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The tyranny of good manners

Correction and Power

Sylvia Eyzaguirre
PhD in Philosophy, University of Freiburg Á - N.1

The phenomenon of the politically correct —embedded in groups of political and universitary power— is finally a form of contempt and an attempt to annul the other, with the understanding that whichever disident is considered a dangerous enemy. What follows is an analysis of the rhetoric of control and the disqualifications that correspond to this tendency.

«If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all»


«Exacerbated political corretness ultimately supposes a disregard for democracy and the plants the seed for tyranny»


The sphere of political debate is currently under the threat of being kidnapped by the selfrightousness of political correctness that characterises some currents that attempt to impose their world views as the only acceptable ones and censure the discourses they dont agree with. It would seem like common sense to remember a language that promotes respect and sanctions the use of offensive words or statements, but it is important to remember that censure is also a violent act that limits freedom of expression and with that excludes world views. And common sense, named in order to recall a language of reciprocal respect, encloses the danger of expanding ad infinitum crushing freedom of expression and the different world views, which the majority of democratic constitutions recognise as an inalienable human right. This is precisely what we have been witnessing in the last years.

The scope of the politically correct has augmented enourmously. It sees itself expressed not only in determined uses of language, such as complex forms of referring to minority groups, which through euphamisms are used to stigmatise them, but also in the different world views that are considered illegitimate for not complying with current ideology


«In politics the censure guised as political correctness operates by moralising the discussion. With this the confrontation of ideas is avoided and a binomial is found between “goodies” and “baddies”. The strategy consists of imposing the point of view that appeals to sense of moral superiority, rendering arguments superfluous.»


Censuring Mark Twain

In the United States of America this phenomenon has reached worrying proportions, that today would capture public attention. I mention the examples that serve to show what is occuring. In Yale University, political correctness led this institution to interfere with Halloween costumes. In 2015, the Comittee of Intercultural Affairs sent a communication to the students, urging them not to use the said festivity costumes that could be offensive such as turbans, kimonos or marachi sombreros.1 This provoked a reaction from Professor Christakis, who considered the university communication invasive and defended the right of the students to dress as they thought best, including the risk of some costumes being offensive. This critique cost the professor her position, as she had to resign from giving classes at the university, after an important group of students verbally attacked her for questioning the intromision of the university in issues that to her seemed to be part of the sphere of the private lives of the students.2


In 2014, the Smith College held a seminar in order to reflect on the liberty of expression. One of the guest lecturers was Wendy Kaminer, an alumni, feminist and expert in the first amendment. In her presentation she criticised the proliferation of the language codes that censure not only expressions but also literature. For example, the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, has been criticised and some have argued that it should be forbidden in schools for use of the word nigger. This event generated a tremendous polemic in the interior of the university. The students protested against Kaminer and accused her of racism and inciting hate and violence only for the use of the word nigger and to try to reflect on the subject.3


Now, the censure that we have witnessed in the political arena is far more overwhelming as it goes further than the field of language, and looks to censure ideas. In her book The silencing. How the left is killing free speech, Kirsten Powers has the same hypothesis. Powers, a liberal woman of center-left, analyses how a fraction of liberals in the United States are responsible for the prevailing censoring in the country. The disidents of the liberal orthodoxy are accused as racists, mysoginists, homophobes, etc. For orthodox liberals, those who do not agree with marriage between two persons of the same sex do not have a traditional sense of marriage or a world view that merits respect, but are homophobic; those who oppose abortion do not value the life of the unborn baby as much as that of the new-born, but are mysoginists and do not respect the autonomy of woman over her own body. And so it the modus operandi of the orthodox: impose their world views as the “correct” ones, without arguments but from vilifying their opponents, accusing them of being racist, sexist, mysogynist, homophobic, etc. (p.5).


In politics, censorship disguised as political correctness operates by moralising the discussion. With it, the confrontation of ideas is avoided and a binary is created between those who are “good” and those who are “evil”. The strategy consists of imposing their viewpoint, appealing to a sense of moral superiority, rendering the arguments superfluous. In this way, contrary viewpoints are disqualified with ad hominem attacks or reducing the subject in question, eliminating all the complexity and characturising the contrary position. At the heart of this attitude lies the conviction that the dissent is not legitimate, and from here begins the endeavor to illegitimise it. Power recognises two tactics used, dehumanise the contrite and demonise their position. In her book she quotes the psychologist and philosopher David Livingstone Smith, who affirms that a common strategy in ancient cultures as well as modern societies that look to expand their power base, is the systematic attacking of the nucleus of the human identity of the enemy, (p. 25) the strategy consists of denigrating them, attacking their human condition: racist, mysogynist, xenophobe, homophobe, etc. On the other hand, demonising the position of the contrite looks for nothing but to discredit said position to a point where it becomes socially costly to defend it. It works as a threat for all that wish to introduce a hue and reflect on a contrary position. Whoever is ready to take this step would have to pay a high cost, which is the best way to threaten the debate. That high cost is the one which academics such as Sofia Correa and Rafael Gumucio have had to pay. Both were lynched by the feminist movement and by students of their own universities for introducing shades when reflecting on the current univeristy feminist movement.


