Law in Contemporary Society

Political Correctness as a Form of Social Control

-- By MichaelCurtis - 12 May 2012


Throughout the semester we have talked about many different forms of social control and tyranny. We discussed institutional social control (the law) and other informal social norms, such as table manners. I think that one of the greatest forms of social control today is political correctness.

This means, I think, that peer pressure and social disapproval (which are the actual forms of social control you have in mind) are used in contemporary social life to discourage expressions considered politically or socially offensive. These are table manners for public discussion, right?

Few people are immune from the reach of political correctness. Even comedians who cut their teeth with provocative acts today are vulnerable to condemnation and censure. One would think that in the world today, there would be a move against political correctness. After all, we live in an age of instant, pervasive information. Everyone carries with them a video camera that can capture a video in an instant and share it with the world just as fast. There are few places where one can go without being documented, tracked, and recorded. One viral video has the power to label someone a bigot, a tag that will be affixed to their online identity and follow them forever. There is no erasing the internet, where today most charges of political incorrectness are made.

As you point out, we live in a period of massively increased opportunities for public expression by individuals. Why, precisely, are we worried about the informal social control of speech through expressions of "respectable" disapproval? They hardly matter at all now to anyone's opportunity to say everything.

Of course, when individual freedom of speech is being massively increased, it wouldn't be surprising if there were an intensification of informal social control over speech in response, or indeed major efforts to increase formal, governmental, legal control over speech. This isn't something we should be outraged about, even as we may—as both you and I in different ways want to—oppose it.


Idiot, imbecile, and moron are words that today are characterized as nasty and mean spirited. It was not always this way. They once were neutral words used to identify levels of mental deficiency.

Do you really think there was some magic time when calling someone a moron wasn't deprecatory, or didn't make him feel bad? When do you think that was?

After a few cycles in the nomenclature, the words became unacceptable. They had to be replaced with something less derogatory and more politically correct. Their replacement? Retard. Obviously that word is unacceptable today, and it has been replaced. The word midget went through a similar metamorphosis, changing from a descriptive word into an unacceptable pejorative.

In 1999 David Howard was forced to resign from his position as an aide to the mayor of Washington DC. His departure was prompted by his use of the word ‘niggardly’ to describe a budget. Niggardly is defined as miserly or cheap and in that sense it was an entirely appropriate adjective to attribute to a budget. The controversy stemmed from the fact that word niggardly is phonetically similar (but otherwise unrelated) to perhaps the most offensive word in the English language. The situation was best summed up by columnist Tony Snow, who wrote that Howard’s critics "actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance."

So do we have to believe that the reason someone is forced out of a subordinate political position is the one given? That would be a very hampering blindspot in our ability to understand politics.

Who decides what words are acceptable and which are not? Those who complain the loudest.

Really? As far as I can see, the answer in almost all situations is "no one." People can announce that words are unacceptable, but that doesn't mean they decide. The power to decide who can say what, which has been in the hands of small groups of privileged people pretty much through the history of civilization, is vanishing.

Society does not acquiesce to these people’s delicate sensibilities because they are empathetic to their plight. Instead, they censor themselves and each other because of the terrible consequences associated with noncompliance.

What terrible consequences? Someone will call you a name? Why is the presence of contrary speech a terrible consequence, and of what is it a consequence?

The Machine

When something impolitic is stated, you can bet that someone will express outrage.

Also when something politic is stated.

More often than not it is someone completely and totally uninvolved with the original statement. There is no shortage of people and/or interest groups willing to step up and demand an apology for a perceived slight. There are countless examples of this practice in both in politics and in celebrity culture. The offending parties are bullied into making forced, sweeping apologies that are often grossly disproportionate to the slight wrong they may have committed.

Perhaps a less forced, less sweeping apology would actually be a better idea?

Every now and then public pressure will force an offender to offer monetary support to related interest groups and/or “volunteer” their time. Whether the outrage is genuine or feigned is immaterial because both minor and major transgressions are treated almost identically. Major transgressions differ only in that they will spurn calls for resignations, firings, and ostracization.

Don't you think that you're exaggerating a trifle? We make, collectively, tens of billions of statements a day. Approximately none of them produce any of these consequences. Nor, when someone is offended by something we say does it cost us anything to apologize, and it is generally a good idea. A couple of times a week, probably, someone whose business is making money by saying controversial or attention-getting things achieves his or her goal, by getting attention and creating drama through saying something designed to achieve that end. This would then be an instance, and an artificial instance, among hundreds of billions of statements, happening to someone who quite often deliberately created the statement for the purpose. Why are we worried about this?

Who is protected?

Table manners are such an effective form of social control because of wide acceptance and self policing. Political correctness is different. The policing is centralized and the only acceptance is in the acknowledgement that the practice is unlikely to fade away.

