Political Correctness: Why Is the Right More Successful Than the Left?

Bryan Caplan starts with the Merriam-Webster definition of "politically correct". . .
conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated
. . . and then goes on a rant:
[P]olitical correctness isn't essentially leftist. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, leftist political correctness hasn't been all that effective. The full-blown triumph of political correctness, of hypersensitivity plus one-sided education, is patriotism.

Not so long ago, [...] most people were only dimly aware of what nation they "belonged" to. They took little offense at insults to their country, its people, or their flag, because they just didn't much identify with their country, its people, or their flag. Then came the patriots, descending upon their nations' schools like locusts. They taught children a litany of bizarre nonsense. They urged them to love millions of complete strangers who happened to live inside a Magic Line (a.k.a. "the border"), and loathe those who snickered during the Pledge of Allegiance or improperly folded the flag.

And despite the justified indifference and puzzlement of older generations, the patriots won. There's no need to speculate about what a politically correct world would look like. We're already in one.

I'm grateful for being reminded to appreciate that I live in what may well be the world's least patriotic nation. At the same time, this makes it a bit hard to empathize. Caplan's readers point out a few reservations about his account. But, by and large, he's right. The belief that you should feel somewhat close to someone you've never met just because he lives "inside a Magic Line" is mind-boggingly daft, which, in turn, leads one to wonder why such a belief is so popular. It is also true that a patriotic conscience was sometimes successfully engineered top-down. On the other hand, the leftist project that we typically think of as "political correctness" has been only moderately successful. Whereas public discourse has been quite successfully restricted, in private people are going to think and say all kinds of things about other ethnicities, etc.* Caplan argues (and I think he's right), that insults to one's own ethnicity aren't just scorned in public, but much of the scorn is heartfelt. Why?

Here are two things about humans:

1. Humans stereotype. That is, they make generalizations about groups of humans. These can be based on either the acceptance of others' general statements about these groups (you believe X's often do y because you read it in a book) or generalizations from experience (you believe X's often do y because you often observed X's do y), including second-hand experience (many people told you about instances in which X's did y). Note that the mass media may influence both of these processes. Typically, humans stereotyping does not mean that they believe that all X's do y, but rather that it is likely that X's do y; that is, people have no trouble grasping the concept of an X that does not do y, nor will they conclude that he/she is not actually a member of the X group. Both development of a stereotype and the perception of a member of a stereotyped group in terms of his membership in the X group are automatic. The lower the motivation and opportunity to do so, the less likely people will be to think about a member of the X group in terms of his/her individual qualities rather than the qualities deemed to be typical of X.

2. Ingroup/outgroup bias. All other things equal, people feel closer to others that they perceive to be members of their own group and treat them better than nonmembers. What defines group membership is highly volatile. Famously, social psychologists have shown that people treat ingroup members better even if these people know that group membership was decided by someone else on the basis of the toss of a coin. Also, you may notice that even during the course of a day the same person can sometimes be perceived an ingroup member at one point and as an outgroup member later (or vice versa) because the criteria according to which group membership is defined change. Yet while these criteria seem largely arbitrary and subject to outside influences, thinking in terms of group membership is not, even if that thinking is not always fully conscious. It takes conscious effort to override your thinking in terms of groups.

The ubiquity of these tendencies, in and by itself, suggests evolutionary reasons for their existence. You can come up with accounts of how both stereotyping and ingroup bias could have increased inclusive fitness, but this adds little and I'm lazy and it's a long post anyway I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

Assuming the above is correct, let's take another look at political correctness from the left (PC-L) and the right (PC-R). Unlike Caplan, I've never been to Berkeley's "Diversity Awareness Through Resources and Education" training or a similar programme, but I would think that it aims to, ideally, eradicate both your thinking in stereotypes and your preference for ingroup members. In other words, it takes on thousands of years of evolution in a 24-hour seminar. Good fucking luck with that! My guess is that, at best, such programs induce you to (a) say things that may be perceived as offensive out loud less often, (b) consciously override your automatic impulses for stereotyping and ingroup preference a little more often.

PC-R, on the other hand not only lets you stereotype and prefer ingroup members, it actively encourages it. It does not try to meddle with the constants, but only suggests a correct value for the variable: The all-important criterion, it says, is nationality. As an indoctrination programme, that sounds a little more promising. No wonder PC-R is more successful than PC-L.

As a general rule -

Trying to eradicate hardwired psychological tendencies: uphill battle.

Using hardwired psychological tendencies for your aims: downhill battle.

So, for all of the Machiavellists and wannabe cult leaders among my readers: make sure to use our hardwired psychological tendencies to your advantage. You can, for example, further strengthen the perceived ingroup-outgroup divide by referring to ingroup members as kin. If it was good enough for Charles Manson, it should be good enough for you.

*For example, let me hazard the guess that most Germans, like myself, think this sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea. In fact, I'll guess that some of the quoted politicians don't believe what they're saying.

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