Political correctness


Political correctness implies a compulsory behavioral pattern spiced with a measure of hypocrisy; the whole community has assumed a taint of conceited self-righteousness. Beyond a restricted circle of friends one does not dare or want to speak one’s mind. The whole community deviates from openness and honesty to the detriment of the plus-sum game.

A democratic trait

People have an inherent tendency to build a majority around a core of highly motivated individuals. This aptitude has been a competitive advantage already on the tribal level and facilitates the stability of modern large-scale democracies. It has, however, a less desirable side-effect called political correctness. The quasi-official, loosely grounded frame of reference has then become normative and the whole community has assumed a taint of conceited self-righteousness.

Already Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) noticed how spontaneously people affiliate to opinions which are perceived as the majority view. For good or for worse, this bandwagon-effect is not only a display of political opportunism but an age-old democratic reflex. To side with a widespread opinion is risk-free and emotionally satisfying – you can comfortably assume a self-righteous stance. The outcome is belief conformity, a morally disquieting phenomenon.

The dividing line between political correctness and a democratic value community is a matter of taste. All the same, political correctness implies a compulsory behavioral pattern spiced with a measure of hypocrisy. Beyond a restricted circle of friends one does not dare or want to speak one’s mind. This phenomenon goes to extremes in totalitarian countries, but we have all met with such self-censorship close to home. Political correctness becomes a burden on society whenever a majority of citizens are forced to live a lie. The situation is not much better if only a minority feel that they are muzzled.

A public conspiracy

Presently, political correctness amounts to creating support for political decisions, aiming at the assistance of the suppressed, wronged, neglected or otherwise mistreated. For this good purpose, openness, objectivity and respect for facts are sacrificed. Diverging opinions are immediately denounced as ingrained prejudice or manifestations of self-interest which makes a serious discussion impossible. The upshot is entanglement in diverse illusions which blocks sensible policies and works against humanitarian goals, at least in the long run.

The common theme in this manipulation is a sort of conspiracy between intellectuals, activists and media people, seated together on a platform of moral supremacy. The politicians willingly ride on the ascending opinion wave, which obviously serves an admirable cause. When the attractive ideas become sacrosanct and beyond questioning, we are entering dangerous territory. Incitement to hatred against specific groups is criminalized in many countries, which opens the door for official opinion control. Typically, politically correctness has rarely been endorsed by the electorate.

A narrow political elite is steering important segments of the public opinion by remote control, according to its own ideology and visions. As such this is not illegitimate. The task of the elite is to show the way and to sell its views to the public, to the best of its abilities. The whole EU-project is an example of fortunate elitist advance planning. Even so, loud bad-mouthing of the European Union is a privilege which is made the most of. But nothing negative about underprivileged groups must appear in public. Political correctness implies a blackout on reporting, a deviation from the openness and honesty which weakens our plus-sum game. In the end it is more a hindrance than a help.

We ought to strive for an open mind which recognizes the behavior of the individual instead of the group identity. But the reputation of a group can, with a certain delay, be improved only by members who live up to higher standards, one by one. A linguistic redefinition is a cheap and condescending way to attempt to raise the status of a group which is discriminated against, with or without cause. It is also ineffective. “The name does not soil the man if the man does not soil the name” says a Finnish proverb.

Illuminating examples

Slavery is supposed to be abolished but it is still widespread particularly in Central Africa – in Niger the number of slaves is put at 43,000. Recently 7000 slaves were to be publicly released but the government changed its mind and frankly declared that there are no slaves in Niger. In Chad, Mali and Mauretania there are many slaves, too. No sanctions are contemplated by the international community; on the contrary, the slave countries enjoy considerable development aid. World opinion does not react because it would mark out dark-skinned people as slave-drivers and increase prejudices. Meanwhile slavery goes on and nobody lifts a finger.

It is only too easy to find additional examples of ridiculous, annoying and even injurious cases of opinion censorship. To revile Nazism, fascism and right-wing extremism generally is politically correct. On similar grounds the late remnants and new manifestations of communism ought to be a free for all in the political witch hunt – but that is not the case. The asymmetry reveals a resurrected quest for ‘cosmic’ justice which arrogantly prescribes the politically correct. The useful simpletons of the Soviet-supported peace movement are now fighting poverty in a way which secures the position of sundry corrupt potentates, if nothing else.

A last example demonstrates how good intentions in a tragicomic manner mix with political cynicism.

On the war fields of the developing countries, thousand of children are annually mutilated by landmines, indiscriminately dispersed in the terrain. Years of patient and dangerous mine removal are needed to solve this problem. The world community concentrated instead on a grand resolution, which banned production, trade, stocking and deployment of infantry mines. The Montreal protocol was signed in 1997 with great fanfare by a number of countries at a cost which did not exceed the ink on the paper. But the United States, Russia and China among others did not sign on.

Finland has a long and hard-to-defend border with Russia. No Finnish mine has ever hurt a civilian. Nevertheless, the Finnish president Tarja Halonen forced through the adherence to the Montreal agreement, referring to the international reputation of the country. It will cost about €200m extra to maintain the defense capability. This input will not save a single life, while the United Nations (UNMAS), the Quakers, the Methodists and other NGOs suffer from a chronic lack of resources in their field work. When political correctness is at stake, appearances are invariably more important than the realities on the ground.