No. What centralization are you talking about? Table manners and speech manners are constituted and enforced in the same way: by a general consensus that public debate or discussion should be conducted in a cooperative fashion, and that those who create emotions of humiliation, hurt, or disgust in those with whom they are conversing are failing in respectable cooperation. To fail in such a way may not only be necessary but also praiseworthy. It is reasonable, however, to expect the public response.

Politicians, interest groups and the media have a giant stake in the continuance of political correctness.

Everyone has an interest in civility of public discourse. That may not always be our primary concern, and we may selfishly think that our own concerns are more important than that interest in any specific case. But that's not analytically the same as supposing that only "someone else" cares that our public culture should be cooperatively constructed.

Interest groups stand to gain national exposure and cultural relevance, as well as monetary donations from offenders and sympathetic citizens. Political correctness gives politicians new opportunities to characterize the opposition as heartless and devolved. The media, operating under the pressures of a 24 hour news cycle, is desperate to find controversies to fill the air time. But I think that society as a whole is different. Generally, people are not as melodramatic and easily offended as those in power. We can acknowledge that people are sometimes crass, rude, or offensive without comical overreaction and pandering.

But that's an argument against comical overreaction and pandering, not an argument against challenging people who say bigoted or humiliating things in settings where others are harmed by them.

Consequences and Conclusions

Today businessmen must not only take account for their own words, but may also be held responsible for the actions and words of people with whom they do business.

So long as customers have choices, that's always been and always will be the case. It's perfectly legitimate to deal with someone's competitor because you don't like his face, his opinions, or his tone of voice. Every marketplace in every plaza or bazaar in the world works that way. What's different here and now?

Everyone no doubt remembers the voracious calls for the boycott of Rush Limbaugh’s advertisers. Companies like Carbonite and the Sleep-Number Bed ran advertisements on Rush’s show for one reason: to reach his large swath of followers who might want to buy their products. They didn’t run advertisements to make political statements but the were treated as if they were.

No. People asked them whether they actually wanted to have their products associated with Mr Limbaugh's rhetoric. That's a perfectly legitimate inquiry, and just as much so when, as here, the implicit proposition is that if they do want to associate their products with that rhetoric, they may lose business.

A large and loyal group of potential clients were declared unapproachable by third parties with no financial stake in the matter.

Nobody "declared" anybody anything. Some people said, "we don't want to use products associated with rhetoric we detest. If you want your products associated with that symbol, we will stop buying." That's a legitimate signal in a market economy. There's nothing sinister or problematic about that, any more than there is when some Christian congregations and organizations say to Disney (as they do frequently) that they won't patronize Disneyland as long as Disney offers employment benefits to same-sex life partners of employees. Why you should be resenting this on behalf of those businesses, I don't understand. Maybe an argument should be advanced.

These third parties sought to shrink Rush’s coffers, but they shrank the coffers of his former advertisers as well.

How do you know that? You'd need some facts, wouldn't you?

Advertising on his show was a profitable venture for them; otherwise they would not have been there to begin with.

Well, no, that's not obvious. The big problem with pre-Google advertising was that you had a very hard time knowing whether ads were effective, and measuring their actual effectiveness. More likely, the advertiser thinks the ads result in additional sales, thinks that a dollar spent here will be more effective than a dollar spent somewhere else (although that changes frequently, and they move their budgets around without knowing for sure), and believes that exposure to a large audience that buys goods like theirs "can't hurt." In any event, any advertiser who changes advertising budgets has made a business decision in a market with lots of other choices, and there's utterly no way to know whether their business decision will leave them better or worse off, and (under "free market capitalism") no reason for us to care.

Shortsighted political and moral victories for sure have an effect on the economy. I don’t know how such an effect can be quantified but my gut says that the net effect on the economy, and on society, is negative. We would be better served if we stopped feigning indignation at every expedient opportunity.

Obviously you don't feign indignation on every expedient opportunity, just on this one. If you came to the conclusion that table manners cost society money to have, would you come out for their abolition? Would you expect anybody to care?

The problem here is that you had an idea: "Political correctness is wrong and should be stopped." You didn't do too much thinking about what it was, in sociological terms, that you were objecting to. Or why it might be difficult to argue against speech on the basis of free speech concerns. You didn't consider any of the obvious objections that would be made to your argument by people who are neither "for" nor "against" "political correctness." Some such objections arise because the reader doesn't think you've defined a category, just deployed a label. Some objections arise because the speech you're complaining about is identical in relevant analytical respects to the speech you're supposedly protectiing. Some objections arise because you seem to have foreshortened your analysis, by treating "us" as though "we" don't have any interest in the civility of public discourse, whatever the position we have about "hate speech" or "political correctness." Some objections arise because you're not sure of your facts. All of these you could consider, deal with, perhaps even change your presentation or your views in light of. You will still have your opinion. But you will have argued it in a way that makes it easier to engage if one does not already completely agree. That would be a sensible use of the power of imagination.


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r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:05 - IanSullivan
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