The Children of Political Correctness

Howard S. Schwartz

Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.—George Orwell, 1984

The New PC

The term “political correctness” (PC) has gone through several iterations since its emergence in the late 1980s. When the term was first defined by Richard Bernstein in 1990, it was mostly a reference to the multicultural agenda of the campus left, which was then working hard (and successfully) to redefine Western and American history and culture as a power hierarchy dominated at the top by white, (mostly) Christian men.1 Beginning in the 1990s, many thought that PC had gone into remission, but that was just because it attracted little notice. In fact, far from disappearing, it became ubiquitous; everybody knew their lines and almost nobody strayed from them. Now it is again the focus of attention in a form that is often referred to as the “new PC.”2

In perhaps the most influential analysis of the new PC, George Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, writing in the Atlantic, define it thus:

[The new PC] presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim.3

Under the supposition that the new PC is different from the old PC, the question arises, where has it come from? Answers to this question have generally pointed to the upbringing of the students, often called “snowflakes,” which is said to have differed from the way American students have traditionally been raised. Often, it is claimed that these are the children of parents—sometimes called “helicopter parents”—who have interceded whenever their progeny have been faced with dangers in their lives, or even potential dangers, and who have therefore created a cohort of college students who are hypersensitive to threat. Lukianoff and Haidt put it this way:

Childhood itself has changed greatly during the past generation . . . The surge in crime from the ’60s through the early ’90s made Baby Boomer parents more protective than their own parents had been . . . In a variety of ways, children born after 1980—the Millennials—got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm . . .

So it’s not hard to imagine why students arriving on campus today might be more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past.

I will refer to this explanation as the coddling model. It is certainly appealing, but as a generalization, I find it less than convincing. I would like to offer a different explanation for the new PC, but first let me explain some of my concerns about Lukianoff and Haidt’s thesis.

The premise is that parents perceive the world as a more dangerous place than it used to be, and transmit their sense of danger to their children. But is it really more dangerous? For one thing the level of crime in the U.S., although it has turned up recently in certain cities, has been going down dramatically for about twenty-five years. Many of today’s college students have not lived a day in their lives when the crime rate where they live was not dropping. If the increase was reflected in parental protectiveness, why was the decrease not reflected?

This question raises an interesting possibility, which is that some of the sense of threat was not occasioned by physical danger, but was psychogenic. One need only recall the panic surrounding the supposed epidemic of child abuse in day care centers that occurred during the 1980s, all being the product of children’s fantasies, generated, reinforced, validated, and amplified by adults. In cases like this, one cannot say that an increase in protectiveness was a reasonable response to physical threat. Instead, one should say that the overprotectiveness and the fear of the physical threat were both psychological manifestations, whose cause is unexplained.

But the coddling model only works if the parents’ sense of danger is internalized by the children. And how is that supposed to have happened? Generally, the supposed threats from which parents are protecting their children have either been denatured or have not really been threats to begin with. When I was in the first grade, I walked to my school, which was two blocks away, as did every other kid at the school. We never thought of this as dangerous, nor did our parents, and it wasn’t. But, suppose we fast-forward a few generations to the present time, in which, hypothetically, the parents would have thought that walk was intolerably dangerous. Would that necessarily have been internalized by the children? I suggest that is by no means guaranteed.

Another possibility would have been that the children thought the parents were being overprotective, or crazy, or that they lived in some kind of “parent-world” whose rules did not necessarily make sense and certainly do not deserve automatic credibility. The boomer parents themselves, in their youth, demonstrated the ease with which children deflect parental worries, a whole generation scoffing at their elders’ consternation over sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. So where would their presumed sense of danger have come from?

