One popular theory explaining the rise of Donald Trump is that runaway political correctness provoked a mass reaction that propelled the least politically correct presidential candidate in history to electoral victory. The (mostly white) masses, tired of hearing about transgender bathroom issues, exhausted by black/white rhetoric, and feeling threatened by the increasing regularity of “thought policing”, elected a man who rejected the identity politics of the left.
Enough ink has been spilled on this topic to cause a minor environmental crisis. Every major news and opinion outlet has had something to say about political correctness, from the Atlantic to the New York Times to Reason Magazine to Cosmo. The political correctness hypothesis appears to be jumping the shark already, if that shark hasn’t already been jumped. The PC crowd has been caricatured, and the caricatures have been caricatured. The anti-PC crowd has been vilified, and their disinterested defenders have been vilified even more.
“It’s easy to cast off those who reject political correctness as brutes and bullies, just as it’s easy to cast off PC defenders as sissies and snowflakes.”
But I believe some ink remains in the inkwell.
The stereotype of an anti-PC rebel is Trumpian in nature — brash and rude, and unnecessarily so. In rejecting political correctness, he flouts the rules of basic decency and politeness. But like all stereotypes, the Trumpian conception of political incorrectness sacrifices nuance for heuristic simplicity. It’s easy to cast off those who reject political correctness as brutes and bullies, just as it’s easy to cast off PC defenders as sissies and snowflakes.
So let’s add some complexity to the conversation. There are, I maintain, three distinct types of anti-PC rebels. Two of them serve a valuable social function. The third is a menace and should be treated as such.
- The Academic
- The Comedian
- The Asshole
In his seminal work The Bell Curve, political scientist Charles Murray (along with his coauthor Richard J. Herrnstein) made the case that intelligence predicts a variety of factors including, but not limited to, financial income, job performance, and crime better than one’s parents’ socioeconomic status or education level. The book argued further that the “cognitive elite” were becoming separated from average and below average IQ individuals and that this posed a danger to the social fabric.
Murray, who identifies as a libertarian but skews conservative and has an affiliation with the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, provoked outrage from both the media and the academy for his examination of IQ and race in chapters 13 and 14 of the book. In those chapters, Murray argued that ethnic differences in cognitive ability a) exist and b) have consequences. Some of the conclusions drawn by Murray include:
- East Asians score higher on achievement tests than whites.
- Whites score higher on achievement tests than blacks.
- Cognitive differences are a product of both genetic and environmental factors.
The reaction to the book’s publication was fierce. Journalist Charles Lane wrote an ad hominem screed against The Bell Curve in the New York Review of Books, claiming that multiple academics cited by Murray had contributed to white supremacist journals. Scientific American published a similar article. And Murray has even earned a page on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which classifies him as a racist eugenicist.
Some of the criticism of his book focused on his research methods and argumentation (Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman’s rejoinder and wthis NBER working paper, for example). But others chose to impugn Murray’s motives, accusing him of producing faulty research in the service of racism. Journalist Bob Herbert, for example, described the book as a “scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship.”
“One possible answer is that uncovering new scientific knowledge is valuable in and of itself, the “usefulness” of its conclusions and its impact on feelings be damned.”
Murray earned such scorn because he came to an inconvenient conclusion in the dogged pursuit of knowledge and truth – inconvenient because in positing a difference between the races, it was bound to cause offense and rub up against the unwritten mores of the academy. Some would argue that some truths are better left ignored and that Murray’s conclusions (his entire research project, in fact) were counterproductive to the mission of achieving racial equality. Why research the intersection of IQ and race at all if it would serve to discourage minority groups and embolden race supremacists?
One possible answer is that uncovering new scientific knowledge is valuable in and of itself, the “usefulness” of its conclusions and its impact on feelings be damned. As conservative pundit Ben Shapiro might say, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” A progressive approach to this question, however, might be that scientific progress doesn’t entail inventing new facts, but uncovering forces that already exist in the world. By willfully ignoring these forces, we do a disservice to social progress, which, in order to achieve things as they might be, must first recognize things as they are.
Whichever answer you prefer, the projects of anti-PC academics like Charles Murray serve a valuable social function. By doing the dirty work that orthodox academics won’t, they expand the bounds of scientific knowledge and even, yes, serve social progress as well.
