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The Science Behind Political Correctness, Explained

2016 March 9

In 2014, a muslim student at The University of Michigan was harassed for a satirical column he wrote about the oversensitivity of students at his school. As Jonathan Chait described in a post in New York Magazine, the student was viewed as a perpetrator rather than a victim because he mocked politically correct norms.

Yet just in case you think that political correctness is strictly in the realm of the liberal left, consider the case of Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Wheaton College who was forced out after expressing sympathy for Muslims after the Charlie Hebdo attack, or Steven Salaita, a professor censured for criticizing Israel.

Political correctness, all too often, is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s empathy is another’s insensitivity, or so it would seem. But whatever your opinion of the merits and demerits of political correctness, it is, at least in part, a technological phenomenon. So perhaps instead of the usual vicious cycle of recriminations, we should look for deeper roots.

The Global Village

Marshal McLuhan, in his classic Understanding Media, one of the most influential books of the 20th century described media as “extensions of man” and argued that technologies like the Gutenberg printing press not only accelerated the spread of information, but also affected human thought itself. In effect, the medium is the message.

Following this same line of thought, he predicted that the new electronic media that were emerging at the time would lead to a global village and people would be able to instantly exchange ideas and experiences across vast chasms of time and space. Communities would no longer be tied to a physical place, but intermingle with others on a world stage.

Importantly, McLuhan did not see the global village as a peaceful place. In fact, he predicted it would lead to a new form of tribalism, and result in a “release of human power and aggressive violence” greater than ever in history, as long separated —and emotionally charged—cultural norms would now constantly intermingle, clash and explode.

Clearly, political correctness is a product of that cultural collision. Arguments that cannot be decided by rational debate—and cultural beliefs never are—can only be won by cultural dominance. What makes the stakes even higher is that, as we will see, majorities don’t merely legislate they also influence, making activism around cultural issues a dire political necessity.

The Subtle Power Of Conformity

In the 1950’s, Solomon Asch, a prominent psychologist at Swarthmore College, conducted a series of conformity experiments that shed further light on the rise of political correctness. The design of the study was simple, but ingenious. Asch showed a group of people a series of cards like these:
Asch_experiment 600px
Each person in the group was asked to match the line on the left with the line of the same length on the right. However, there was a catch: almost everyone in the room was a confederate who gave the wrong answer. When it came to the real subjects’ turn to answer, most conformed to the majority opinion even when it was clearly wrong.

Clearly, we are heavily influenced by our immediate surroundings, but more recent research has found that the effect extends to three degrees of social distance. So it is not only those we know well, but even the friends of our friend’s friends affect how we think and behave, even for health issues like obesity and smoking.

However, Asch also showed that including one or two dissenters in the group drastically brought down the pressure to conform. So the practical implications of political correctness are immense. If what we see as moral and appropriate can be affected by the views prevalent in our surroundings, silencing even minor dissent becomes hugely important.

Network Warfare

It used to be that those who wanted to promote an idea or create change would build an institution like a church or a community organization. These were mostly geographically focused and members would meet on a regular basis to exchange views and form consensus. Such institutions formed the backbone of every community.

Today, however, we live in McLuhan’s global village and such institutions thrive in cyberspace. Small groups, similar to those in Asch’s conformity study can link up with other small groups of like mind and forge a common purpose. As the idea cascades through social networks, a movement begins to coalesce around it.

This does not, of course, happen in a vacuum. At any given time there are any number of movements looking to spread their idea. Often, these have built strong grassroots followings, but have not yet won the hearts of the mainstream. So to propagate any further, it is absolutely essential to silence dissent.

As Moises Naim has pointed out, power has become easier to gain, but harder to use or keep. So the will to power is no longer focused solely on institutions, but networks. Today’s activism thrives within invisible links, often propagated through cyberspace, to create cohesion and promote adherence to the cause.

Why Some Movements Fail and Others Succeed

Now we can see why the battles over political correctness are so highly charged—the stakes are enormously high. If, for example, you want to promote gay rights or the safety of Israel, any dissenting view is a serious threat that cannot be countenanced if your cause is to prevail. Political correctness arises not from irrational sensitivity, but political necessity.

Yet there is always a danger of overreach. In order to prevail, movements must capture the mainstream, so an overly militant reaction to a minor transgression carries important risks. Images of an ostracized student or a mild mannered professor being hounded out of her profession do not play well among the greater populace.

So the political correctness game must be played subtly. Dissent must be discouraged, but not bludgeoned in such a way that perpetrators appear to become victims. If political correctness is to succeed as a tactic to make an opposing view untenable for the mainstream, then it must be pursued with subtle guile rather than howls of execration.

For the rest of us, political correctness can mostly be considered a kabuki theatre played out for our benefit. It is, after all, the mainstream opinion that is being fought over. While the wars over political correctness will undoubtedly continue to rage, even in a global village, we retain our power to choose peace.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Sharrock permalink
    March 10, 2016

    Greg, I like your relating McLuhan and the political correctness movement. I’ve seen the slippery slope arguments that quote Orwell’s paper on euphemism “Politics and the English Language” (, a danger I had first learned about from Dr. Michael Drout in his master course lectures. You have me thinking about McLuhan’s “the medium IS the message.” The power of the screen and its magnification of movement and position are overwhelming in its implications. I took an introductory class on classical film and some of the takeaways were about the impact of set framing and camera angle. And since nearly everyone carries a video camera and can broadcast video segments to nearly anywhere, “tribes” or virtual communities can (and do) seem to spring up around minor as well as major topics. I’m not sure that there is any difference between TV or YouTube, although nothing can compare with watching a movie on the Big Screen.

  2. March 10, 2016

    Great points Duane. Thanks for sharing them.

    – Greg

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