Pages

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."

Friday, June 03, 2016

Marks of adulthood

In the years just after I finished college, when I was working full time and living in DC, I was very concerned with the question, "Am I an adult now?" I very badly wanted to answer in the affirmative and worked hard to make it so, but when so many other people your age are still behaving like children, it's difficult to distinguish yourself as invisibly more mature. So I was always wondering when I would reach a point where my adulthood would be incontrovertible. Then I went to grad school, where the adulthood project had to be aborted as a matter of necessity.

But now, it is a lot easier to see the marks of adulthood. For example, I am drinking a cup of decaffeinated coffee. Ever since I started drinking coffee in college, I used to wonder at decaf coffee drinkers - for why? Coffee doesn't actually taste good; it's essentially a low-grade productivity drug to help you read more books and write more words, faster. Drinking decaf coffee is like taking placebo aspirin for a headache.

But now I see things differently. It's like the hat/elephant drawing in The Little Prince. Children are defined as those who see the elephant in the gullet of a boa, adults as those who see a hat. Neither can satisfactorily explain their perspective to the other.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Love and Friendship

We went to see this, and it was very enjoyable, but I still think Whit Stillman is adrift. His first four movies were all commentaries on and against contemporary manners, and in this sense they had a purpose and an argument. But everyone (except me) hated Damsels in Distress, because they dismissed his apparently whimsical argument about the importance of dancing for social life and for bringing the young together in an innocent but auspicious way, and his complaint that we've failed to create a suitable substitute for it, to the detriment of the social lives of the young. (Notably, he made exactly the same argument Last Days of Disco, and no one was contemptuous of it then. I suppose it was more subtle there, but not that subtle, given that Josh has at least two monologues about the importance of disco for his generation.) But I think that, in the first place, Stillman is serious about this argument, and in the second, he's right, even though I am a terrible dancer and doubt that I would've personally benefited from a youth culture to which social dancing was central.

Anyway, it seems like the poor reception of Damsels unmoored Stillman. First, there was the Amazon TV pilot that went nowhere, though according to his Twitter, it's not dead and Amazon is just waiting for him to actually write the rest. Now, there is Love and Friendship, which is very clever and witty, but doesn't have any clear point. Or the point is just that Whit Stillman loves Jane Austen and wants everyone to know it, and he demonstrates his love by filling out one of her unfinished novels instead of adapting Austen's style and intentions to the social world of the present, as he had been doing before.

The filling is mostly good, with some dialogue that seems anachronistic (for example, at some point, one of the characters refers to a relationship "dynamic" - probably not an eighteenth-century usage), but there's something a little narrow and academic about the project. It doesn't have a broader argument or any real connection to the present. There is a kind of Machiavellian moral (or anti-moral) point within the story, that those who are always abuse friendship probably should not rely on the sincerity of their friends, and the manipulators are the ones who least expect (and so are most likely) to be manipulated themselves. There are worse things to make than a clever fable in period costume, but also better things, like Stillman's other movies.