Political Correctness

The tyranny of “PC culture” is real — and a threat to liberal society

Sally Kohn✔
@sallykohn

Political correctness is simple idea everyone should be treated with equal dignity & respect. It’s not cause of terrorism. It’s antidote.

Yet only a few days earlier, there had been a flurry of reports on a very different kind of political correctness. Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, had been subjected to vicious harassment for objecting to a Day of Absence, in which white people were asked to stay off campus for a day. Amid calls for his firing, Weinstein was surrounded and berated by student protesters and finally informed by the police that it was not safe for him to be on campus. There was very little dignity or respect in the way he and his supporters were treated.
So which is the real political correctness?

.. culture critic Alyssa Rosenberg, who argued that attempts to create “bias-free language” — such as “person of size” instead of “obese” — not only leads to “impoverished and clunky” newspeak but also encourages avoidance rather than examination of difficult issues.

.. Muslim Haseeb Ahmed as saying that fear of causing offense made it difficult to talk honestly about Islamist fanaticism and terror groups

.. “PC” generally refers to over-the-top outrage at things no one but a hypersensitive fringe actually finds disrespectful, or rigid taboos on opinions and facts that could be construed as offensive, or extreme and punitive intolerance toward any deviation from the one true faith

.. Yes, there definitely is such a thing as political correctness or PC culture, built around identity politics and intersectionality — an ideology that views life in modern liberal societies as shaped entirely by an entrenched system of intersecting oppressions and sees all human interaction in terms of oppression and privilege.

Because this ideology is intensely focused on changing attitudes and eliminating subtle, deeply embedded biases, speech- and thought-policing are not just unfortunate excesses of zeal but an essential part of the “social justice” project.

2. While critics of the concept of political correctness often assert that PC doesn’t limit freedom of speech but merely exposes the privileged to criticism from the marginalized, many PC incidents are likely to have a very real chilling effect on speech and expression.

.. PC also threatens free debate and exchange of ideas by defining heretical opinions as harmful and violent. The effects are particularly baneful when it comes to discussion of contentious issues related to race, gender, and sexual identity.

.. Tuvel, who fully supports transgender rights, was accused of “enact[ing] violence” and causing “harm” by, among other things, using the term “transgenderism,” referring to “male genitalia” and “biological sex,” and mentioning Caitlyn Jenner’s pretransition name, Bruce

.. 3. The “crimes” targeted by the PC police are not about deliberate or even subconscious bigotry but about violations of ideological taboos (such as cultural appropriation) and/or far-fetched, paranoid interpretations of innocent words and actions (such as the Confederacy allusion in the slogan “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”).

.. Since one of the tenets of PC orthodoxy is that questioning the validity of grievances expressed by the marginalized is itself a harmful microaggression, the accusations come with a built-in presumption of guilt. It doesn’t matter if most members of the same disadvantaged group see no offense.

.. What’s more, PC has nothing to do with actual social justice: Stopping white people from wearing dreadlocks will not, in any appreciable way, help with the real problems facing the black community, just as banishing the word “crazy” will do nothing to improve the situation of the mentally ill.

.. In some cases, intersectional PC actively prevents confronting oppression. For instance, since Muslims are defined as marginalized, feminists who speak out against the misogyny of Islamic fundamentalism can be accused of promoting Islamophobia.

.. First of all, political correctness by itself is destructive to the liberal project — to reasoned discourse, free exchange of ideas, culture and community. What makes it uniquely injurious is its rising dominance in spheres of society traditionally associated with intellectual openness and pluralism: the academy, quality journalism, literature, and the arts.

.. Secondly, PC culture also invites an equally or more toxic backlash

.. Political correctness enables bigotry both by trivializing it — if you can be called a racist for wearing a sombrero on Halloween or a misogynist for admiring sexy women, the words lose much of their bite — and by green-lighting it when it’s directed at “privileged” groups. When comments like “yet another opinion from an old white man” become weapons of choice in what passes for debate in PC culture, the principle that people should not be attacked or demeaned on the basis of race, gender, or other aspects of who they are becomes increasingly difficult to defend.

.. Donald Trump’s election victory, itself almost certainly aided by the anti-PC backlash, has made it clear that we need to heal our dysfunctional political culture. One necessary step toward such healing is to restore the classical liberal norms of free thought and free speech. That does not preclude rejecting real bigotry and hate, but respect does not require political correctness. In fact, political correctness is the opposite of respect.

The Six Laws of Technology Everyone Should Know

Professor who summarized the impact of technology on society 30 years ago seems prescient now, in the age of smartphones and social media

Three decades ago, a historian wrote six laws to explain society’s unease with the power and pervasiveness of technology.

.. You’ve probably never heard of these principles or their author, Melvin Kranzberg, a professor of the history of technology at Georgia Institute of Technology who died in 1995.

1. ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral’

the impact of a technology depends on its geographic and cultural context, which means it is often good and bad—at the same time.
.. DDT, a pesticide and probable carcinogen that nonetheless saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in India as a cheap and effective malaria prevention

.. Their enormous power means they have an obligation to try to anticipate the potential impact of anything they produce.

 .. “The dirty little secret of highly accomplished people is what we’ve had to neglect to achieve that,”
2. ‘Invention is the mother of necessity.’
.. the invention of the smartphone has led to the necessity for countless other technologies, from phone cases to 5G wireless.
3. ‘Technology comes in packages, big and small.

