Why Political Correctness is back

feminist-tweetsI don’t have much to say about Jonathan Chait’s recent missive against the new wave of political correctness. The debate he sparked has followed predictable lines: most lefties deny the problem or downplay it, adding a healthy dose of ad hominem against Chait to build their case (he’s not a true leftie, he’s said bad things in the past, and he’s a white guy, so case closed.) Debating the merits of these accusations is, in the larger scheme of things, beside the point. Even if individual examples can be dismissed, the totality of the evidence proves that the problem exists.

I’d like to focus instead on a debate that unfolded between fellow lefties Freddie deBoer and Angus Johnston. Both bloggers are worth your time, but to state briefly, deBoer argues that political correctness is a major problem that is stifling free speech and preventing would-be activists from joining liberal causes, while Johnston is much more optimistic and finds the issues Chait and deBoer raise overblown and easily addressed within an in-group setting. If the dynamics of this exchange sound familiar to you, it’s because this debate is a carbon copy of the ongoing missives between ex-churchgoers listing the reasons the church has failed us, and the Christians chiding them for leaving the fold.

Johnston has adopted a social justice version of The Gospel Coalition position: activist organizations are great, people are welcoming, and you just need to make an effort to be respectful in order to fit in. If there’s a problem or you feel unwelcome, it’s likely your fault.

deBoer is taking the Benjamin Corey position: activist organizations are unwelcoming, cliquish, and thick with their own coded language that separates rather than unites. If there’s a problem and you feel unwelcome, then maybe it’s the organization’s fault after all. (If you’re skeptical of my take, skim over Corey’s first nine bullet points about why people are leaving churches and switch out “leave church” with “quit activism” or “quit being allies.” The similarities are astonishing.)

While it makes sense for churches and activist groups to set behavioral expectations, it’s worth asking why liberal activists sweat the small stuff so much (and invent small stuff to sweat over). I’ve worked with both conservative and liberal activists over the years (sometimes concurrently), and I believe that the answer can be found within the culture of activist groups themselves.

We live in an age when women’s health clinics are being shut down at an unprecedented rate, yet there is little effort to reverse this trend. Activists seem to care more about making sure reporters get quotes from women of color in articles about the closing of health clinics than whether the clinics themselves stay open. Rather than fight for gay housing and employment rights, they focus on making sure activists say “cisgender” instead of “straight.” Instead of fighting to reverse the trend of cutting programs that support the disabled, activists waste time scolding people for using the word “disabled.”

I believe that the cause of all this infighting over political correctness is an underlying pessimism among liberal activists. By and large, activists do not believe that abortion rights are salvageable in the short term (due mainly to the conservative make up of the higher courts, and the rightward swing of state and federal governments.) Most do not believe that global warming will be reversed because oil companies and climate change deniers wield too much power. The battle for racial equality mimics the misfortunes of gun control advocates: a tragic shooting happens, then a big media flare up follows. Protests, grassroots energy, and hope for genuine change surge. Sometimes that energy grows to the point where it looks like the Left might finally be getting its act together. But then the sound and fury fades. The media loses interest, conservatives change the terms of debate, and the Left flitters off to the next controversy or tragedy. With few exceptions, the momentum is on the conservative side.

Some of this pessimism is warranted. By design the modern Left attempts to stand up for the powerless, so the people they’re advocating for lack the resources to sustain their cause. It’s a lot easier to defend billionaires than the poor. The decline of unions and blue collar liberals has led to greater dependance on academia and young people. This adds up to a largely unreliable voting base that lacks resources and the self-discipline to sustain political causes beyond 4-year presidential election cycles. An aging population coupled with rising costs of college may deal another major blow.

So that leaves us with the kind of activism that young people with short attention spans can sustain. Activism that can win small victories with minimal effort. Activism that people suffering the weight of massive debt and time-consuming jobs can participate in. And yes, activism that can often bring positive results.

Language has proven to be the easiest thing to police online. What begins as noble intentions (be considerate of others’ feelings and experiences) and clear cut goals almost everyone can get on board with (racism and misogyny suck) easily morphs into the bullying campaigns deBoer and others describe: someone famous says something ignorant. So you spread the word, call them out for it and get them to recant. With a few days’ work, you’ve helped communicate your message globally, established your reasoning, and discouraged others from using the same language. Often this creates positive change, but it’s usually superficial change, and it creates the illusion of genuine political victories.

