I first began hearing the term “politically correct” in the late 90s. Back then, it was still being used with a sense of humor, and those who were labeled as such felt embarrassed by it. Today, the term itself is politically incorrect and cannot be used lightheartedly. At this point, it is apparent that political correctness is not a temporary phase. It has persisted over two decades, and each successive generation is getting more politically correct than the previous. What is driving this long-term trend?
Many readers would likely find my theory offensive, dangerous, and/or irresponsible, but before you decide to cancel me, I urge you to read to the end, that is, if you are going to read it.
I’m going to spell out the most controversial part first. I believe this long-term trend of political correctness is inversely correlated with the decline in physical punishment. Just to be clear, I’m not advocating for or condoning corporal punishment of children—quite the opposite. Let me explain.
First, I need to define what political correctness is. Imagine someone who does not eat meat because she hates the taste of it. We would not think of her as “politically correct.” Political correctness always implies some form of universality. Just because you love, say, knitting, you are not going to force others to knit. You recognize it as an expression of your singularity. Nothing can be “correct” without some degree of universality. You would not describe your love for knitting as being “correct.” As soon as you perceive your action as being “correct,” you are implying universality. Whether you choose to suppress your urge or not, you would want to enforce it on others. Something “correct” is not an idiosyncrasy; it’s something you believe others should also adhere to.
“Correctness” should be differentiated from consistency. “If you believe in gender equality, why do you hold doors for women?” In this line of questioning, whether you believe in gender equality is a separate issue from someone being consistent. Consistency is what we see in mathematics. It has no moral implications even though we do use the term “correct” in math.
In our psychic system, what dictates correctness is the superego. From this point of view, we could say that someone who is politically correct has a strong, or even overbearing, superego. What causes the development of it?
Our superegos are our internalized parents. One might assume that stricter parenting would produce children with stronger superegos, but not exactly. In some ways, parents being stricter allows the children to be looser about their morals. Think of the reason people are drawn to organized religions. As long as you follow what God tells you to do, you are not responsible for anything. You do not need to doubt yourself and question your every action. You delegate that responsibility to God. You do not have to use your own brain to figure out what is right and wrong. This leads to a weaker superego because that mental facility is not necessary for you.
As a parent, you can develop your child’s superego, not by telling her what is right and wrong, but by letting her figure it out on her own. Instead of commanding, “Don’t do it! That’s wrong,” you ask, “What do you think?” Because of all the multiculturalism and religious tolerance in the air, liberal parents tend to employ the latter strategy (which leads to less tolerance because of the overacting superegos). What is insidious about this approach is that, in reality, children do not have freedom of choice. The right answer is always implied in the question. Parents are cunningly dictating right and wrong, and children are manipulated into believing that they made the right choice.
This is a theory discussed among some psychoanalysts, but this alone cannot be causing so many young people to become so politically correct. The majority of parents I know are still imposing their own morality on their children. They believe it’s their duty as parents.
A parenting trend that can be statistically substantiated is the decline of corporal punishment. Generation X, my generation, was the last to be regularly spanked and slapped by our parents. “The Drama of the Gifted Child” by Alice Miller published in 1979 is symbolic of the shift in parenting style. Beginning in the early 80s, most Millennials grew up without any physical punishment. In fact, it is a bit more specific: Political correctness is a predominantly liberal white movement. According to this study, in 2012, roughly 80 percent of born-again Christians have said spanking is OK whereas only about 65 percent approved among non born-again Christians. Roughly 80 percent of African-Americans approved spanking, whereas 70 percent of whites did. 80 percent of Republicans approved of spanking and 65 percent of Democrats did. Correlation does not prove causation but it is interesting to note that our perception of political correctness being lead by liberal white Americans aligns with these data.
