The consensus on political correctness was that it was a way of expressing things that everyone – or at least all the right people – took for granted. For progressives it was the same thing as good manners, an argument that was often presented in just those words. Many thought that political correctness would come to an end as a result of being pushed too far, and in a way that’s what happened.
Not, however, in the way we expected. There has been no revulsion against its excesses, nor at its far-fetched and impossibly exacting conclusions. It has become pointless not because it has been applied to ludicrous ideas nobody believes in, but because it is applied to everyday notions in support of any and every belief.
People still believe in it, but the ideology has become useless – precisely because it’s become pervasive and all-powerful. It can be used to argue for anything; as a result its proponents have started to splinter into opposing groupings and factions, always a prelude to schisms, like those that used to be notorious among Marxist groups.
Consider what happened when the French national team won the World Cup. The polemic that followed was rather more surprising than the outcome on the pitch. Rushing to score political-correctness points, some commentators noted that most of the players were of African descent.
After all, what better way to celebrate racial equality than to point out the achievements of African players? And what better way to celebrate immigration than to note that without its African players, France would never have won.
The progressive position here is that we want to be recognised as equals, but also want to be valued as individuals with unique selves. Otherwise, equality will feel like self-sacrifice, served in unequal doses, because the point of arrival is much farther away for those with the ‘wrong’ skin colour or the ‘wrong’ accent.
Interestingly, just as this set of commentators was rushing to make their ‘PC’ remarks, another set quickly argued the opposite. Rather than celebrate the African origin of so many of the players, they maintained that we should ignore it. They were French, as French as anyone else, and to single them out on the basis of their skin colour or where their parents or grandparents were born was exactly what Marine Le Pen would do, in order to divide France into first and second-class citizens.
There was passion on both sides, the kind of passion that comes when you know you are making a morally educated point and advancing the cause of the oppressed. And yet both sides were all arguing opposing things. The cacophony came to a pitch when the comedian Trevor Noah and the French Ambassador to Washington Gérard Araud exchanged angry barbs on the matter.
Can anyone remember on which side of the debate either stood? I can’t. They are both perfectly respectable progressives always ready to take the side of justice against darkness. But what I do remember was the surprise shown by each man at the other’s approach. After all, the whole point of taking a politically correct position is supposed to be that you don’t have to argue for it, that it presents itself as self-evidently true. But now two opposite views were both claiming the mantle of indisputable truth – something that rather defeated the point of the exercise.
A few weeks later a second episode caught my attention. After it came to light that the new hire to the New York Times editorial board had tweeted violently racist messages in the past, it seemed obvious that the newspaper would have to rescind the appointment.
Yet it did not and Sarah Jeong, a tech writer, kept her job. Why? Because her tweets were directed against white people. Since whites are deemed to be the origin of racism, to fight racial hatred is to fight against white identity, even if that also looks a lot like racism.
The contradiction here is in the thinking that you can only affirm a relation of equality if you do so against an existing or potential inequality. But if that’s the case, you will never be able to rely on equality alone, without a context, and your argument will lose the self-evident character of political correctness.
The problem is that equality is formal. You can draw relations of equality almost arbitrarily. Dogs have four legs. Cats have four legs. That doesn’t mean dogs are cats, and it doesn’t tell you whether dogs are better than cats.
Both are statements of equal truth, but equality alone is no help. In Jeong’s case, it’s wrong to be racist, but it’s also wrong not to privilege minority experience. Political correctness can’t moderate between the two ‘wrongs’, and if its only point is that it’s obvious to any right-thinking person, it has failed in its task.
In the example of the French football players above, are we equal because where our family comes from does not matter, or because it matters equally? The two sides in the public argument disagreed violently on where to place the equality sign. They had both made their remarks assuming that their own view was the least controversial thing available, but ended up being swallowed by a bitter controversy.
While political correctness was fighting an external enemy, its internal contradictions remained more or less hidden. All the energy was placed in the service of “crashing the horror” or “smashing the rogues” to use two translations of a famous sentence by Voltaire, perhaps the intellectual father of political correctness. Now that the enemy has been soundly beaten and political correctness has become a mass movement, everyone feels free to be politically correct in his or her own way. But the method is so empty that it can allow you to reach any conclusion whatsoever. You can even, like Sarah Jeong, become a politically correct racist.
No one knows how to be politically correct anymore. You might argue that this is true of every ideology. These days, we are not sure how to be liberal or conservative either. But political correctness was supposed to be different. The whole point of the enterprise was that you would know immediately and without effort how to think and act on a particular issue. Political correctness was meant to save you from thinking. If it cannot do that – if it actually gets you involved in difficult discussions – it has lost all usefulness. It can no longer be called political correctness at all.