Many see political correctness as an outgrowth of “cultural Marxism,” as it has come to us through the work of such thinkers as Herbert Marcuse, Harry Adorno, Antonio Gramsci, and others. But there is an obvious problem with this analysis, which is that these thinkers were, obviously, thinkers. If their thought were the root of political correctness, it should be possible to confront it with other thought, with reason, but anyone who has tried this knows it is futile. Refuting a politically correct position with solid argument gets you nowhere.
Political correctness is irrational. Look for a coherent thread of logic; you will not find it. The reason is that PC runs, not on the basis of reason, but of emotion. To understand it, we need to understand the emotion that lies behind it. But how are we to do that? Common contemporary thought offers us little that will help us understand either irrationality or emotion. For that purpose, I want to offer a psychoanalytic theory of political correctness, which I have developed in several nooks, most recently Political Correctness and the Destruction of Social Order: Chronicling the Rise of the Pristine Self (PCDSO) (Palgrave Macmillan: 2016).
The central premise of the theory is that, in our time, we have seen a basic shift in the dynamics that underlie socialization, the process through which an individual becomes a member of society.
For classic Freudian psychoanalysis, socialization is accomplished through the resolution of what Freud called the Oedipus Complex. This gives rise to what I have called Oedipal psychology but which for present purposes I will call traditional psychology. In this psychology, at the outset of life, the infant is tightly bound, emotionally fused, with its mother. She is the world to the infant, and loves it, so the child experiences itself as the center of a loving world.
The child’s feeling of being lovable is derived from mother’s love and its sense of lovability later in life, is based on its internalization of this maternal image. This makes the mother, who determines how we feel about ourselves, the most powerful figure in the psyche, a characteristic that results in the centrality of love to the maternal role.
But the child cannot remain in this happy state because there is a world outside the bond of infant and mother, an indifferent world which does not revolve around the child and does not love it. This outside world is first represented by father, who has an emotional bond with mother, which does not revolve around the child. Given mother’s power, based on her capacity to give or withhold her love, the assumption here is that the father has done something in the indifferent outside world that the mother values, which has given him an equivalent power out of which the stability of their relationship is built.
At first, Freud says, the child hates the father for depriving him of mother’s love and wants to kill him. But that is not in the cards, and over time the child comes to idealize the father and internalize him, which is to say the child gains an understanding of the indifferent world that the father knows and represents, and a capacity to accomplish something within it. He thus undertakes to become like him and gain a bond with someone like mother. On this basis, the child undertakes to accomplish something in the world in his own right. The totality of these accomplishments in the indifferent outside world, whatever has been built and is not simply given by nature, has been created with this as a motivation.
But the child taking the father as a model is dependent on the father having an emotional bond with the mother; she loves the father and values what he has done. But what if she does not?
Why should she?
The child’s image of mother is not a realistic image, but an idealized image based on the apparent omnipotence and benevolence of mother as the child experiences her in infancy. Her loving presence is all that is necessary to make life perfect. What if someone should identify with this infantile image? Then there is nothing that the father could do that would match up with what she could do if she only were allowed her way.
Look at the world that he has made: it has inequality, competition, racism, sexism, and so on. How can that compare with the loving world that she would have created if father had not been in the way and monopolized the capacity to act in world? Given that, she must feel that he did not earn her love, but stole it. So she disdains him for it, has contempt for him, and, in sum, hates him. Given all this, the child would not idealize the father and try to become like him, as a way of gaining mother’s love. He would gain mother’s love by joining her in her hatred and contempt for the father and condemning him for having stolen her love. The result here is what I have called anti-oedipal psychology, but which I will now call anti-traditional psychology. It is in many ways the opposite of the traditional psychology that has been characteristic among us.
The child and the mother now condemn the father for having stolen mother’s love. And from whom has he stolen it? Obviously, from those who have not had it in the past, which was everyone beside himself and the white, cis-gendered heterosexual males whom he represents: the “people of color,” the homosexuals, the women, and those of whatever gender other than cis-male.
We may derive the principles of how a person is supposed to live a life in a world defined in this way. As we will see, they are the principles of political correctness. There are four of them. We will also be able to derive a number of the central terms that PC uses in its comprehension of the world.
