PC Nonsense

Jonathan Chait tries to take on the whole internet, at least according to the weaklings at Gawker.
I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind. I was also a student at the University of Michigan during the Jacobsen incident, and was attacked for writing an article for the campus paper defending the exhibit. If you consider this background and demographic information the very essence of my point of view, then there’s not much point in reading any further. But this pointlessness is exactly the point: Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.
I doubt Chait and I have agreed about ten things in ten years. That's why PC is nonsense. These categories are just analogies. I doubt we have ten things in common, including 'being white' and 'being male.' He's a New York writer from a Jewish family -- which is fine, and I in no way mean to suggest otherwise, but it's almost totally different from my own Scots-Irish heritage in Appalachia.

And as for what it means to be a man, I doubt he and I agree at all. He'll answer to God for his conscience, and I for mine, but don't think they're similar -- let alone the same.


Texan99 said...

Yep. No one likes being lumped in with a category. It doesn't do the lumper any good, either.

Grim said...

I'm not protesting it out of hurt feelings; I'm just pointing out that he's right about how little his being 'white' or 'male' tells you about his political opinions.

Being a man in the physical sense is a real biological category that carries certain facts, e.g., a higher risk than non-male humans of heart disease and early mortality from various other causes. But 'being a man' in the moral sense is quite different: I suspect he probably rejects most of what I take to be essential to the project, based on what he's written in the past.

In that sense, the question that matters isn't "Is he male?" but "Is he a man?"

Joel Leggett said...

Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing that. I am afraid that as our society becomes increasingly hypersensitive, a product of the ridiculous emphasis on self-esteem in public schools, the phenomena of political correctness will only get worse. This does not bode well for the democratic institutions of our republic. The more opinions are discounted simply due to the immutable traits of the speaker, the more public debate will suffer or vanish. As the quality of your political discourse decreases so, to, will the quality of your political candidates.

Grim said...

An excellent point, Joel.

Texan99 said...

I didn't think your feelings had been hurt! I thought you were understandably annoyed by a shoddy form of thinking. I agreed with you. I also genuinely believe it's worse for the perpetrator than the target.

Cass said...

Being a man in the physical sense is a real biological category that carries certain facts, e.g., a higher risk than non-male humans of heart disease ...

Actually, that's not true though. People think of heart disease as a man's disease, but over half of deaths from heart disease each year are women.

A few surprising stats:

Women account for just over half of the total heart disease deaths in the United States each year, although many women continue to think of heart disease as a man’s disease.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States, claiming approximately 1 million lives annually.

•42% of women who have heart attacks die within 1 year, compared to 24% of men.

•Under age 50, women’s heart attacks are twice as likely as men’s to be fatal.

•267,000 women die each year from heart attacks – six times more than the number of women who die from breast cancer.

I definitely agree that many health risks are linked to sex, though, and that men face some risks women don't (or don't as often).


I only know this b/c my Dad has afib, and I had some heart problems when my husband was deployed for a year. I was surprised, too.

Grim said...

Ok, then.

"Being a man in the physical sense is a real biological category that carries certain facts, e.g., a lower risk than non-male humans of heart disease .." :)

Texan99 said...

Certainly there are things men classically have a hard time communicating to women, and vice versa. I question whether that's the primary obstacle between you and me, however, because I don't find the same pattern in difficulty of expression with my other male a female friends. You and I have extraordinary differences that seem to me to fall along a different dividing line; your approach often is closer to that of my sister and my oldest female friend than to that of my husband or my male next-door neighbor. On other subjects, of course, you and I agree rather closely and are both worlds away from, say, my sister or even my husband.

Cass said...

Forgive me for talking about Grim as though he's not here :) I know he is - it's his place, after all! It's just easier this way.

I do not know about Tex, but when I run into a brick wall in discussions with Grim, it often seems they involve some judgment I am making about the behavior of some identifiable group of people that he passionately believes should be defended. For instance, I'll say something like,

"I think doing X is wrong."

To which Grim will reply, "Well, Group Y, who are the best people I know (and who are usually-but-not-always male), do X sometimes. They are not bad people, therefore X cannot really be wrong."

Now this makes no sense to me, because:

(a) I'm not issuing a blanket condemnation of Group Y (many of whom may never even do X).