«For some young, leftist politicians, ethical dilemmas would seem not to exist. The good or the just is already settled and those who do not share in this idea of justice or good are considered outright “evil” or in the best of cases, ignorant.»


Moralism as strategy

In Chile, the champions of political correctness are, with some exceptions, the young politicians of the left. These youths are characterized by a lack of doubt and an abundance of certainties on diverse subject matters, as if all issues were susceptible to the same degree of “truth”, without distinguishing the principles from instruments. They are Taliban when it comes to defending diversity, the minorities, those who are in disadvantaged positions, but absolutely intolerant to the minorities and the diversity that does not think as they do and who do not share their ideas. They preach their ideas from a pedestal of moral superiority, violently cataloguing the ideas that contradict theirs. Some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage (Winston Churchill).


Without a doubt this strategy of moralising politics is useful and the political correctness is its combat arm. Political correctness as it works today is a wolf (censorship) dressed as a lamb (good manners), which uses the victimisation as a shield and censorship as a sword. But however well the wolf is disguised as a lamb, it is still a wolf. It is important to warn of the danger around political correctness, without recognising that in certain moments the risk is less than the benefit. This intent to hegemonise the discourse supposes in the last instance a conempt for democracy and plants the seed of tyranny. Political Correctness is tyranny with manners, as the controvertial Hollywood actor and political activist Charlton Heston says.1


Democracy, in its essence, recognises not only the diversity of views of the world that exist in a society but also values and legitimises that plurality. This supposes citizen equality, which is to say, not to consider some above the rest. This basic and fundamental principle of democracy is that political differences are ditched at the polls. The contempt for otherness, the lack of recognition of the legitimacy of other views of the world, implies a lack of recognition that different views of the world have the same right, and implies that there are some that are morally above others, going against the fundaments of democracy. The condition of the possibility that a superior view of the world or a superior political posture can exist, is a moral or ethical universal, that is to say, is absolutely true for all and for ever.


But here we find ourselves with the great ethical dilemma, its fundament. After Kant’s critique on material ethics it becomes impossible to affirm singular judgements a priori, which is to say that its validity is for everyone and in any circumstance. If by way of reason we cannot give content to the “Good” with absolute certainty, how do we legitimise an ethic? The danger that we find in this vaccum of legitimacy is the fall of relative moralism, which annoys whoever sees the need to protect values that are fundamental. Important thinkers -such as Habermas, Rawls and Arendt, amoung others-, are in charge of this issue recognising the precariousness of the situation and intending from this precarity to fundament an ethic, as although we have no absolute truths in ethics, it does not liberate the necessity to found a shared ethics, that protects our life in community.2


The political correctness that predominates the current political debate seems to completely ignore this situation. It is only a matter of listening to Giorgio Jackson or to the excandidate of the deputy Fernando Atria or Alberto Mayol to warn us that ethical dilemmas would seem not to exist. For them, the just or the good is already ditched and those who do not share this idea of justice or of good —as well as the instruments they defend as if they were principles— are considered decidedly “evil” or in the best of cases, ignorant.


The problem of moral arguments in politics is that they destroy one of the principles upon which democracy is founded, which is equality among people. On the ethical plane the absolute truths are considered at least doubtful. Believing that some are in the right and others are mistaken in everything, reveals a subestimation of the “other” and, even worse, the negation of the legitimate different possibilities, that shelter globalised and pluralist societies, that don’t let themselves be reduced to particular interests or simply to the paradigm of “rich and poor”, “bad and good”, “abusers and abused”, “right and left”. This can only occur when we do not see that in the other there is also a “you”.


The prevailing dogmatism denotes a worrying certainty on what is right and what is wrong. This certitude is dangerous, because it destroys critical thinking, it renders it something obvious and leaves us to be the herd submitted to the thinking of the masses, which is nothing more than the resignation of thinking. Liberty of expression is uncomfortable, as it protects precisely the opinions that most trouble us. But it is preferable to live with the discomfort and even the unnerving publicity of those who think radically differently to us, to accept a discourse whose violence lies in the intent of homogenization. I have here the famous phrase that we should once more claim I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it (Evelyn Beatrice Hall).

  1. The communication is accessible in the following link
  2. En el siguiente link se puede leer la carta de reclamo de la profesora Christakis Esta polémica se enmarca dentro del debate sobre apropiación cultural (cultural appropiation), que cuestiona el uso libre de prendas de vestir o adornos por ser una apropiación inadecuada de una cultura ajena.
  3. See: article «Yale lecturer Resigns after e-mail on Halloween costumes», en The New York Times, 7 de Diciembre del 2015.
  4. El libro de Kirsten Powers The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech (pp. 13) relata este caso en detalle. En adelante, este libro será citado solo mencionando la o las páginas entre paréntesis.
  5. A friend suggested that I remove this quote not for its content, but because of who professes it. I cannot agree less with Charlton Heston’s political position and his pro arms movement, but it doesn’t mean that his phrase isn’t true and that I can’t use it. Quoting his phrase doesn’t make me sympathetic to his cause.
  6. Eyzaguirre, S., 2016. «No es en absoluto evidente», Estudios Públicos, N° 144, pp. 292-293.

Sylvia Eyzaguirre