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Political Correctness and the Closed Society

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In February 1992, the Center for Constructive Alternatives of Hillsdale College in Michigan organized a five-day conference on “Thought Police on Campus: Is Academic Freedom in Danger?” Among the speakers invited to participate as opponents of political correctness in academia were Charles Sykes (author of Profscam and The Hollow Men,) Shelby Steele (author of The Content of Character,) Midge Dector, Jeffrey Hart and Baroness Caroline Cox.

On the other side was Stanley Fish, professor of English at Duke University and one of the most prominent advocates of what has become known as “politically correct thinking.” His paper was entitled, “Mere is No Such Thing As Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing Too.” His paper had one overriding purpose: to rationalize the closing of the open society by offering a justification for censorship of speech.

Every community, Dr. Fish said, possesses a set of shared, core values. The members of the community am either born or drawn into it; they are taught that community’s core values; and they cherish them as the basis of their sense of identity and belief. And these core values also structure the way members of that community think about themselves and the world in which they live. To challenge seriously or threaten them is something that no community can reasonably accept or stand for. To undermine these core values is to undermine the foundation of that society.

As a consequence, every society sets limits on freedom of speech, and rightly so for the sake of communal self-preservation. Dr. Fish, therefore, endorsed the case for “local community standards” limiting freedom of speech and action. Furthermore, he considered it quite right that there should be a ban on flag burning, precisely because such conduct was subversive of one of the fundamental symbols of the nation’s system of core values.

How would it be decided if a particular speech-act was threatening to go beyond the pale? Dr. Fish warned that what could not serve as a guide was a “general principle of freedom of speech, in the abstract.” If one were to rely on a general rule applicable to all individuals, separate from the context of what was being said, then no limits could ever be imposed. Because, in the abstract, one speech-act would have to be considered just as legitimate as any other.

Each case, therefore, would have to be judged on its own, on the basis of the concrete particulars. Only the merits of the specific expression of freedom of speech could serve as the context for determining whether the speech in question should be respected or curtailed. Concerning the question as to who would decide the relative merits of a particular speech-act, Dr. Fish admitted that this required judicious reflection on the appropriate procedures to be followed.

That Dr. Fish should choose to dress his case for political correctness in the garb of a defense of conservative traditionalism was disingenuous. He clearly knew that the audience which he was addressing would be hostile to his message. That he succeeded in his tactic was demonstrated by the fact that at least two of the conservative professors who heard his presentation expressed agreement with the sentiment conveyed in his argument.

But preservation of the “core values” of American conservatism is not what Dr. Fish is all about. His purpose was to present a rationale for what Shelby Steele, in his lecture at the conference, called the inviolable “sovereignty” of ethnic and gender “entitlement groups.” Since the 1960s, America has increasingly abandoned its grounding in individual rights and shifted to “collective rights” as defined by ethnicity, gender or sexual preference.

In the political lexicon, “entitlement” has come to mean that any member of such a group is entitled to special political recognition and subsidization at the expense of others in the society, purely on the basis of being a member of that group. Members of these groups are entitled to politically privileged access to jobs, income and other opportunities in the society because of some claimed past injustice committed against others who belonged to that same group.

Once such political recognition and subsidization have been forthcoming, those protected, subsidized and favored by the state have demanded that the group, its ideas and its privileges be accepted as ,.sovereign territory.” Definition of membership in the group, the ideological rationalizations for the group’s “collective identity” and “collective rights,” and control over the financial and political privileges bestowed on the group may not be challenged or questioned by anyone outside the group. All such challenges and questionings are considered an “aggression” on the group’s “sovereign right” to define and control its own destiny.

Within its “sovereign domain,” the entitled group is to have authority to determine what is politically correct speech in discussing that group’s internal affairs. Not only, for example, would any whites questioning affirmative-action programs be considered invaders of the black community, but also anticollectivist black scholars, such as Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Anne Wortham and Shelby Steele, would be (and are) condemned and censored as traitors to the sovereign group.

But who defines the group’s inviolable core values? Who determines what is an acceptable exercise of free speech concerning the group’s affairs? Who polices speech within the group and censors dangerous talk? The answer is: the rulers of the sovereign entitlement group. And the ruler are those who have control over the management and distribution of the political privileges given to those groups by the state. Having a vested interest in the ideological rationales and political privileges that give them power and control in their collectivist fiefdoms, any criticism or questioning of the assumptions that justify their right to rule, is translated into an intolerable threat to their groups’ identities and core values.

As a result, any criticism of affirmative action is censored as racist and, therefore, unacceptable speech. Any questioning of feminist ideology is condemned as sexist and verbal rape. Any argument that suggests that homosexuality is not just another lifestyle and should not be given any politically privileged status under the heading of “gay rights” is shouted down as homophobic witch-hunting.

It is Ns need to have discretionary power over what is permissible speech that explains why Dr. Fish and others call for the end to any general principle of freedom of speech, in the abstract. Freedom of speech must be transformed into a specific, content-based privilege, the bestowing of which must be in the hands of the rulers of the respective entitlement groups. Only in this way can they guarantee their ability to restrict and manipulate discourse in their sovereign territory, so as to maintain their political monopoly of control.

If these advocates of totalitarian tribalism succeed in imposing legal and social censorship in the arena of ideas — if they succeed in their attempt to establish the legitimacy of such perverse Orwellian categories as speech-crimes and thought-crimes, — we will have made a major retreat to the closed society.

What the advocates of politically correct thinking are most fearful of are questions and reasoned discourse. How can groups have rights separate from and greater than the individual rights of its members? On what authority do these rulers presume to speak for some and impose censorship on others? How can knowledge advance and moral standards be raised if men may not freely say what is on their minds — if they do not face the harsh wind of disagreement and refutation in an open exchange of ideas — and if they are not given the opportunity to be persuaded to rethink what may be the faulty premises guiding their lives — by hearing the arguments and observing the conduct of others?

The only way to defeat these advocates of the closed society is to stand fast on the general principle of freedom of speech. Any concession on the basis of expediency will undercut the first line of defense against these new totalitarians. Either speech is fine, or else the debate is reduced to whether it shall your words or mine that will be censored.

The other principle that must not be compromised is the insistence that only individuals are sovereign in their rights. And the limited function of government is the securing and protecting of those rights against force and fraud. Once this principle is abandoned — and once the political debate surrounds the issue of what some are entitled to at the expense of others — society has started down the path of a tribalistic war of all against all.

“Freedom,” as Friedrich Hayek has reminded us, .,can be preserved only if it is treated as a supreme principle which must not be sacrificed for particular advantages …. If the choice between freedom and coercion is . . .treated as matter of expediency, freedom is bound to be sacrificed in almost every instance.”

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).