about Helen's nothingburger majors: yes, that may well be true for them, but people who major in nothingburger studies at Nowhere U seem like a pretty small percentage of the population. Most people at Nowhere U study practical things, and Nowhere U's usually have fewer nothingburger courses than Prestige U or Flagship State U. Could this small number of Twitter-based malcontents really have such an outsized effect on our current culture? On the whole, it seems that much more attention is paid to the activists who are students at Prestige U's, and those people can triple-major in nothingburger w/o harm to their job prospects. Moreover, the students coming into such universities are already quite fluent in the discourse of intersectionality etc., suggesting that it's not primarily a product of nothingburger grads but is being absorbed in high school, whether inside or outside the curriculum.

Withywindle said...

Dueling!--that's a lengthy footnote in my MS, for which you need to read Peltonen's book on The Duel in Early Modern England, or some such title. The brief version is the the duel is the flip side of civility, its guarantor. We got around to thinking we could be civil without the duel, but the test results are mixed. I am very much in favor of going back to the duel, with the proviso that I want a designated fencer to stand in for me.

Oh, people are lousy at manners even when they know they should try better. But having the idea "don't take offense gratuitously" as something for which to strive would be a great improvement on the present.

The more general bit of manners is the Castiglionean variant on Machiavelli: know how to behave in any particular social situation. The rest is commentary. Plus money for dancing lessons, getting back to exclusions.

When you talk about degrading society as a whole, I take manners and conversations to work at the level of determining what is societal good--degradation is a topic to be discussed, not assumed. I would say "speech regulating" rather than "speech suppressing". But then I would. Still … say its like order generating liberty, a code of speech whose governing structure produces the greatest sustainable and continuing freedom of speech. Speech dedicated to producing more speech in others is the key. And as you say, different speech modes in different contexts--you can call the determination of context "suppression," but that does assume a point at issue, I think.

Nothingburger majors go into academic administration, offices of diversity, human resources, and other parasitic job categories. Probably still a lowish percentage of the total, but growing at an alarming rate.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, it would be an improvement on the present. But I don't see how you can entrench a new code of manners without taking gratuitous offense so as to call attention to and make example of the kind of conduct that is now prohibited. Whether, as Alex above claims, it's a consciously hypocritical effort, or it's being done in earnest, if that is indeed what's happening, then appeals to charity are not going to be very effective. Even once the code gets going, you do occasionally need public persecutions to keep people in line.

Speech dedicated to producing more speech...? I don't know if that was ever how elites understood themselves and the rationale for their exclusions, but maybe. It seems very contemporary to abandon a truth-finding purpose so quickly. But honestly, I don't know much about how prewar manners worked except as they're depicted in fiction, which is not exactly impartial. That's why I said above that I need more evidence beyond granndparent anecdotes and Philip Roth's condemnations to evaluate how prewar manners worked and the extent to which PC is like them.

A lot of nothingburger majors are baristas in my hip part of San Diego. I take that to be the kind of underemployment that leads to Twitter activism that Helen has in mind.

Withywindle said...

And let there be no moaning by the baristas.

Helen Andrews said...

Are the new PC rules really so egalitarian? James Q. Whitman says in his long article on hate speech laws that the old concept of aristocratic Satisfaktionsfähigkeit is a direct ancestor of the Beleidigungsfähigkeit currently enjoyed in German law only by minorities, and not even all minorities.

(Then again, he also notes that when a German woman tried to prosecute a man who grabbed her breast for sexual insult, she lost because "there are not sufficient indicia present to indicate that his conduct was intended to injure the complainant's right to respect in society. ... It is possible, rather, that he was trying to satisfy some personal need, without demeaning the witness." So maybe German insult law is just odd.)

Re nothingburgers: My complaint is not really about Chicana Women's Studies departments, which, as you say, are not actually that popular with flyover country proles --- though I note that the practical-sounding majors that are popular with them, like Education, Communications, Psychology, & Social Work, are just as PC-ridden.

My point was more big picture: Five percent of the country used to go to college; now it's over 50 percent; thus a bunch of people are walking around with a credential that has massively collapsed in social value; they try to reinflate the value of their credential by getting really, really energetic about one of the few things that marks them as "college educated," their facility in talking rot about privilege and black bodies. Some do it professionally from behind an admin desk, others recreationally on Twitter; together, it starts to add up.

Re going beyond grandparents' anecdotes: I quite liked the book Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain, especially the chapters on mentally retarded children and on homosexuality (which, SJWs will be surprised to learn, was not actually a death sentence prior to 1970).

FLG said...

Thank goodness for U of C
http://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/univ-chicago-pushes-back-trigger-warnings-safe-spaces