Speech policing in the United States, often called “political correctness,” has inspired much resentment and concern along with advocacy. Right now only its advocates have an action plan—which is to institutionalize PC on university campuses through the appointment of administrators responsible for developing and enforcing policies to control expression. Those who object to political correctness are less organized and largely lack a coherent idea of it as a unified phenomenon. But they apparently stumbled into one successful response to it in the presidential victory of Donald Trump. Although Trump has no policy proposals that touch upon political correctness per se, his willingness to occasionally violate its sensibilities, and to openly denounce some of its advocates in the media, certainly won him many votes among proud Deplorables.
What’s In a Name?
Some commentators have even suggested that PC was the single most important factor separating Trump from his Republican rivals, and that it needs to be seen as a central issue in contemporary American politics. David Gelernter made such an argument in early 2016 and suggested that the real gravity of “political correctness” and its significance to voters have been obscured and minimized by the term itself. I think he’s right. “PC,” like “man-caused disaster,” is a gift to the enemy it is supposed to name.
Since most people don’t know or care about the historical origin of the term “political correctness,” the best way to grasp what it conveys in today’s discourse is to examine its constituent semantic elements. “Correctness” refers to a judgment that some form of expression is subject to approval or not; “political” refers to the standard according to which this judgment is rendered. “Political correctness” therefore implies that politics and speech are separate realms, and that speech is subordinate to politics. Restrictions on speech seem less serious than jobs, health care, racism, and other intrinsically political matters.
Additionally, since politics in the United States involves a plurality of parties, and freedom of expression is protected by the First Amendment, a “political” judgment about speech will strike many intuitively as merely an annoyance, subject to automatic contestation by rival parties, and without means of enforcement. This does not sound like a threat to the norms of our republican government, or even a consequential infringement on anybody’s rights as a citizen.
An “Ism” Breeding in Our Baseboards
Nevertheless, many people now realize that minimizing the problem called “political correctness” is wrong. We need to remove the distraction of a term that makes a serious problem seem trivial or even humorous. Speech policing would be better, but it lacks a critical feature.
For the speech policing we now confront is actually the centerpiece of a nascent ideology. While in the past leftist regimes used speech policing as an instrument to support agendas like solidarity with oppressed classes, the putatively oppressed classes are now instruments that the left uses as pretexts to expand speech policing. This ideology of speech policing I propose to call Indoctrinationism.
The term indoctrinationism designates and calls out a revolutionary social movement directed toward a system whose sole essential feature is a centrally managed program of indoctrination, content unspecified and subject to determination ad hoc by those in authority. Unlike communism, fascism, or republicanism, this system lacks specific economic or constitutional principles and goals, and stands open to many sorts of variation. The left doesn’t know exactly what its utopia should look like any more, except that it will utilize centrally managed social engineering, and a continually active system of indoctrination to ensure a compliant population. As long as this system is in approved hands, life will be optimal.
The Ph.D. Program in Compliance Science
Indoctrinationism obviously flourishes on academic campuses, but it is important to realize that it does so not as an alien species blown in on the winds of Marxism, but as a native organism of American academe itself, favoring its administratively controlled environment, rigid hierarchies of expertise, pompous pose of superior self-importance, and ever-renewing populations of immature homines sapientes with time on their hands. Readers of a certain age will remember a quasi-manifesto of indoctrinationism, B.F. Skinner’s 1948 utopian novel Walden Two.
The utopian community of Walden Two bears some resemblance to the image of themselves that liberal arts campuses used to present to the public: fresh air and rolling hills, a community experimental at its heart, free of dependence upon the distant world of moneymaking and political strife, inhabitants inspired by shared values and togetherness, communal reverence for science, much time spent enjoying the arts and music, and hardly more hours of compensated labor per member than a typical work-study job would entail.
Skinner’s utopia also has a regimen of speech correctness, including prohibition of honorific titles, but its values are so pervasive that inappropriate verbal expressions such as “thank you,” which manifest superficial relationships unknown to this enlightened community, just die out by themselves. Despite rigid norms of conduct, nothing in Walden Two is coerced, because the community is governed by a program of “behavioral engineering.” This “science” provides the explicit ideological basis of Skinner’s utopian society.
Of course utopian fantasy was not B.F. Skinner’s day job: he was a very prominent scientist, an academic psychologist whose accomplishments cannot be measured merely in publications, discoveries, grants, and honors, but in the shaping, funding, and prestige of an entire discipline. The field of American academic psychology recognized Skinner as the greatest representative of its research, and while most psychologists were quieter about the social implications of their discipline than Skinner was, his view of what psychology had learned about homo sapiens was largely the field’s. According to that view, human behavior lacks any autonomous direction and is always controlled by factors in its physical environment. This led Skinner to Walden Two by what he saw as a scientific procedure, for humans had no freedom to lose in being subjected to “behavioral technology” that directed them toward ends that academic idealism judged beneficial.
By the early 1970s Walden Two had sold more than a million copies, but the true measure of Skinner’s influence is in the funding his science attracted to countless projects aimed at systematically modifying human behavior in many environments. Even people without grants to dispense, but who entertain a fond hope that everybody can just get along, may be irresistibly drawn to a “science” that promises to make their dream real. And if speech policing offers even a chance of bringing that dream closer, who will dare obstruct the course of “science” just to preserve the unbrotherly status quo?
All this is the inchoate constituency of indoctrinationism. Oh yes, and the Leftist elite that looks forward to controlling it.
Just last weekend in the New York Times a professor of psychology explained to the informed layperson that “science” demands the banishment of Milo and Milo-like speakers from campuses. As long as “science” gives its imprimatur to the axiom that human beings are automatically and consequentially affected by even such modest features of the environment as spoken words, humanity is indeed “beyond freedom and dignity,” and we must expect more and more systematic efforts to manipulate compliance through speech policing and other forms of indoctrination.