As these quick successes multiply, in-group expectations intensify. Some of these are positive (like pointing out that women of color have lacked a voice in feminism) while others are negative (like condemning anti-war veterans for using masculine language to express their frustration with the military-industrial complex.)

Instead of acknowledging that people who travel in different social and economic circles will not be familiar with their in-group language, activists attempt to transfer the environment of their online community into the real world, full of people who don’t tweet or don’t have time for their meetings or learning their lingo. So you end up with the same alienating dynamic evangelicals experience when they try to use Christianese in public, except liberals resent the fact that people aren’t hip to their lingo more than evangelicals do.

As a result, even the best ideas become unwieldy and incapable of being translated to non-academic circles. Does anyone believe that your average fifty-something blue collar Dad with a GED diploma could ever get his mouth around the phrase “reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative stereotypes of women,” even if he’s a lifelong Democrat?) So instead of translating their ideas for the public, the public is expected to learn activist’s language. The whole process is so convoluted that you end up with situations like the ones deBoer describes, where people just give up rather than risk offending people, even when they mean well and want to contribute.

Gay Marriage Is Here To Stay

O'Keeffe_Georgia_Ram's_Head

Kevin DeYoung has a post over at The Gospel Coalition entitled 5 Reasons Not To Give Up On The Marriage Debate. The title is self-explanatory, and while much of it is just a restatement of the Right’s talking points against gay marriage, there are some tidbits worth dissecting.

His first point addresses The Baby Wars. While DeYoung doesn’t even come close to advocating for Christians to pump out offspring so they can win the ideological battles with sheer numbers, he does accept the premise that demographics predict our ideological future.

I must confess that back in the 90’s I bought into this thinking, too. I didn’t advocate it of course, but there was a cold logic to the idea that the culture that passed on its traditions to the largest number of offspring would gain influence in future generations, while those that produced fewer or no offspring would fade. Classic examples of this were the Shakers (who believed in lifelong celibacy) and Mormons, who are known for large families  (and of course polygamy). If you couple Mormon birth rates with their evangelical zeal, it looked to me as though America’s future belonged to Mormons.

But recent data has confounded these assumptions. According to Pew Forum, the much-discussed Nones are the largest growing religious category, and people nowadays are much more likely to leave their childhood belief system. (It should be noted that this goes both ways: an atheist who turns fundamentalist falls into this category as much as a fundamentalist turned atheist.)

So clearly the picture is more complex. What matters is that DeYoung’s assumption about birth rates isn’t playing out as expected.

Discover magazine addresses at least part of this conundrum. The Austrian study cited by Razib Khan found that being traditional doesn’t mean that one is deeply religious:

Berghammer found that people following the ‘traditional’ lifestyle were more to have 3+ children than those following the ‘modern’ lifestyle. What’s more, traditionalist individuals were more likely to be religious (all Catholic in this analysis).

But – and this is the crucial bit – among those who followed a traditional life path, there was no relationship between their depth of religious belief, or their Church attendance, and the number of children they had.

Exactly the same was seen for those following a modern life path. Although this was more popular among non-religious women, those religious women who did follow this trajectory had no more children than the non-religious.

There was also no difference between the religious and non religious in the chances of remaining single and childless.

Berghammer concludes from this that the critical factor in determining fertility is the choice of life trajectory. Once this has been decided, then religiosity has no further effect on fertility.

DeYoung’s 2nd point baffles me. He leads off with a deeply arrogant assumption:

When you think about how quickly public opinion has swung in favor of gay marriage, it’s clear that the new conclusion has not been reached because of deep, ethical reflection.

It’s this kind of mentality – the assumption that any serious thought about a moral question can only lead to one conclusion – that has annexed evangelicals from mainstream America, and created epistemic bubbles wherein people convince themselves that election polls are all wrong and Romney isn’t losing Ohio.

