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Does ‘Political Correctness’ Foster Right-Wing Terrorists?

Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all. — Victor Klemperer

In the aftermath of the Norway catastrophe, some anti-Islamists have offered a clever defense against those who associate them with Anders Behring Breivik’s attacks: Don’t blame us, blame political correctness. “In Norway, to speak negatively about any aspect of the Muslim faith has always been a touchy matter, inviting charges of ‘Islamophobia’ and racism,” wrote Bruce Bawer, author of “While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within.” He and like-minded writers, he says, “have warned that the failure of mainstream political leaders to responsibly address the attendant challenges would result in the emergence of extremists like Breivik.” This is a troubling claim, and not just because there’s something repulsive about being told we all could have prevented this massacre, if only we had read Bawer’s book. It’s troubling because it’s half-true, and that makes its false part harder to detect.

I’ll take political correctness (PC) to mean a Soviet-style hypocrisy in which all parties to a conversation pretend reality is different from what they know it to be, and pretend to believe each others’ references to an unreal world. (In other words, not only am I pretending that I don’t notice skin color, I’m also pretending that you also don’t notice it.) “PC!” is a frequent complaint among people who want to generalize negatively about some social group, as in “we all know Muslims commit most acts of terrorism, we just can’t say it.” (“PC!” explains away inconvenient facts. Most terrorist acts in Europe are not committed by Muslims, but if you don’t want to believe that you can just shake your head and mutter “well, that’s the politically correct story.” The feeling that he was oppressed by PC contributed to Breivik’s resentment of the supposed traitors among Norway’s left-leaning politicians.

Here’s the half-right part: This kind of PC is indeed a problem for the politics of a diverse society, at least according to research done in the U.S. For instance, as I described in 2009, an experiment in Boston schools found that young children there had absorbed the American middle-class norm against racism all too well. The experimenters played a version of the card game “Guess Who?” where each child deduced which photo was in the experimenter’s hand by asking questions about it. Children who were 8 or 9 felt free to ask if the pictured person was fat or thin, male or female, black or white. But the ten- and eleven- year olds refused to let themselves ask about race, even though it meant they scored less well in the game, wrote the authors, Evan P. Apfelbaum, Kristin Pauker, Nalini Ambady and Samuel R. Sommers, social psychologists at Tufts, and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School. “I thought if I mentioned it, they would think I was prejudiced,” one girl told her mother.

Teaching children to deny reality is inherently objectionable. Worse yet, a more recent paper by the researchers suggests that it doesn’t even serve the goal of tolerance: In experiments published in last September’s Psychological Science, Apfelbaum, Ambady, Pauker and Samuel R. Sommers had 60 kids, aged 8 to 11, give their opinion on a story about a teacher working to promote racial equality in the classroom. In one version the teacher said it was important to ignore differences (“We want to show everyone that race is not important and that we’re all the same”) and in the other, she stressed recognizing diversity (“We want to show everyone that race is important because our racial differences make each of us special”). After this, another experimenter read the kids three scenarios involving bad treatment of one child by another. In one, both children were white; in the second, they were of different races but it was ambiguous whether the mistreatment came from race feeling; and in the third, one kid was being an obvious racist.

The children’s reaction to this trio of stories was the point of the experiment. It turned out that the ones who had been exposed to the “color-blind, we’re-all-the-same” story were less sensitive to prejudice—they were less likely to notice racism as a possibility in the ambiguous case and also less likely to notice prejudice in the overt case. (The full study, available here, explains the procedures in detail.)

This suggests what is half-right about complaints of political correctness: Telling people to deny what they see and hear does not make them better citizens or better thinkers. It just makes them hypocrites.

However, there is a difference between feeling free to report what you’ve experienced (“East Oslo has a lot more people in it who aren’t ethnic Norwegians”) and feeling free to repeat explanations that give you a thrill but which don’t have a basis in your own life. “Muslims are trying to take over Oslo and impose Sharia” is, I submit, an example of the latter. So, I believe, is “Radical Islam is destroying the West from within.” How do I know? Because claims in the form “X is trying to take over Y and impose X’s way of life” have been repeatedly made throughout history. And they have repeatedly turned out to be untrue.

The alien conspirators who are trying to take over have been the Koreans in Japan, the Chinese in California, the Jews in Europe, the Communists in Indonesia, and so on and on. The era in which people preached against the aliens has been the Roman Empire and it has been yesterday. When the claims always take the same form, when history shows that they never pan out, it’s time to admit that these statements stem not from reality but from the shape of the human mind.

Political correctness that comes in the form “You Can’t Say That!” is indeed a problem in a democratic society. You can’t have an honest conversation about differences if you feel obliged to deny those differences exist. But a society that believes “You Can Say Anything!” will still need a different and valuable kind of “political correctness”: It will need citizens with the self-discipline and self-knowledge to set aside words that throughout history have always been fraught and never been true.

Illustration: A screen-grab from Anders Behring Breivik’s video manifesto.

Apfelbaum EP, Pauker K, Ambady N, Sommers SR, & Norton MI (2008). Learning (not) to talk about race: when older children underperform in social categorization. Developmental psychology, 44 (5), 1513-8 PMID: 18793083

Apfelbaum, E., Pauker, K., Sommers, S., & Ambady, N. (2010). In Blind Pursuit of Racial Equality? Psychological Science, 21 (11), 1587-1592 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610384741


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