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The Emperor’s Woke Clothes

Campus Week: How did an elite, repressive minority policing speech and culture through political correctness come to browbeat the American democratic majority?

Wesley Yang
October 19, 2018
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Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; original image: Shutterstock

The overwhelming majority of Americans oppose political correctness. A recent survey of 8,000 Americans reveals that people of all ages, races, and educational levels oppose it by lopsided margins. None of the demographic categories presumed to be aligned with it, or to fall within its protective embrace, actually support it. Three out of 4 black people, 2 out of 3 people with postgraduate degrees, and 78 percent of people under the age of 24 all regard political correctness as a problem. While 79 percent of white people oppose political correctness, it is Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87 percent), and American Indians (88 percent) who are most likely to be resistant to it.

The findings are as encouraging as they are distressing. They are encouraging because they affirm something that no one with a glancing familiarity with the character of the American public has had any cause to doubt. People long habituated to freedom of conscience and speech instinctively dislike attempts to place restrictions on them. A regime of policing speech and thought for adherence to an unprincipled, logically incoherent, and ever-changing array of progressive nostrums will always be unpopular everywhere, but especially so here.

The study demonstrates that the opponents of political correctness are not primarily the followers of Donald Trump. Nor are they in any significant sense the alt-right, a ragbag of at most a few thousand malcontents in a country of 350 million, who have been falsely magnified into a ludicrous simulacrum of a real social force. They are not predominantly the remnants of a dying white America brainwashed by Fox News. They are not a pitiable collection of angry white males—ruddy, be-Dockered, pale, stale, males left behind by the times—clinging to their dwindling privileges in an ever more vibrant and diverse America.

PC’s opponents are a portrait of rainbow-coalition America itself—people of all ages and all colors protective of their liberties, who sense instinctively who is really at the core of the politically correct movement and oppose the ideas and motives that animate it. This diverse America is of course fundamentally at odds with the Fox News crowd and the Trumpists. But they have no more love for their would-be saviors among the politically correct, who rule through fear inspired by legalistic threats and social media mobs.

The political scientist Yascha Mounk, writing in The Atlantic, quotes one 40-year-old American Indian from Oklahoma:

It seems like everyday you wake up something has changed … Do you say Jew? Or Jewish? Is it a black guy? African-American? … You are on your toes because you never know what to say. So political correctness in that sense is scary.

The survey’s findings confirm the intuitions of those who have long regarded political correctness as what it has become: a mode of exercising power within an intramural contest between rival elites. In this contest, the fetishistic invocation of the “marginalized” is a tool the powerful use to increase the power of a given group, often to the detriment of the very people they purport to represent. The study shows that virtually no one who does not directly benefit from the exercise of this power (in the form of sinecures, professional advancement, or the destruction of rivals within liberal institutions) supports it.

The only group within which a majority of respondents do not regard political correctness as a problem are those that the study characterizes as “progressive activists,” a category that comprises 8 percent of the country. Only 30 percent of this group considers political correctness to be a problem.

“Compared with the rest of the (nationally representative) polling sample,” Mounk writes,

progressive activists are much more likely to be rich, highly educated—and white. They are nearly twice as likely as the average to make more than $100,000 a year. They are nearly three times as likely to have a postgraduate degree. And while 12 percent of the overall sample in the study is African-American, only 3 percent of progressive activists are. With the exception of the small tribe of devoted conservatives, progressive activists are the most racially homogeneous group in the country.

The extent to which this finding might surprise you is a measure of how close you are to either elite. It is also a measure of how successfully the toxic rhetoric of warring elite cliques has gaslighted you into submitting to a narrative that is brazenly false. The findings are disquieting because they show by implication the power of that false narrative. It reveals the extent to which the overwhelming will of the majority can be continually frustrated by wildly unrepresentative, power-seeking elite factions that increasingly occupy critical chokepoints within media, educational, nonprofit, legal, government, and corporate bureaucracies. For that is what political correctness really is—a symptom of a large disorder which the vast majority of Americans of all races and creeds regard as a problem.

The overwhelming will of the majority can be continually frustrated by wildly unrepresentative, power-seeking elite factions.