 

4. ‘Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.’

 

5. ‘All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.’

The Cold War led to the buildup of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them anywhere on Earth. That led to the development of a war-proof communication system: the internet. Many related innovations subsequently seeped into every aspect of our lives.

But does that mean we owe the modern world to the existential contest between the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R.? Or was that conflict itself driven by previous technological developments that allowed Hitler to threaten both nations?

6. ‘Technology is a very human activity.’

.. “Technology is capable of doing great things,” Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook said in his 2017 commencement speech at MIT. “But it doesn’t want to do great things—it doesn’t want anything.” The point, Mr. Cook continued, is that despite its power, how we use technology is up to us.

The Moral Economy of Tech

But as anyone who’s worked with tech people knows, this intellectual background can also lead to arrogance. People who excel at software design become convinced that they have a unique ability to understand any kind of system at all, from first principles, without prior training, thanks to their superior powers of analysis. Success in the artificially constructed world of software design promotes a dangerous confidence.

.. Approaching the world as a software problem is a category error that has led us into some terrible habits of mind.

.. First, programmers are trained to seek maximal and global solutions. Why solve a specific problem in one place when you can fix the general problem for everybody, and for all time? We don’t think of this as hubris, but as a laudable economy of effort.

.. Second, treating the world as a software project gives us a rationale for being selfish.

.. Third, treating the world as software promotes fantasies of control. And the best kind of control is control without responsibility.

.. Instead of relying on algorithms, which we can be accused of manipulating for our benefit, we have turned to machine learning, an ingenious way of disclaiming responsibility for anything. Machine learning is like money laundering for bias. It’s a clean, mathematical apparatus that gives the status quo the aura of logical inevitability.

.. Of course, people obsessed with control have to eventually confront the fact of their own extinction. The response of the tech world to death has been enthusiastic. We are going to fix it. Google Ventures, for example, is seriously funding research into immortality. Their head VC will call you a “deathist” for pointing out that this is delusional.

.. Elon Musk’s apparently sincere belief that we’re living in a simulation. For a computer programmer, that’s the ultimate loss of control. Instead of writing the software, you are the software.

.. Just like industrialized manufacturing changed the relationship between labor and capital, surveillance capitalism is changing the relationship between private citizens and the entities doing the tracking. Our old ideas about individual privacy and consent no longer hold in a world where personal data is harvested on an industrial scale.

Those who benefit from the death of privacy attempt to frame our subjugation in terms of freedom, just like early factory owners talked about the sanctity of contract law. They insisted that a worker should have the right to agree to anything, from sixteen-hour days to unsafe working conditions, as if factory owners and workers were on an equal footing.

Companies that perform surveillance are attempting the same mental trick. They assert that we freely share our data in return for valuable services. But opting out of surveillance capitalism is like opting out of electricity, or cooked foods—you are free to do it in theory. In practice, it will upend your life.

.. The customs service announced yesterday it wants to start asking people for their social media profiles.

.. We’re used to talking about the private and public sector in the real economy, but in the surveillance economy this boundary doesn’t exist. Much of the day-to-day work of surveillance is done by telecommunications firms, which have a close relationship with government. The techniques and software of surveillance are freely shared between practitioners on both sides. All of the major players in the surveillance economy cooperate with their own country’s intelligence agencies, and are spied on (very effectively) by all the others.

.. Or consider the other candidate running for President, the one we consider the sane alternative, who has been a longtime promoter of a system of extrajudicial murder that uses blanket surveillance of cell phone traffic, email, and social media to create lists of people to be tracked and killed with autonomous aircraft.

.. That this toolchain for eliminating enemies of the state is only allowed to operate in poor, remote places is a comfort to those of us who live elsewhere, but you can imagine scenarios where a mass panic would broaden its scope.

.. We tend to imagine dystopian scenarios as one where a repressive government uses technology against its people. But what scares me in these scenarios is that each one would have broad social support, possibly majority support.

.. Those who run the surveillance apparatus understand its capabilities in a way the average citizen does not. My greatest fear is seeing the full might of the surveillance apparatus unleashed against a despised minority, in a democratic country.

.. I am very suspicious of attempts to change the world that can’t first work on a local scale. If after decades we can’t improve quality of life in places where the tech élite actually lives, why would we possibly make life better anywhere else?

.. We should not listen to people who promise to make Mars safe for human habitation, until we have seen them make Oakland safe for human habitation. We should be skeptical of promises to revolutionize transportation from people who can’t fix BART, or have never taken BART.

.. Techies will complain that trivial problems of life in the Bay Area are hard because they involve politics. But they should involve politics. Politics is the thing we do to keep ourselves from murdering each other. In a world where everyone uses computers and software, we need to exercise democratic control over that software.

.. The goal should be not to make the apparatus of surveillance politically accountable (though that is a great goal), but to dismantle it.

.. There is also prior art in attempts at achieving immortality, limitless wealth, and Galactic domination. We even know what happens if you try to keep dossiers on an entire country.

Dancing in a Hurricane

right when our physical technologies leapt ahead, many of what the Oxford economist Eric Beinhocker calls our “social technologies” — all of the rules, regulations, institutions and social tools people needed to get the most out of this technological acceleration and cushion the worst — froze or lagged.

.. When President-elect Trump wants to be heard he now gets his message out directly from his New York penthouse through Twitter to 15 million-plus followers at any hour of the day he pleases. And the Islamic State does the same from a remote province in Syria.