Thursday, December 01, 2016

PC Denialism: Moira Weigel Explains That PC Is Totally Made Up By Trump And All In Your Head And Stuff

   This, by Moira Weigel, is pretty terrible.
   It's that time of the semester, and I don't have a lot of time to spend on this, but...the bottom-line: Weigel is either massively and systematically mistaken, or she is being intentionally dishonest, or some combination of the two.
   The relevant fact of the matter is:  political correctness is a real phenomenon.
   There is simply no seriously disputing this. Weigel's piece is just the latest in a long line of efforts by the left (see elsewhere hereabouts...I'm too lazy to link to it) to straightforwardly deny the facts. But saying so doesn't make it so, pomo-y gibberish notwithstanding. Weigel's piece is full of fallacies and outright falsehoods. I'm inclined to say that the very fact that the left is so desperate to deny the existence of PC should tell us something...but such protest-too-much arguments are notoriously shady and ripe for abuse...so...must...resist... (Hm...am I trying to have my cake and eat it too, here? Suggesting that criticism but explicitly disavowing it? I hope not... I don't mean to be...or do I?)
   But look: in a way, articles like this are good news. Here is a major, empirical claim by the PC left: PC does not exist. This is not some abstruse Foucauldian mumbo-jumbo, nor some pseudophilosophical sophistry that might, with sufficient deviousness, be defended until everyone loses interest...this is a straightforward empirical claim. And it is (relatively) straightforwardly refuted by the facts. Definitional niggling to the side, it is extremely easy to show that PC denialism is false. There are whole websites devoted to chronicling the antics of the kooky campus left. Here's one. Here's another. This is just a fast refutation: those sites are fairly low-grade, they get things wrong a fair bit, they spin, they covertly stump for Trump and so on. But they're far from valueless. FIRE's a much more serious place/organizatoin, and one dedicated to defending against just one particular type of craziness (right and left). If even half--even 1/3--of the widely-available reports of PC lunacy were true, we'd still have a very significant problem. But even without any effort at seriously gather evidence, here's something that's perfectly clear:
   The proposition that PC is not a real phenomenon is an empirical one
   And
   It is provably false
   It's also somewhat interesting, I suppose, that the assertion that PC is not a real phenomenon can itself plausibly be construed as a PC claim...but there's probably not a lot of reason to make too much of that.
   Weigel does get a fair bit of the straight history of political correctness right, to her credit--that is, of course, if you ignore the blatantly polemical parts of her account.
   There's really nothing new in the piece, so I won't bother to refute it in detail, but here's a depressingly representative paragraph. The author is writing of stuff by e.g. Chait and Haidt and Lukianoff:
These pieces committed many of the same fallacies that their predecessors from the 1990s had. They cherry-picked anecdotes and caricatured the subjects of their criticism. They complained that other people were creating and enforcing speech codes, while at the same time attempting to enforce their own speech codes. Their writers designated themselves the arbiters of what conversations or political demands deserved to be taken seriously, and which did not. They contradicted themselves in the same way: their authors continually complained, in highly visible publications, that they were being silenced.
   This is a stew of falsehoods and fallacies. Chait et al. don't "cherry-pick" anecdotes: they point to real incidents which, though often notable, are also representative of the broader phenomenon. Admittedly, when we're discussing phenomena of this kind at an informal level, we tend to focus on extreme examples--but this is standard practice and nothing peculiar to Chait and Haidt.  At any rate, at some point "cherry-picking" becomes just giving examples. And that's what critics of PC typically aim to do. But reasonable people might disagree on this point.
   But then we get:
They complained that other people were creating and enforcing speech codes, while at the same time attempting to enforce their own speech codes. 
That's some fairly high-grade intellectual dishonesty. First, the PCs did and do actually advocate for actual codes restricting expression, and they have been notably successful in getting them adopted. To the best of my knowledge, no prominent critic of PC has ever advocated for anti-PC speech codes. Chait, Lukianoff and Haidt certainly have not. To criticize policies limiting expression is not yourself to advocating a policy limiting expression. As sophistry goes, that bit above isn't even good sophistry.
   Furthermore, even if true, it would still be a fallacious tu quoque. Even if anti-PCs had advocated speech codes, that would not show that PCs had not advocated speech codes. Speech codes are wrong, and whoever advocates them is in the wrong. PCs undeniably advocated them--as even Weigel does not directly deny. Her only defense is the other side does it too! Which is false...but, even if true, would only be of marginal relevance.
   Furthermore: here we have another empirical claim: critics of PC advocate anti-speech codes. This should be provable, if true... So perhaps Weigel might cough up the evidence?
  I wouldn't hold my breath for it.
  Ok, these crap arguments are not worth this much time, so I'll condense the rest. Here's the next bit of the paragraph above:
[The] writers designated themselves the arbiters of what conversations or political demands deserved to be taken seriously, and which did not.
   To criticize a position is not to "set yourself up as an arbiter of what should be taken seriously. An arbiter is someone who has the power to decide more-or-less by fiat. To offer arguments that some view is false is nothing of the kind. Everyone has a right to speak on a subject of this sort, and to point to relevant arguments. To offer your opinion--especially when it is well-informed--is not to claim the power to rule on the issue. It's to exercise your right to participate in a discussion. Weigel's point here is unadulterated casuistry.
   (It might also be worth noting, as a kind of sidebar, that the PCs do seek to set themselves up in such a role. That's not a tu quoque against Weigel, it's just a relevant aside.)
   Finally, another bit of nonsnse:
They contradicted themselves in the same way: their authors continually complained, in highly visible publications, that they were being silenced.
If this argument were valid, it would mean that any prominent complaint about being silenced would be self-refuting. This really is a shabby bit of dishonesty. There is nothing self-refuting about writing in the Washington Post that some opinions on campuses are being silenced. I can complain here about infringements of rights there without thereby disproving my own point. Furthermore, no one anywhere has ever argued that the PC suppression of opinion is absolute. To argue that dissent is being stifled or discouraged is not to argue that dissent is impossible. Two seconds of serious thought should make this clear. There is simply no inconsistency involved in saying that someone is impeding your freedom to say things.
   And this is just one paragraph of Weigel's piece--though, admittedly, one of the worse ones. (Am I cherry-picking??)
   Political correctness is a significant problem. It's significant problem even if Donald Trump says it is. Even a stopped clock... But here I'm interested in a more minimal point: PC exists. It is a real phenomenon. The evidence for this is widely-available and not seriously refutable. Weigel's piece is merely the latest failed effort in a long line of failed efforts by PCs and their allies to deny that the movement/problem even exists. However, Weigel's arguments are patent sophistry, and the reality of PC is an empirical, provable matter.

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