Political correctness can thus be defined as the ideology of a distinct class of petty officeholders and office seekers within the therapeutic state. Their dogmas inexorably point in the direction of, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. put it back in 1991, “a regime so heavily policed” as to be “inconsistent with democracy.”

PC also refers to the specific means that this faction has adopted of attempting to police dissent out of existence in pursuit of what it calls justice. Their ideology draws on the sometimes brilliant and penetrating, and often exasperating and pretentious, work of critics of Western concepts of truth, reason, and law who can broadly be classified as “postmodernists.” Their ideology metastasizes a complex and rebarbative set of critiques of power into an active parapolitical program seeking to transform the world along, as Gates put it, “sweepingly utopian” lines. Gates was writing before the microaggression reporting systems, the compulsory implicit bias training, and the social media agon had even been dreamed up. But he foresaw all of it.

The pollsters did not define political correctness when they asked respondents to agree or disagree with the question, “Do you think political correctness is a problem?” This opened them up to an objection: Since the term political correctness is a pejorative in a right-wing polemic, invoking the term merely yielded a tautological result that largely measured the success of a right-wing polemic. While it’s certainly possible that 87 percent of Hispanics and 88 percent of Native Americans have been fooled by right-wing polemicists into believing that a project that seeks to induce others to “treat them with respect” is a problem, the likelier explanation is that everyone who agrees that political correctness is merely a synonym for “treating people with respect” answered no.

What matters most about this faction is not that they are annoying. It is that institutional power increasingly defers to them. That deference makes them potent, despite their small numbers and unpopular opinions, and the lack of grounding for those opinions in American custom and law.

The politically correct exploit two aspects of group psychology to dominate what is in fact a far more numerous group. They exploit the power that intolerant minorities, whose energies are focused on a single issue, have over majorities whose preferences and attachments are more diffuse. They benefit from what social psychologists have termed “the false enforcement of unpopular norms,” a phrase that describes the tendency, as observed in both experimental settings and in the wider world, of widespread conformance to unpopular norms out of social pressure, and the accompanying desire to signal the genuineness of one’s conviction by out-competing all others in zealous enforcement of norms in which they do not themselves believe.

The electoral impotence of the politically correct that Mounk correctly identifies is therefore less significant than it appears. “The gap between the progressive perception and the reality of public views on this issue could do damage to the institutions that the woke elite collectively run,” Mounk warns. “A publication whose editors think they represent the views of a majority of Americans when they actually speak to a small minority of the country may eventually see its influence wane and its readership decline. And a political candidate who believes she is speaking for half of the population when she is actually voicing the opinions of one-fifth is likely to lose the next election.”

But Mounk’s emphasis on electoral politics is somewhat misplaced. The ideology of political correctness explicitly abjures democratic contestation in favor of the seizure from within of elite institutions that can then be used to punish dissent and impose their will. The politically correct have grown rather than waned in power under Trump, precisely because Trump feeds into their narrative just as surely as they feed into his, sponsoring the simultaneous radicalization of the political sphere and the cultural sphere in opposite directions.

Since political correctness is above all about an intra-elite battle among elites—a form of nonelectoral political struggle for hegemony within ruling institutions—it is there that the battle will be contested. The two-thirds of those who oppose political correctness have learned both that they are in the majority, but also that their collective cowardice has allowed them to be bullied into conformity with doctrines that they hate. They have also learned that they are not a coalition of that hated remnant of white males, but rather representatives of the overwhelming majority of people of all colors and ages. The question is whether they will speak up, or be cowed into silence.

Political correctness doesn’t just threaten us with a democratic crisis and collapse by feeding a cycle of political reaction. It is not just bad for what it summons up in opposition to itself. It is bad for what it does, which is to threaten the core values of those for whom truth seeking is the lifeblood of their calling. In place of such activities, it actively empowers a cohort of bureaucratic mediocrities and opportunists who launder their personal pathology and power seeking as the height of political and social virtue. No one is as endangered by political correctness as the comedian, the artist, the scientist, and the philosopher—all those to whom we turn for correction. These are the figures who have silently permitted the opportunistic mediocrities in their midst to enforce a false consensus that no thinker or writer or performer of any integrity endorses. So long as we allow ourselves to be ruled by a toxic power-seeking minority in this undemocratic fashion, our subjugation is a choice.

Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.