(b) Even if Group Y all do X, and X is wrong, in my mind that does not make Group Y bad people.

I have done things I know to be wrong in my life. I have friends and family I admire greatly who also do things I believe to be wrong on occasion. They also hold opinions I don't share (therefore, they're "wrong" because I am always "right")...


There is a variant on this theme that crops up when we discuss history, in which he wants to use history as a guideline for modern morality/behavior and I object that the way women were often treated back then (sometimes for the very best of reasons) does not match my notion of how *I* and women like me should be treated, today.

Now I'm not saying our ancestors were Hating Haters who Hated All Womynkynd. It was a different world, and I accept his point that different circumstances can lead to different decisions about public policy. I'm just saying that rules derived for a different world may not be applicable in all worlds.

A third difference would probably be that while I strongly believe there are real differences between the sexes, I also believe human nature to be somewhat malleable, and those differences to have arisen from several sources (not just biology).

Cass said...

...some of those sources being:

opportunity costs
bias (note this is last, and definitely impacts men as well as women - there are all sorts of things we expect from men that women are allowed a pass for, and vice versa)

Grim said...

To which Grim will reply, "Well, Group Y, who are the best people I know (and who are usually-but-not-always male), do X sometimes. They are not bad people, therefore X cannot really be wrong."

I hope I haven't made that exact argument, because it's not a good one.

On the other hand, I think I do sometimes argue that ethical systems are best judged by the kinds of people they reliably produce. If a belief that you don't like is part of an ethical system that tends to produce good people (and the kind of people I feel most fit to judge morally are men), it is a good system in spite of the disliked belief.

Now, one can then go on to ask whether or not the disliked belief is essential to the system (and therefore not disposable). But if it is, then the system is good and valuable even if it reliably produces beliefs you disagree with (and, therefore, sometimes produces behavior you think wrong).

Grim said...

A form of this argument I would accept would be the argument in favor of hazing in elite military units. I think cruelty is wrong. Clearly hazing is an incidence of cruelty. However, if the following were true:

1) Hazing is a part of the culture of elite military units.

2) The cultures of our elite military units successfully and reliably produce excellent soldiers/sailors/Marines who perform wonderfully.

Then I would ask:

3) Is hazing essential to this culture?

I think that's where the argument broke down, back in the 1990s when we were having it. Some asserted it was, some that it wasn't, and we tried an experiment without it and it seems to be disposable.

However, if hazing had proven to be essential to the culture that reliably produces elite military units, I would have accepted the belief in hazing in spite of the fact that it (regularly) produced behavior I think is wrong.

Texan99 said...

Brother, that argument sounds awfully familiar to me!

Grim said...

Well, if it sounded to you like it ought to be formalized the way Cass gave it, no wonder you rejected it. There's nothing connecting the conclusion to the premises.

Another argument I sometimes make that sort of sounds like that is the argument for what is a virtue. That might be the one she's thinking of, because it could be used to argue that a behavior she thinks is wrong is actually not wrong at all. That starts with the definition of virtue from Aristotle, which is an excellence of character that usually produces the best kind of life. If a given society that excels in that capacity reliably produces the best sort of people, then the quality is a virtue.

That might be the one she's thinking of, but without the Aristotelian mechanism for determining what is a virtue, there's nothing between "X is something group Y does" and "X is good." So the argument would formalize:

1) A human quality [like courage] is a virtue if, always or for the most part, it produces optimal results for human beings.

2) Quality X produces optimal results as shown by the excellence of people Y who obtained that excellence by practicing X.

3) Therefore, X is a virtue.

But it won't do if X is merely something they "sometimes do," the way a good person may sometimes lie though knowing it wrong. It would have to be at the core of their ethical practice, directly related to their excellence. It can't be disconnected in the way she has formalized the argument; that argument wouldn't follow because there's no connection between the premises.

Cass said...

Where all of this breaks down is right here:

2) Quality X produces optimal results as shown by the excellence of people Y who obtained that excellence by practicing X.

That's essentially, "The end justifies the means", without the tiresome necessity of even demonstrating a causal connection between the means and the end.

That is what I have objected to during our discussions - it seems to me to be a sort of blanket unsupported assumption that glosses over the part where X is shown to reliably produce anything in the way of virtue.