An interesting example of this gap in the sense of endangerment is provided by Haidt and another co-author, Lenore Skenazy, who tell of a Washington Post columnist

who answered the phone one day and was shocked to find her 8-year-old son on the other end. He'd accidentally gone home when he was supposed to stay after school. Realizing she wasn't there, he decided to walk to the store a few blocks away—his first time. The mom raced over, fearing God knows what, and rushed in only to find her son happily helping the shopkeeper stock the shelves with meat. He'd had a snack and done his homework, too. It was an afternoon he'd never forget, and neither would his very proud mother4

In this case, I think we can take it for granted that the mother felt proud of the courage of her son, but the sense of danger was experienced by the parent, not the kid, who seemed wholly unaware of his own gallantry. I conclude from this that the predicate of a feeling of physical endangerment has not been laid, nor has this sense of endangerment been internalized. But the sense of being endangered by ideas is premised on an analogy to physical danger. Take away that premise and how is one to explain endangerment by ideas? There must be a reason why it has come about now, but absent the connection to an increase in physical endangerment, what other proximal cause could there be?

Even the notion that young adult sensitivity is amplified by the increasing polarization of our political debates requires further scrutiny. The polarization is unexplained, and it is just as likely to be an effect of “vindictive protectiveness” as its cause. Or, for that matter, it could have the same cause as the feeling of endangerment and the drive toward protectiveness. At any rate, the failure of explanation leaves the connection as a non sequitur.

There are other peculiarities with the political dimension of the coddling model. The most obvious is that the vindictiveness only seems to run in one direction. At least at this point, these attacks have almost unanimously been made by the left against the right. But if it has been the increase in political polarization that has been responsible for the new PC, why has this happened only on one side? Republicans don’t like Democrats any more than Democrats like Republicans. Why don’t they try to silence them in equal measure?

More interestingly, it seems to me, is that our snowflakes do not appear to be afraid. They are not defensive, but aggressive. This is clear in the fact that their supposed needs for safety are phrased in the form of demands, with the implied premise that, if the authorities do not comply, something bad will be done to them. Take the case of the clearly recorded and widely viewed Halloween confrontation between Nicholas Christakis and a group of students at Yale. Ask yourself who is posing a threat to whom? Or consider that, ostensibly out of fear of being triggered, students have often engaged in violent activity. In order to keep Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury College, for example, students physically attacked him and those who had invited him, injuring a female faculty member. And students at Berkeley indulged themselves in a riot to keep Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking, setting fires on campus, breaking windows, and beating the hell out people.5 One could go on.

It is also noteworthy that a large percentage of snowflakes make no claim to being frightened themselves, but rest their concern on the idea that others will be frightened. They see themselves as “allies” of those who would be endangered, rather than as potential victims; their fear of being triggered is based on fear that someone else will be triggered. I call this “protective snowflakery.”

So taking these two observations together—the fact that vindictiveness runs primarily from left to right, and that most of these political dramas are protective rather than defensive—it appears that the new PC is the same as the old PC, under a new guise.

Nevertheless, there does appear to be something substantively new about the snowflake phenomenon. Snowflakes do, indeed, appear to be made insecure and threatened by ideas. The increased levels of anxiety and depression they experience also seem to be well documented, as is the increase in suicide. But if they have not, through osmosis, absorbed the fears of their helicopter parents, where does the insecurity come from?

My argument is that snowflake fear stems from symbolic threat; they feel endangered on the level of meaning. Snowflake fear is not the product of overly protective parents, but of a culture that has overthrown the socialization that has protected previous generations from the anxiety that is an inevitable part of life. In fact, they have grown up in a world defined largely by political correctness, a world in which received values and principles are seen, at least in part, as corrupt; a world structured around the attack on socializing institutions, a world that defines purpose mostly through identification with that very attack.

The Children of Political Correctness

In a number of volumes between the years 2000 and 2016, I provided a psychoanalytic way of looking at the psychological dynamics underlying political correctness. For the present, I would like to avoid an extended theoretical reckoning and turn directly to the result, which by itself is a perfectly common way to look at things.6

According to this view, the course of growing up in our society traditionally involves a shift from the world of the mother, whose love provides us with a feeling of goodness and importance, of being the center of a loving world, to the sphere of the father, which is the broader world that is indifferent to us and in which we have no special place. As we gradually separate from our mother and encounter this indifferent world, the result can only be profound anxiety.