Gay marriage isn’t growing in acceptance because of hipness or because it’s fashionable to be in favor of it. It’s growing because marriage is inherently unhip. Marriage is the most conservative social institution. There is no clearer way members of our culture signal their desire to become part of the fabric of the community and live a life in accordance with traditional family structure. Gay marriage is popular because it embraces traditional American values rather than contests them. When it became apparent that the gay “lifestyle” was no different than the straight “lifestyle,” the only people left fighting against gay marriage were bible thumpers weened on AIDS- era urban legends.

A recent Daily Show skit illustrates just how far we’ve come. Daily Show pundit Al Madrigal visited the reddest of red states and staged public gay marriage to gauge the reactions of the people around them. Everywhere they went the gay couple received applause and congratulations. The message of the skit became their inability to find antigay hostility.

One final anecdote on this point. Last year I was in a third grade classroom where the teacher was reading a story to the kids about Georgia O’Keefe. At one point, when the teacher mentioned O’Keefe’s marriage, a student asked whether she married a boy or girl. No one was shocked or surprised by the question (except perhaps the teacher); in these childrens’ minds, marrying someone you love no longer carried the requirement of gender. When wide-eyed little girls assume gay marriage has always been with us, then the issue has long since left the realm of urban hipsters.

What Happened To The Culture Wars?

harry-potter-groupYesterday I came across an article about Russell Simmons on Salon’s website, and it occurred to me how dramatically the Culture Wars have changed in the past few years. For most of my life this type of missive against a sexually explicit video would have come from a conservative organization like Focus On The Family or the American Family Association. But if you peruse conservative websites, you won’t find Simmons’ video mentioned, aside from a brief blurb on Fox News.

I know that a lot of people will say that race changes the dynamic of the controversy, and that’s true. But it had me thinking: what happened to the constant barrage of conservative outrage against media that offends their sensibilities? Why are liberals nowadays so much more effective at communicating their outrage at the scandal of the week?

Think about it. One of the predominant narratives since the 50’s has been the tension between conservatives and media that they feel mocks and insults their worldview. The examples are countless: Elvis’s hips; The Beatles saying they were more popular than Jesus (rock music in general has been a constant source of consternation), as well as movies like The Last Temptation Of Christ and Dennis Franz’s scandalous butt shot on NYPD Blue. The last big cultural firestorm I can recall was the supernatural dangers of Harry Potter.

I’m sure that readers can think of much better examples that I’ve listed, and that’s the point: for decades, conservatives had a 24/7 outrage machine going. Liberal outrages tended to be more short-lived, and most of them could be neutralized with accusations of political correctness. Just to confirm my hunch, I checked out the above websites (as well as the Family Research Council and World Magazine). I couldn’t find any recent articles about an offending musician or TV show. That’s amazing!

I figured this puzzle warranted some thought, so here are my current theories:

1. For conservatives, the Culture Wars have shifted to more substantive terrain.

I know that sounds strange, but if you look at the websites above, you’ll see that (for the most part) they’ve moved beyond the trivial. They’re focused on questions that impact our lives at a deeper level: gay marriage, gay rights within the Boy Scouts, and religious expression. Even though I disagree with their position on these issues, they’re a big jump from warnings about which movies to avoid or whether the Dixie Chicks have betrayed America. 

2. The Wars have shifted because Conservatives no longer assume America shares its values.

I’ll admit I’m iffy on this one. Certainly conservatives still speak as if they do assume this. The Tea Party’s rhetoric is founded on it. But I think that Al Mohler’s post-election column hits closer to what’s really going on in the conservative psyche. It doesn’t seem as though they truly believe that that they have a Moral Majority anymore. As a result, their activism has been focused on a big-picture attempt to plead their case for a conservative worldview. Whereas it used to be enough to accuse TV shows of promoting the “homosexual agenda, ” nowadays support for gays is so widespread that they have to backtrack and try to justify their animosity towards gays. Focusing on the big stuff means letting the little battles go.

3. Big Media is more in tune with their values.

Back in the 2000’s I noticed that most of the flash points in pop culture revolved around the behavior of young women. The age of misbehaving rock stars was over, and it had been replaced by gossipy outrage over Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsey Lohan. Even then the scale of controversy was trending down. Whereas conservatives used to worry about Led Zeppelin spreading Satanism, now they were worried about Paris Hilton’s blase materialism.