On July 11, 2001, comedian Sarah Silverman performed a bit on The Conan O’Brien Show and told the following joke:
I got jury duty … and I didn’t want to go, so my friend said, “You should write something really, really racist on the form when you return it. Like, you should put ‘I hate chinks’.” And I said, “I’m not going to put that on there just to get out of jury duty. I don’t want people to think that about me.” So instead I wrote, “I love chinks.” And who doesn’t?
Predictably, Silverman was lambasted for using an ethnic slur in her joke. Japanese-American civil rights activist Guy Aoki complained to the Associated Press, “There is no excuse for something like this to have made the air. The term is the most offensive possible reference to a person of Chinese descent.” When Silverman refused to apologize, Bill Maher hosted both Silverman and Aoki on an episode of Politically Incorrect where Aoki and actress Anne-Marie Johnson teamed up to call Silverman, at best, a poor comedian and, at worst, a racist.
If you have any capacity for understanding irony, you will realize that the root of Silverman’s joke is a critique, not an endorsement, of ethnic slurs. After all, the buffoonish character Silverman plays in her joke misjudges which part of “I hate chinks” is offensive. But some people either lack the ability to grasp satire or view comedy as being non-exempt from the social norms regulating the usage of language. The former group is helpless. The latter group misunderstands the social value of comedy.
Good comedians employ the use of taboo words or topics in their performances for four reasons:
1. Provide catharsis – See: dark subject matter (e.g. rape, dead babies, and 9/11). Of course, one man’s catharsis is another man’s trigger. Rape jokes can be emotionally painful for some people to hear. But others need to laugh about these subjects when the reality of them becomes too much to bear.
2. Defamiliarize our experience with the mundane – This is the hallmark of observational humor. Jerry Seinfeld’s trademark “what is the deal with…?” exemplifies this type of humor.
3. Familiarize us with unconscious behavior – Chris Rock’s routine differentiating black people from n*****s is the starkest example of using a taboo word for this purpose: “N*****s will brag about some shit a normal man just does… ‘I ain’t never been to jail.’ What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!”
4. Challenge authority – “Authority” here is constituted broadly. It can mean “the haves” (as opposed to the “have-nots”), “perpetrators” (as opposed to victims), power structures, etc… Silverman’s joke falls into this category. It makes fun of perpetrators of racism.
At the risk of completely sanitizing comedy – “explaining the joke”, as it were – good comedy doesn’t generate empty laughs, but fills them with meaning and purpose, catharsis and awakening. Comedy enriches its audience by forcing it (sometimes brutally) to look inward and outward in the hope that it will learn something about itself or the world.
It must be admitted that some people do exploit comedy for ill. Certain comedians make their living “punching down”, obtaining cheap laughs at the expense of defenseless prey. Some comics, despite their best efforts, simply aren’t funny (though that is, of course, subjective), and these comics miraculously have fans that pay money to see them perform. Sometimes good comedians even tell jokes that miss. But it is the job of the discerning listener to determine whether a joke is told in good faith, whether the comic in question is harnessing the power of comedy for good or for evil.
Which brings us to the asshole. If the academic and comedian both serve useful social functions, the asshole creates social costs. He makes our lives miserable. He deeply disturbs us. His moral turpitude stains our society.
In Assholes: A Theory, philosopher Aaron James defines an asshole as someone who “systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” James argues that what we usually identify as mean behavior has deeper moral roots – that some people actually possess fundamentally rotten character traits. Of course, a nice person can sometimes behave like an asshole, just like a selfish person can sometimes give charity, but the cause of the behavior we so abhor has a particular essence:
- It supposes that the person holds special advantages.
- That stem from a sense of entitlement.
- Which immunizes him against complaints.
Donald Trump is the consummate asshole, not only in the colloquial sense, but in this philosophical sense as well. He thinks he’s special, that the rules of social decorum don’t apply to him. He uses his imagined moral stature to assail his critics. And he does so systematically, almost reflexively.
Have you ever heard Donald Trump apologize for anything? Even for something as blatantly vulgar as, “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”?
Neither have I. This is the mark of somebody who inflates his sense of self-importance to point where he sees himself as impervious to criticism. With Trump, it doesn’t even take much psychoanalysis to uncover his character; it’s right there on the surface – when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything….
So when Trump says things like, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” – which has the façade of an empirical claim – he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt of the academic or the comedian. He doesn’t get to hide behind the cloak of empirical research or humor.
“Donald Trump is the consummate asshole, not only in the colloquial sense, but in this philosophical sense as well. He thinks he’s special, that the rules of social decorum don’t apply to him.”