It confuses correlation with causation.

Texan99 said...

"On the other hand, I think I do sometimes argue that ethical systems are best judged by the kinds of people they reliably produce. If a belief that you don't like is part of an ethical system that tends to produce good people (and the kind of people I feel most fit to judge morally are men), it is a good system in spite of the disliked belief."

Even if I granted that, say, a culturally approved behavior of men toward women reliably produced good men according to Grim's standards, there's a problem with this analysis. Grim concludes the treatment of women in question must qualify as virtuous, because of its effect on the men. If we were talking about a culturally widespread treatment of rocks, I might agree.

It's one thing to decline to judge the behavior OF women because you feel too divorced from their experience to serve as a reliable ethical judge, but another to leave out of your analysis the effect of behavior ON women. An ethical behavior is judged by its impact on people other than the person who practices the behavior, and the people experiencing the impact come in both male and female flavors. It's not just calisthenics,a sort of private workout!

Grim said...


I very specifically said "people" and not "men." I think the women were good too.


That's essentially, "The end justifies the means", without the tiresome necessity of even demonstrating a causal connection between the means and the end.

No, the need to demonstrate the connection is there in 'obtained by the practice of.'

But as for 'the end justifying the means,' that's not the argument. The argument is that we learn about ethics by experience with the world. It won't do to reason to some principle and insist upon it even though it produces disaster in reality. (That, essentially, is the failure of Marxism, but is widely characteristic of modern philosophy.)

There's no reason this shouldn't be so even if you prefer a religious ground instead of a philosophical one. On religious terms, God made the world, and so learning about the world is in a sense learning about God's will. When we discover that particular behaviors produce flourishing human communities reliably, we've learned something about the world, something about ourselves, and something about God's will. If there's any might involved, it's God's might.

Grim said...

I think what we really disagree about in an impassable way is the truth of premise 2. We don't share anything like a common understanding of the facts of the society, Y. So of course we can't agree on whether the conclusion is entailed.

That's fine: we always say 'you're not entitled to your own facts,' but in a historical discussion there's a sense in which you are. The real facts aren't available, so the best we have is an interpretation of the extant records. Our interpretations can be argued about, but they can't be disproven, so there's probably just no way to resolve this dispute.

However, the way you presented the argument is formally invalid. Maybe it sounded that way! We often engaged these topics after a long day, later in the evenings; in real time, quickly-typed posts without editing.

So I wanted to spell out how the arguments are formally valid. At least we can understand each other that well. They're analogical rather than logical, like all ethical/political arguments, so there's still no truth guarantee in the conclusion. But that's true of all ethical and political arguments.

I still expect you to disagree, but because we don't agree on what the facts or the people were like -- not about what rights they had, nor how they thought of each other, nor anything else that would allow us to judge the truth of premise 2 regarding the excellence of people Y. Without that, agreement is not possible.

Texan99 said...

Yes, in your example the difference between the virtuous practitioners and the people who were experiencing their behavior was not along male/female lines. I changed the thought experiment so that it would divide that way. Does it matter? It could be white and black people, or Hutu and Tutsi, or Christians and Jews.

Grim said...

I think it does change the analysis, and it's one reason we disagree about the truth of proposition 2. It does seem to be true, for example, that Spartan virtue was produced in large part (even essentially) by their treatment of the slave population: their extraordinary martial virtues were necessary to suppress the ever-present possibility of a revolt. But the system cannot be held virtuous on just that analysis.

Which is why our disagreement about the facts of the High Middle Ages is important. If the system (as you have argued) amounted to something like slavery and oppression, then it is subject to that counterargument. That's just what I don't think is the case. Since we cannot resolve our disagreement about the facts, we can't come to an overall agreement -- even if we hammered out a formal argument we'd both accept.

Texan99 said...

Actually that example shows that we can agree on an important principle, which is that you can't judge behavior solely by its tendency to inculcate virtue in its practitioners; you have to take into account its impact on the people who experience of the behavior, even if they're not the in-group.

The fact that we disagree about whether particular behavior of men caused misery to the nearby women at various points in history is in some ways less important. There's a lot of room for disagreement there, considering that no one in that period was either perfectly happy or utterly miserable. How people then experienced their circumstances is a different matter from how I'd experience them if I could be transported back there somehow, or if the conditions were reimposed today.