Physical punishment does not require children to understand right and wrong because they feel it. It, therefore, does not contribute to the development of superegos. It’s like learning not to stick your finger in a flame. If a toddler is about to do something that could hurt him, his parent could slap him to save him from greater pain. Without this option, parents have no choice but to use language, but children cannot be deterred by concepts. What one slap used to achieve requires relentless nagging now. Nobody wants to keep nagging. It’s tiresome. Naturally, the next logical step is to make our children regulate themselves according to our program. That is, we need to install ourselves into our children’s heads as quickly as possible. We train our children to think about what is right and wrong on their own so that we would not have to nag them, and we include enough bias in our program that they would choose what we want them to, while making them believe that they deduced the answers on their own.
This may sound like a good thing, but it has a downside. What is “right” or “correct” is fundamentally alienating and dehumanizing. If everyone perfectly performed what is “right,” it would be like the Clone Army in Star Wars. Our individual differences and idiosyncrasies would disappear, and everyone would behave in exactly the same way. Even among the most politically correct people, there are many disagreements. Assuming that they can sort them out, in a perfect world, we will follow the final verdict on what is correct for every single task we need to perform: what to eat, how to speak, what mode of transportation to take, what to buy, who to vote for, how to dress, etc., etc..
If we imagine such a world, we realize we do not want it. What would be the point of self-discovery and self-expression if a correct way to be and a correct way to express ourselves are predetermined for all of us?
Universality is a tool we invented to arrive at a mutually agreeable compromise. It’s a piece of fiction. While it is useful and effective in achieving social stability, it’s not a sacred cow. A relentless pursuit of universality inevitably leads to totalitarianism. It’s fine to agree locally what is “correct” in order to live peacefully with our neighbors, like traffic lights, but it’s only a method of arriving at a compromise. It’s not some timeless wisdom from the world beyond us.
As I said at the beginning, I’m not advocating for physical punishment. The problem with allowing it is that those who would abuse it would be happy to reintroduce it, while those who wouldn’t abuse it would continue to avoid it. The net effect would be worse. Because there is no practical way to police emotional and psychological abuse, policing physical abuse is the least we can do. But sadly, policing abuse does not make people less abusive. Only the mode of abuse changes. I suspect emotional and psychological abuse was more common among the parents of Millennials.
Physical pain is easier to take than psychological pain, which is why many people abuse drugs and alcohol. Over time, substance abuse takes a toll on our bodies, but it’s easier to take the pain physically than to take it emotionally. Some people engage in self-harm, like cutting themselves, because it’s easier to take the pain when they can see and feel it.
Deep down, we all resent our superegos because they force us to sacrifice ourselves for what is presumably greater good. This resentment doesn’t just vanish into thin air. The stronger our superegos, the more resentment we accumulate over time. As fallible humans, we cannot help but express our resentment towards others who are not tortured by their superegos. “Why should I be the only person suffering from the inner voice constantly judging me?” Whether it’s criticism of racism, sexism, or environmentalism becomes secondary to the pleasure and relief derived from seeing others squirm from shame. This is why public shaming is so popular on social media today. Due process is too frustrating for politically correct people.
This is also why, I argue, political correctness does not lead to real solutions. Politically correct people need politically incorrect people. It is through their mutual dependence that they maintain their sense of self. Their superegos have succeeded in entirely possessing them. Their goal is not to solve problems but to ease their own suffering inflicted by their superegos. They may sound confident, but they are lost inside. They know what is right and wrong, but not who they are.
If reintroducing corporal punishment is not a solution, what is? If you are politically correct, and if you find some truth in what I’m describing, my suggestion would be to ask yourself whether your relentless voice of correctness is actually yours. Could it be a program inadvertently installed by your parents? Can you stop it from judging and torturing yourself? And, can you find the inner child who was whipped into submission by this inner voice?
Life is full of irresolvable contradictions. What is logically correct does not always feel emotionally correct. If we yield entirely to the former, we would have the Clone Army. If we yield entirely to the latter, we would have social chaos. To be mature is to be able to accept the ambivalence life poses, which leads to forgiving yourself and others for being incorrect.
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