Father has learned to get by in this indifferent world, and through his accomplishments, has gained a place in mother’s love. We learn from him how to survive and thrive in this indifferent world. At first we learn directly and then from others who have the same function for us, which psychoanalysis calls the paternal function. The hope is that, having learned to survive and succeed, we will be able to gain a place of love and importance, modeled on our early experience with mother, as father seems to have done. This gives us a basic template for our lives: we have tasks to perform and an ultimate goal, becoming again the center of a loving world, which Freud called the ego ideal, in which we are freed from anxiety.

But this program of socialization is premised on the belief that mother loves father, or that generally women appreciate men, and in our time that premise has become increasingly difficult to maintain. Men are no longer seen as having gained women’s love through their accomplishments; they are almost universally held in contempt. It is believed that the love, appreciation, and status they have been afforded in the past has been gained only through their power. In effect they have stolen it.

Their accomplishments count for little because the world they have produced has been deeply oppressive and flawed: it is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and so on. Mother hates him for it. Her underlying premise is that, simply by being herself, and without his domination, she would have done so much better.

The World of the Primitive Mother

In order to get a sense of what is going on here, one needs to understand mother as she is experienced by the child. She is a perfect instantiation of goodness and omnipotence. Her love is the source of our sense of goodness and importance. She may give or withhold it, which makes her, by far, the most powerful figure in the psyche.

However, this is fantasy. She is not really our mother, but a fantasy of mother; we’ll call her the primitive or primordial mother. Melanie Klein refers to her as the good breast. And children maintain this fantasy by splitting off all the withholding, hurtful aspects of mother and seeing them as coming from her negative counterpart, which Klein calls the bad breast. In this way, the goodness of the good breast, which is essential for the infant’s sense of security, is preserved.

Political correctness has its roots in feminism, which rests on an identification, usually but not entirely by women, with this powerful primitive mother, and an attempt to see and experience things from what is presumed to be her perspective. We will return to this shortly and use it as a way of understanding our snowflakes, but first I want to fill in the theory of political correctness a bit more generally, defining some of its terms.

A Glossary of Political Correctness

The father, the heterosexual white male, the Patriarch, has stolen mother’s love. And from whom has he stolen it? Well, from mother and all women to begin with, but from there, all those who are unlike him: transgendered people, homosexuals, “people of color,” disabled people, refugees, and so on, all of whom are called marginalized. When those who have been so victimized are black, or “people of color,” the deprivation of love is called racism. When they are homosexual, it is homophobia, and so on. Without his theft, they would all be what I call the pristine self, the center of a loving world, as they were at the beginning, when bathed in mother’s perfect love. White men are presumed to continue to enjoy this love because they continue to steal it.

Father’s claim to the value of his accomplishments is not factually rebutted, but dismissed as patriarchy or white supremacy. The status in which he and the other heterosexual white males have been bathed, in the form of reputation, idealization, honor, deference, and so on, as well as material forms, such as wealth, high level occupations and the like, have been unearned; they are, in effect, stolen goods. Their possession by whites, and especially white males, is always illegitimate. It is a structural feature of our oppressive society that is called white privilege.

My claim is that our snowflakes grew up in a world defined by this complex fantasy. This world is structured around hatred of and contempt for the father and love and appreciation for the marginalized, from whom he stole it, and who hold him responsible for this theft. In other words, it is experienced as an antagonism between the forces of good and evil, which we call “social justice warfare.”

The New PC

In understanding our snowflakes, it is critically important to recognize what this implies for the concepts of self that are allowable in this world, as opposed to the world of traditional Western civilization. All such concepts are roles in this morality play.

First off, it is clear that the white, male, “cis-gendered” heterosexual identity is what Erving Goffman called a “spoiled” identity.7 A white, heterosexual male will be seen as, in effect, a clone of the demonized Patriarch. The world of political correctness will be structured against him; he functions as a classic scapegoat. In other times, he would have been called the devil. Within the politically correct social system, his job is to absorb the blame for any deprivation of the perfect love to which the marginalized are entitled. Without his depredations, they would all be the center of a loving world. In Melanie Klein’s terms, he is the “bad breast” who functions to preserve the fantasy of the absolute goodness of the good breast.