Grim said...

I think we do agree on a principle here: it's the same one that requires me to criticize my own culture, Southern culture, for its history of slavery and racism. I can do that without condemning the virtuous parts of the culture, but I can't refuse to do it.

I'm not sure how to express the principle we're agreeing upon, though. It seems that the martial virtues do have a correct exercise, and the 'impact on the people who experience the behavior' ought to be devastating. The question is the justice of the receipt of that impact, I think: slavery cannot be justified, but a great deal of powerful violence can be justly dealt against a group like Daesh. An order that essentially preserves a slave system is morally different from a similar order that essentially protects a just order.

Texan99 said...

Considering the impact on the recipients of the behavior is not the same thing as concluding that it's a wonderful experience for them. You may conclude it's necessary to devastate them. What can't be justified is simply omitted to consider them--not even finding a justification for harming them, because they don't count, all that counts is your own development.

Grim said...

Yes, but that's insufficient for the reasons we were recently discussing about Daesh. They are willing to devastate those they have considered to have committed moral failings, from failing to become Muslim to failing to observe Islamic laws regarding modesty. So it's not that they aren't considering the justice of their devastation of the victims; it's that their principles for judging the justice are bad.

For that matter, the proslavery argument in the antebellum South was highly developed, and argued that the condition of slavery was actually quite beneficial to the recipients given their racial characteristics. They thought about the effect, and found it good.

So it's not a failing according to Kant's categorical imperative even (note: you've not made a joke recently; this citation is for argument's sake only). They have reasoned to a way to 'treat you as an end,' and found that you are better served if you are treated in the way they want to treat you. They'd even be prepared to accept a universal law of the form 'More rational ethnic groups should lead less rational ones,' granted their understanding of what it meant to be rational. It might even satisfy Jesus' principle, if you could assert honestly that you'd wish to be treated with leadership by a superior mind. (I wouldn't, being of a rebellious spirit, but perhaps someone would; and after all, Lucifer is characterized as a rebellious spirit who can't accept wise leadership. I don't have the best of that argument prima facie.)

Something more than mere consideration, then, is necessary. Justice has to have some kind of objective quality. And that is a really hard problem, as there isn't anything solid in the realm of politics: everything is analogical. There may not be a principle on which justice can solidly root.

Texan99 said...

It's possible to make a horrible mistake about whether it's right to devastate other people, but that's changing the subject to a different kind of error. I'm saying it's wrong to ignore the consequences to other people, and to concentrate instead of the development of some kind of resulting "virtue" in oneself. It's treating the other people as mere objects.

Grim said...

Are you adopting Kantian langauge, Tex? :) I invoke him because his system is enlightening in sorting out just where we break from it.

The problem I have with the formula you're offering here is that I'm not sure anyone is guilty of doing it. Maybe the Spartans were: maybe they just thought it was important, for the glory of Sparta, to ensure the Helots did as they were told or else. If so, that gives us a ground for criticizing Sparta that isn't available for criticizing the Antebellum South.

Even if we get that, though, it's so easy to do what the proslavery argument does that I don't know we gain anything. There may also be a point to it sometimes: sometimes the imperialist arguments of folks like Kipling are well pointed. And they're the same arguments! "It's right that we should lead here, and use force to ensure that we do, because if we did not lead and ensure the welfare of these people... it's what I would want if another so superior and more civilized folk were available to direct us toward improvement and glory..."

Texan99 said...

You're not sure anyone does it? How odd.

You'll always be safe if you assume I'm not adopting Kantian language.

Grim said...

Well, maybe the Spartans; maybe there are others. But if they exist, they're very easy cases for us to agree are immoral.

The harder cases -- and, I think, the more common -- are those where we encounter careful reasoning about the interests of the other that happen to align with the interests of the self. Those sometimes prove out: many women in Daesh's territory might well assent to the reasoning of a Kipling, were one available.

Texan99 said...

Yes, agreeing on a sighting appears to be the tough one. Let's see: the Spartans, and then . . . did it ever happen again?

We're talking about something I see as one of the most common failings in human interactions. That's how differently we view this. Maybe we should table it until the next concrete example pops up?

Grim said...

Fair enough.