Perhaps it’s a temporary phase, but we seem to have arrived at an era of Domesticated Media: Rock is dead, rappers stopped singing about killing cops, and the biggest movies are superhero movies that affirm traditional story lines of masculine heroism, responsibility, and good vs evil.

When celebrities do get in trouble, it’s usually because of a poorly thought out tweet, and they always apologize profusely. Liberals scorn Anthony Weiner’s sexual misadventures as zealously as they do, if not moreso. Whereas drug addiction used to be glamorized, now shows like Celebrity Rehab show addiction in all its pathetic, camera-hungry glory.

4. Media fragmentation isn’t conducive to conservative outrage.

A few months ago a Facebook friend of mine posted a petition trying to get network TV to  clean up its prime time shows. It was the kind of thing conservatives used to love getting behind. Instead her fellow conservatives gently dismissed her efforts, pointing out that sex and violence are so widespread that getting four channels to fall in line meant nothing if a thousand more channels were broadcasting salacious fare at the same time.  The difference was that my friend was a homeschooling mom who never subscribed to cable. She’s still living in an Old Media world. Nowadays the audience for any one show is smaller, and the cultural influence of those shows is also smaller.

Same goes for music. Beyonce is probably the biggest star of the moment, but her influence pales in comparison to Madonna or Nirvana’s.

5. Media fragmentation makes it easier to ignore the unwanted noise.

Epistemic closure is a bane of our times. It’s a big reason why it’s so difficult for the Left to engage the Right; each side consumes its own news and entertainment, so a person can easily get by without ever being exposed to the ideas and values of the other side. Services like Netflix mean that my homeschooling friend has the capacity to just bring up the latest family-friendly offering for her kids any time she wants to. No one is stuck having to choose between the network options.

In terms of the culture wars, this means that conservatives are often only exposed to controversial media when a sympathetic news source writes an article about it.  The more organizations like Focus On The Family emphasize politics and advice columns, the less controversial media they are exposed to.

6. The scattershot nature of the web is much more conducive to liberal outrage.

To me the biggest contrast between liberal and conservative activism is their attention span. Liberals get revved up for presidential elections while conservatives keep their energy up for off-year elections, too. Liberals are prone for small-scale squabbles within their ranks, while conservatives find it easier to ignore shortcomings and close ranks for a common cause. Evangelicals ignore Glenn Beck’s Mormonism because he’s rallying the troops, so to say. They don’t care if he’s going to hell; he’s useful for their needs.

Liberals, on the other hand, parse whether Caitlin Moran is feminist enough, or whether the Newsroom communicates liberal ideas effectively. I’m not debating the merits of these dialogues. My point is that both of these were quick but testy discussions that garnered the desired results (i.e. apologies and promises to behave better and write more effectively). Then liberals are on to the next internal debate.

I think a lot of this happens because modern media is ADD by nature. Controversies rarely last more than four days, let alone a week, and celebrities are so conditioned to the “offend-apologize-pray for forgiveness cycle” that it’s an extremely effective means of getting your message out when you’re upset (provided your target self-identifies as liberal.) Conservatives don’t have this apology culture because they’re willing to forgive the most flagrant transgressions.

7. Conservatives have decided that it doesn’t matter  if they lose the Culture Wars.

Conservatives are predisposed in long term battles. They’re still fighting to shut down Obamacare; they’re still trying to turn the clock back against gay acceptance. They’re still fighting to get Roe V Wade overturned or gutted to the point where an abortion is impossible to acquire. They lose these internet scuffles or ignore them outright, so the liberal tendency towards the short-term infighting plays into their hands. Conservatives know they are faced with a demographic crisis, so they focus on redistricting to neutralize minority growth and having more kids so they can groom future true believers. Even though there are many passionate holdouts, many conservatives shifted their focus from fighting gay acceptance to persuading the faithful to stay strong.

From the conservative point of view, who cares what policies Obama advocates if they can stop them cold? Who cares about the growing minority population when they can rig state elections so they stay in power and make it harder for minorities to vote? Focus on the Family doesn’t need to heap scorn on Beyonce because they’re fighting a bigger fight. And while liberals fuss over whether Caitlin Moran is a true feminist, conservatives are learning that the Legislative Wars matter more than the Culture Wars.