On discrimination and political correctness

It’s really hard to try to understand what’s driving the debates over discrimination and political correctness without becoming overwhelmed by the powerful desire to paint one’s own political side as reasonable and one’s opponents’ side as corrupt or duped or unthinking. Yet it remains possible to analyze the political conflict without assuming that a huge chunk of the public is unhinged—it’s not pretty or emotionally satisfying, but it’s possible.

The basics

Let’s start with a couple of fundamental points. First, group-based discrimination harms some but benefits others. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, writes of plunder—calling attention to the fact that America’s history of racial discrimination hasn’t just been about holding blacks back, but about whites benefiting from subjugated blacks’ labor and property (including various examples from slavery to the recent aggressive marketing of high-interest subprime mortgages to blacks). In addition, of course, a frequent context for discrimination involves competition over college admissions and employment, where someone’s success almost necessarily implies someone else’s disappointment.

A second basic point is that there’s no such thing as a neutral system for allocating general social status or specific desirable positions. We can try to lessen the prevalence of group-based discrimination, but we’re not replacing it with nothing at all or with something handed down by God or Nature. In the past half-century, the main competing allocation regime has been test-based and education-based meritocracy. Gaining desirable positions is now less about race, religion, gender, and so on, and more about how well one does on tests and one’s educational pedigree. Like any allocation regime, meritocracy picks winners and losers in potentially controversial ways—in college admissions, for example, there are constant arguments over the proper role of standardized tests (though we could go much deeper and wonder, e.g., why the people who are already the most knowledgeable should be preferentially admitted into publicly subsidized learning institutions). And, like any allocation regime, meritocracy is subject to its own pathologies and entrenchments.

Relative winners and losers from discrimination and meritocracy

The key to arriving at a view of the non-craziness of public opinion on discrimination and political correctness is to compare the typical winners and losers from the old group-based allocation regime and the new meritocratic allocation regime. The group-based regime primarily favors whites, Christians (particularly Protestants), men, the native-born, and heterosexuals at the expense of others. The meritocratic regime primarily favors good test takers and the highly educated.

The biggest winners from the old group-based regime as compared with the meritocratic regime, then, are whites, Christians, and so on, but specifically those who are poor test takers and poorly educated. In contrast, the biggest winners from the meritocratic regime as compared with the group-based regime are good test takers and the highly educated, but specifically those who are non-white, non-Christian, and so on.

Reviewing a wide range of evidence on public opinion, we see patterns that are consistent with this basic breakdown. At high levels of meritocratic competence (i.e., among those with good test-taking ability and more education), folks really tend to prefer meritocratic policies over group-based ones, and are particularly opposed to group-based discrimination against people with their own group-based features. At lower levels of meritocratic competence, people tend to oppose group-based discrimination against people in their own groups, while favoring group-based discrimination against people not in their own groups—so, for example, immigrant Christians with less education are typically pro-immigrant but supportive of religious discrimination.

Political correctness is about penalizing the coordinating signals of discrimination

Group-based conflict often involves an important set of social signals. I’m talking here not just about group-based discrimination in its traditional sense, but more broadly—for example, this applies to conflicts between political partisans, rival colleges, rival nations, and so on. In group-based conflict, people use demeaning labels for out-groups, tell jokes painting out-group members as stupid and ugly, make wild categorical statements (“They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…”), display relevant symbols of in-group loyalty (flags and whatnot), and related phenomenon. These signals serve important coordinating functions.

One way to think about political correctness is that, at its core, it’s an effort to disrupt these kinds of coordinating signals, specifically with regard to group-based discrimination on the basis of, at a minimum, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. This effort primarily involves imposing tangible costs on discriminatory signalers. Distinguished professors and heads of major companies can be fired for a sexist joke, a racist text, or an underling’s racist email.

Like any complex system of social guidelines, the boundaries of political correctness are fuzzy. There are paradigmatic violations—e.g., blatant instances of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, or homophobia—but also lots of grey areas. These grey areas exist both in terms of what counts as offending actions (e.g., debates over micro-aggressions) and what kinds of groups political correctness should cover (e.g., whether something like weight discrimination should be treated like racism and sexism). The very serious consequences of violating norms of political correctness make such boundary issues particularly important. There are also concerns that, like any blunt instrument of power, political correctness can be distorted to serve other agendas—becoming, say, a generalized tool to silence conservative political views or a way to penalize criticisms of Israel.

A multi-sided fight over discrimination and political correctness

Overall, one should expect stronger levels of support for political correctness from those who simultaneously gain under meritocracy but lose under group-based discrimination—people with higher levels of meritocratic competence (better test takers with more elite educations) who also have traditionally subordinate group identities (e.g., non-whites, non-Christians, women, gays and lesbians). On the other side, one should expect stronger levels of opposition to political correctness from people who combine lower levels of meritocratic competence with traditionally dominant group identities (white, Christian, male heterosexuals).

But matters grow more complex when we consider non-paradigmatically situated folks. One set are people who combine lower levels of meritocratic competence with a mix of dominant and subordinate group identities—think, for example, of less-educated people who are black Christians, Latino immigrant Christians, white non-Christians, and so on. At lower education levels, these folks tend to express pro-discrimination views regarding areas where they’re in dominant groups (so, e.g., black heterosexual Christians at lower education levels often favor school prayer and oppose gay rights) but also anti-discrimination views regarding areas where they face discrimination (e.g., these same black heterosexual Christians often have strongly liberal views on racial issues). One shouldn’t expect such cross-pressured opinion-holders to support generalized notions of political correctness—instead, their support and opposition will typically be more selective.

Other non-paradigmatic folks combine high levels of meritocratic competence with largely dominant group identities—highly educated white guys, mostly. So, you know, just to throw out some random names: Ross Douthat, Jonathan Chait, Conor Friedersdorf, Jon Haidt, and so on. Here, we might see people with a genuine commitment to meritocratic rules, but who also can be leery of the reach of political correctness. This will be particularly true when they think that proponents of political correctness seek to extend its reach into a kind of anti-meritocratic burden specifically on white males, conservatives, and so on. It’s really just the same general tendency that produced political correctness in the first place—namely, folks who do well under meritocratic rules are particularly sensitive to discriminatory threats against people with their own characteristics.

Explanatory space

Here, I’m trying to make sense of the rough battle lines—why the professoriate, elite media, and big business have generally embraced very strong anti-discriminatory norms, why these norms are particularly opposed by many less-educated white Christians, why some folks are strongly committed to anti-discriminatory norms but also express growing concerns over the reach of political correctness, and so on. One key, I think, is to consider a broad range of non-crazy personal interests.

But I understand that this isn’t what most people want to hear. What they want to hear is that their own side in this multi-sided fight is rational and just, while their opponents are unbalanced and immoral. They want to hear about the outrageous anecdotes that prove their opponents’ madness.

Yet I hope there’s space to attempt non-hand-waving explanatory work, to try to figure out what might lead people to give offense and to be offended, to situate these conflicts within wider psychological and political theories. These explanatory attempts might not securely embrace one’s preferred moral story, but neither do they prevent such stories. They don’t prevent anyone from defining and defending their own political positions.