How do we deal with assholes like Donald Trump? James notes that the asshole makes it particularly difficult for us to come up with an appropriate response to his behavior because of his resistance to criticism. When confronted with mean behavior, we’re tempted to “call it out” and “teach a lesson,” but in this case, the actor is lesson-proof.
But there is a way. The key to dealing with assholes is to a) ignore them and b) have values. Jonathan Rauch, in his 1993 book The Kindly Inquisitors, writes,
What do you do about people who have silly or offensive opinions and who haven’t bothered to submit to the rigors of public checking? Ignore them. Silence is science’s most effective weapon. Any writer or scientist would rather be attacked than ignored…Ignored, they lose their megaphone.
Rauch is right. In order to elevate himself over others, the asshole needs the other. By declining to play his game in the first place, we cut out the moral cancer by the root.
But it isn’t enough to ignore the asshole. After all, someone will always play his game – someone will always feed the troll. So if you judge the success of your reaction on whether you’ve eliminated the asshole from society, you’re likely to be disappointed.
No, the only way to truly manage confrontation with cruel behavior is to shift the emphasis from the offender to yourself, to look inward and revisit your set of personal values. Kevin Michael Klipfel, cofounder of the Rule Number One blog, said it best, and it is worth quoting at length:
When I consider the phenomenology of the asshole—what’s going on in me subjectively when I’m trying to figure out how to respond to them—I’m almost always trying to figure out how to deal with the asshole on the asshole’s, rather than my own, terms. The asshole has power over me because in those moments I’ve opted to surrender my moral agency: I cede to them the power to let their assholish behavior, rather than my own personally chosen values, dominate the situation. I spend lots of time and mental anguish trying to validate the asshole: “If I say this, how are they going to respond?” “Is it better to be honest, or will that be taken the wrong way?” instead of responding in accordance with my own authentic values, and taking responsibility to let the chips fall where they may.
On this analysis, dealing with the asshole is an existential choice, one that comes down to the source from where each individual derives a sense of personal meaning and self-worth in his or her own life. The asshole confounds me because so often in such contexts my decision making and behavior is a reactive response to a stimulus from the outside (what Nietzsche referred to as a “slave” morality of “good and evil”) instead of a self-generated expression of values I endorse from the inside (what Nietzsche referred to as a “master” morality of “good and bad”). Of course the asshole has the power to make me boil over with ressentiment: I’m letting them determine my life from the outside, a way of being in the world Nietzsche warned us against well over a century ago. I reduce the asshole’s power over me by taking back my moral autonomy and asserting myself in such situations according to my own values.
Now that we’ve addressed how to deal with the asshole, it’s fair to ask how we should deal with the academic and comedian. Do academics never deserve scorn? Do comedians always deserve our plaudits? Of course not.
Some academics publish sloppy research. Some might even have ulterior motives and cook data to support a predetermined conclusion. The way to deal with poor researchers is to bust them for conducting poor research, to argue with them on the basis of facts and data, not to impugn their motives. If they continue to forward disproven theories and “alternative facts”, well then they’re exhibiting asshole behavior by exempting themselves from the rules of scientific inquiry and ignoring valid criticism. We know how to deal with that.
“The difference between the asshole and the academic/comedian is that the latter deserve the benefit of the doubt because of the context in which they act.”
What about comedians? As I mentioned before, some comedians do “punch down”, using their stage to make fun of the little guy. And some well-intended jokes miss the mark. But the best way to deal with poor comedians is to stay away and stay silent. Nothing shrivels a poor comedian’s fragile ego like a silent or empty room. Or, if you like, tell them that they aren’t funny on social media. “You’re not funny” is comic kryptonite. If they continue to tell unfunny, offensive jokes to unwelcoming ears, well then they’re exhibiting asshole behavior by ignoring the rules of basic politeness and resisting feedback. We know how to deal with that.
The difference between the asshole and the academic/comedian is that the latter deserve the benefit of the doubt because of the context in which they act. Unlike the asshole, whose very nature wires him towards self-aggrandizing political incorrectness, the academic and comedian act politically incorrectly for a stated higher purpose. So when we react to the politically incorrect speech we see so often on the news and social media, we should take care to examine (to the best of our ability) whether the speaker possesses a dishonorable spirit. After all, words that appear abhorrent on their surface – “I love chinks!” or “Asians are smarter than white people”, for example – may serve a useful, even noble purpose.
(Image source: Roya Ann Miller/Unsplash)