He cannot make his way in the indifferent world, seeking to accomplish something, and in that way get back to mother’s love, since the very idea of an indifferent world has been defined as subterfuge for use only for the purposes of his attainment of domination. The available possibilities are circumscribed by this dismal outlook.

To be sure, he can withdraw from the drama, giving himself over to the world of videogames and internet pornography, but he then loses his place in the life of intersexual interaction and hence family. If he seeks to remain within it, he can transform the parts of his identity that are defined as malleable, joining a group defined by one or another of the apparently infinite list of marginalized “genders,” or he can take a supporting role in the war for social justice, becoming an ally of one or more of the marginalized groups, and structuring his life against himself. Or, he can just give his life over to the experience of pain and guilt.

Jordan Peterson reports that a substantial majority of those who view his videos on YouTube are men. Clearly, they are looking to understand the contemporary world in a way that has a place for them. It is also of interest to note that around 80-85 percent of the members of HeterodoxAcademy, Jonathan Haidt’s attempt to rescue the university from the hegemony of political correctness, are men, most likely because they interpret PC as primarily directed at them.

If the white, heterosexual, male identity is spoiled, everything different from it, collectively called “diversity,” is vibrant, insofar as each non-white, non-male identity can be defined through their difference, each claiming a specific form of deprivation. Their identity, therefore, is not defined by their skin color, or their sexual orientation, as such. It is defined by an ideology about their skin color, sexual orientation, and so on. These ideologies are statements of the grounds, as they see it, of their hatred of the father and the corresponding claims that they make on the mother for the love that would be theirs if the father had not stolen it. When we speak of a “culture of victimization,” this is what we are talking about.8

Predominant here is the world of women, even white women. Their identity as victims is subject to enhancement through an identification with the primitive mother. Not all women commit this identification, to be sure, but many do. The name we give to their collective identification is “feminism.”

Political correctness began in feminism and never strays far from it. Many scholars, including Jordan Peterson, have located its roots in postmodernism and cultural Marxism. That analysis is correct, as far as it goes, but it has the limitation that these theories do not address the emotional power of political correctness, which is where its strength as a social movement lies.

Returning to the woman who has committed this identification, what will she do with this fantasy of omnipotence? Well, obviously, she will use it to protect the children. That, after all, is where her enjoyment of her omnipotence and goodness lies. She needs to protect them in order to realize herself. But what will she protect them from?

We have questioned whether she is protecting them from physical threat. Certainly, their rioting and beating people up does not support the idea that physical threat is a major concern for them. Our premise is that she is protecting them from ideas, but if the ideas are not to be likened to physical threat, what kind of ideas is she protecting them from, and how are they threatening?

The key to understanding this is the concept of the pristine self. As we have seen, if the world were what it could have been if the father had not stolen the love, they would be touched by nothing but love, being the centers of a loving world. Drawing upon her support, they define themselves as creatures of goodness and importance. What she is defending them against are ideas that threaten their self-definitions of goodness and importance.

What is new in the snowflake children of PC, therefore, is that they are approaching the world as if it were their mother; or rather their primitive fantasy of mother. In psychoanalytic terms, this attachment represents a failure of separation. Feminism, which rests on an identification with this primitive mother, supports this approach to the world and defends them against ideas that contradict it.

This is the point at which this fantasy runs up hard against reality, for the truth is that the world is not our mother. It existed before we were born and will continue to exist after we are dead. If we had never existed, it would not even recognize that we were missing. Far from being the centers of a loving world, we are peripheral, marginal characters in a world that doesn’t give a damn about us. That’s heavy stuff, it is precisely the stuff out of which anxiety is made. We can easily understand that people would want to reject it.

In the traditional psychology, we would do so by identifying and internalizing the father; that is, by socialization. But that possibility is foreclosed to us.

