We generally think of critiquing political correctness as a conservative talking point. This is a grave mistake. There is much to dislike about haughty individuals telling us what to think, no matter what our political colors. Polly Toynbee, columnist for the Guardian, is misguided in suggesting that the left should just ignore the term in the hope that it goes away. The fact is, love it or loathe it, the term political correctness resonates very strongly with millions of registered voters. Why not then reinvigorate what was once the strong tradition of critiquing political correctness from a leftist perspective?
The late great sociologist Stuart Hall, an Anglo-Caribbean academic, father of cultural studies and rigorous opponent of Thatcherism, might not seem an obvious candidate for critiquing PC. But his warnings, written in 1996, on the cusp of the internet age, are more urgent now than ever. Identity politics had been making inroads into academia for some time and Hall could see serious problems with its less nuanced manifestations. There has always been an opportunity cost to talking about race, gender and, to an extent, class. The act of speaking about these social constructs makes them real when it is more generally the mission of progressives to deconstruct those categories, to expose them as fraudulent and poisonous to social mobility and equality of opportunity. If I were to say to you you have no right to an opinion on this subject as a cis white male, I would be unintentionally acknowledging the primacy of those formulations over other socially constructed identities. As Hall puts it “the politics of opposition to racist systems of classification so often operates in exactly the same way discursively as the systems it contests: through an essentialized conception of race.” This phenomenon has been termed Hall’s Dilemma in his honor. In the grievance politics era, many have failed to acknowledge the continuing pertinence of this dilemma and the importance of always treating race and gender as constructed categories, never as hardened realities.
It’s not just left-wing identity politics that faces this problem. The more right-orientated charge of virtue signaling also reifies (makes real) those classifications. The charge of virtue signaling implies that concern for those belonging to a socio-economically disadvantaged group, of which you are not a member, must be less than genuine. The charge entrenches those group distinctions in the process. Has this been the intention of the internet libertarians all along—to reinforce the discursive systems of race/class/gender from which they undoubtedly benefit? Unlikely, but at the very least it is evidence of horseshoe theory in action when strange synergies appear between extreme left and right wing politics. (The charge of virtue signaling also has massive detrimental implications for the proper functioning of the public sphere. It is impossible to have a reasoned debate with someone who thinks you are deceiving them about your underlying motivations).
Political correctness refers to the style of a particular politics, as well to as a specific philosophical content. This style attempts to shame rhetorical opponents into acquiescence—seemingly without bothering to try to convince them of the merits of a particular viewpoint. This is a hopeless strategy when applied to questions of interpretation rather than fact. People generally don’t mind being corrected on questions of fact, but they deeply resent being corrected on questions of interpretation. We all remember the debate on the internet over the color of that blue/black or white/gold dress. People went crazy at the possibility that other people might legitimately have a different interpretation of the same phenomenon. So it is with forms of representation along lines of identity. What is offensive to one person, literate in a particular language of representation, might not be offensive to another suspended in a different web of meaning, to use Geertz’s phrase. To educate people into understanding the historical underpinnings of a particular racist image, for example, is laudable from an empathy point of view. Hall would have a problem with this too, however. Attempting to solidify race along any linear historical trajectory would, to his mind, essentialize race as a fixed category, when it should be seen as a sliding signifier. What Hall offered as an alternative was an ambitious project indeed—he wanted to smash the very means of production of race as a cultural marker.
The question facing Hall, of course, was how to do this without making the same mistakes as the advocates of political correctness? Stuart Hall describes the fundamental divide between Hall’s prescriptions and those of PC as follows:
This is the divide between, on the one hand, those who believe that politics consists of getting ‘our side’ where ‘their side’ used to be, and then exercising power in exactly the way they did. This binary strategy of governing society by ‘policing’ it will be justified because it is our side that is doing it. On the other hand, there are those who believe the task of politics in a post-industrial society at a postmodern moment is to unsettle permanently all the configurations of power, preventing them—right or left—from ever settling again into that unconsciousness, the ‘deep sleep of forgetfulness,’ which power so regularly induces and which seems to be a condition of its operation.
The theoretical distinction here is reasonably clear, less clear is how that distinction would work in practice.
Outside the protected realm of academia, out in the messy real world, did Hall really expect the victims of racism to point out the problems of essentialism, rather than fight back with a reified group identity as per identity politics? He is somewhat evasive on this question. Perhaps he would have demanded that those who believed in the emancipatory potential of mobilizing on the basis of race were, at the very least, open about the hidden costs of that approach.
Was Hall suggesting a broader cultural studies style education as an answer? Perhaps a rigorous examination of the historical contingency of racial and gender classifications would eventually release humanity from their terrible grip on our imaginations. This would not be a case of gender whispering or propagandizing, but a strategy in keeping with the pursuit of truth. The concepts of gender and race are historically contingent, so why not make that knowledge a staple in the classroom? This has the added advantage of not being patronizing or telling people how to interpret the world—it’s just about letting them know that race and gender are interpretations and, like all interpretations, they have a history. Hall never said that changing the frame in this way would be easy, but it has the merit at least of not being self-defeating.