The thing is that in denying the accomplishment of the father, we must deny the very field of his accomplishment, which is the external, indifferent, objective world itself. Repudiate him and the idea of the world‘s indifference loses its legitimacy. His claims about the indifference of the world are seen as a subterfuge that he has promulgated to provide a base for his power, which in the absence of its usefulness, is simply pure oppression.

The world as understood by this idealized mother, then, is centered around the child, which by extension means any member of a “marginalized” group. If the world engages him positively, it is love; if it does not, since it cannot be indifference, it must be hate, or, to use another term of the new PC, microaggression.

Conclusion: Feeling Threatened by Ideas

We have set ourselves the task of understanding why it is that our snowflakes feel threatened by ideas that they disagree with. What is at issue are those ideas that call into question the way the politically correct person has defined himself.

The only roles, and therefore the only possibilities for a self, are those defined within the war of social justice: Hating the father, the heterosexual white male, for his theft and loving the marginalized, which means justifying and supporting their feeling of having been aggrieved by him.

We all define ourselves and through self-definition, make possibilities for ourselves that are meaningful, retrospectively and also prospectively. In this way we establish who we are and what it makes sense for us to do.

Within the traditional psychology, this process of self-definition takes place on a continual basis. We are constantly receiving feedback from our interaction with the world which provides us with information about the validity of our actions, which we then use to refine, in small ways and in big ways, our ideas about ourselves. But the capacity to use this negative information is dependent on our idea that there is an objective world outside of ourselves that must be engaged on its own terms. In the absence of that, information that conflicts with our idea of our importance and perfect goodness threatens the validity of the whole model. The fantasies upon which our idea of ourselves is based can be maintained only through the maintenance of the fantasies underlying the war of social justice.

The only stories that go into the individual’s self-definition are the stories of how, and by whom, the marginalized groups have been oppressed. And since they are all structural elements of the drama, they must all reinforce each other. They therefore need to be homogeneous, if not entirely the same. The details may change, but the details are not real and do not matter. What is important is the meaning, and that remains identical.

Thus, as far as their functioning in our snowflakes’ sense of meaning is concerned Trayvon Martin becomes Michael Brown, becomes Eric Garner, becomes Freddie Gray. In some cases, especially where the facts actually do support the narrative, a collapse of time can take place in which the story is repeated, unchanged, as if it happened yesterday, and indeed as if it continues to happen today. Thus, for example, the brutal 1955 murder in Mississippi of fourteen year-old Emmett Till is recounted in the song Hell You Talmbout, to protest police shootings in 2015. It is also why it makes no difference when what is supposed to be an event caused by racism is revealed to be a hoax. No number of such instances can affect the underlying truth, which is not a generalization but an axiom. What we see, again and again, is that the maintenance of the story is what is important, with the world of facts having only the function of providing scenery.

Our snowflakes, therefore, exist only as ideas, and that is why they are uniquely threatened by contrary ideas. What is at issue with these fantastical images is the person who has defined himself through them. If the ideas fell apart, he would fall apart, and with that, his sense of what it makes sense to do in life, and indeed whether life makes sense at all. The threat here is not physical, but symbolic, existential. You’d have a hard time imagining any circumstance more conducive to anxiety and depression.

But to get a real sense of how socially toxic this whole thing can be, put together what has been said about the fragility of the individual snowflake with what we know about the way the snowflake fantasies play out in protectiveness. Then they are protecting others, defined as marginalized, from ideas which contradict what are presumed to be their own self-definitions.

Victims don’t need to be present for this to happen, because it is the snowflake’s presumption of the others’ self-definitions that needs to be maintained. This is not for the sake of the marginalized, but in order to maintain the identity of the snowflake, and that requires only the presence of the marginalized as an idea in the mind of the snowflake. In this way, individual pathology becomes social movement, and one whose power we all know.

Political correctness operates in a world that exists only in the mind. In fact, the news that there is a world outside our minds, which is indifferent to us, is the quintessential politically incorrect idea. That world will not go away just because we try to banish it, and our acts of banishment inevitably will lead to increased conflict with it, which will require increasing our efforts at banishment. Political correctness has taken us past the half-way point on a very dangerous path.

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