Principle One: Hate the father, whom we may call the patriarch, and the white, heterosexual, white males that he represents. His theft is a kind of original sin which is the meaning of everything that he does and is. He is what psychoanalysis calls the “bad object.” Therefore, his initiation of any action or interaction, even his taking up space, is sufficient warrant for condemnation. This is coterminous with the idea that the work that he did was worthless and inferior. He may defend the value of his work, claiming that he understood and transformed the indifferent world in a beneficial way, but this is just a smokescreen to conceal his oppression. Indeed, the whole idea that the outside world is indifferent to us is a self-serving lie; we see through all that, knowing that without his theft the world would be made out of mother’s love. His defenses are without real substance, and just express his self-inflation; in other words, they are just expressions of white supremacy. Any benefits, therefore, that those who are like him, such as his children, have derived from his work, even though the work was done with them in mind as beneficiaries, have been unearned. These unearned benefits are called white privilege.
Note that this is absurd. Broadly speaking, the father’s works have been civilization. It takes a basal lack of self-awareness not to recognize the value we all place on the positive elements of our circumstances, the vast bulk of which have been created. Just to take the domain of medicine, and begin at the beginning, we number antibiotics, anesthetic, antiseptic procedures… Anyone can go on, moving toward infinity. And no one denies their value if they pay attention to themselves and have the dimmest comprehension of cause and effect. Even our social justice warriors, who decry the existence of inequality, grant that there is value in what those who have, have. And virtually none of it just popped up out of the ground, like a mushroom. And we have not even begun to number the cultural benefits we have inherited: art, government, even written language.
Principle Two: Love those from whom he has stolen the love, as compensation. The lack of love that they have experienced has had material and immaterial manifestations. The material expressions of their deprivation are seen in those cases of generally secondary economic conditions that mark the life of those who have been losers, or non-competitors, in the competitive struggles of life. Compensatory love here means programs such as affirmative action and the various other means through which wealth is redistributed from the top to the bottom. I argue in PCDSO that the abandonment of standards of loan worthiness that led to the financial crisis came about in this way. Programs like these may, of course, have perfectly rational foundations. The sign of political correctness is that they cannot be discussed in rational terms but only through the moral condemnation of those who call them into question.
The immaterial forms of deprivation of love correspond to a failure to recognize and affirm the way our victims define their importance and their goodness. They do not define the society’s culture with their ideas about themselves. Their views do not command attention and respect. This can take a number of forms. For example, their justifications for their low estate are not accepted, but may be interpreted as excuses. We call this refusal of recognition marginalization.
It is characteristic of PC, though, that, marginalization is interpreted as racism or some other form of bigotry. When this happens, it is because by expelling the father, the category of indifference has been lost. Then, indifference is interpreted as hate. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it destroys the distinction between real hate and indifference interpreted as hate. That makes it impossible to use the concept of hate with reliability and validity, depriving it of meaning.
The deprivation of love, now defined as hate, can be thought to take any of a number of forms in accordance with who has been deprived. When they are of a different race, we can call it racism. When they are homosexual, we call it homophobia, and so on.
Compensatory love consists in the reversal of marginalization; the manufacture, at the individual or cultural level, of love for the victim, for the purpose of having the member of the marginalized group feel important and good, or justified. This may take the form of the promulgation of ideology, the revision of history, the prohibition of contrary interpretations, and so on.
Principles One and Two, hating the father and loving the marginalized, taken together, provide the elements of a morality play, a Manichean drama of good forces fighting bad forces. This drama is capable of adaptation to any situation and is sufficient for structuring the way a person understands the world and their proper place within it. This place offers substantial possibilities for heroism, whose purposes are served simply by participating in the drama, not by accomplishing anything. But it is all fantasy, you see. Its terms of reference are strictly mythical. They exist only in the mind, and not in the outside world. As existing only in the mind, they cease to exist if they are not in a state of conscious awareness. But given the disconnection from reality, this will not happen by itself.
This generates Principle Three: Keep this production moving; the show must go on: The presence of these ideas in the mind can only be achieved through continual, deliberate repetition. This can take many forms, which in PC culture are the dominant forms of cultural and educational expression.
One is the continual enactment and representation of the PC drama. Every occasion must be taken to bring these fantasies to the forefront of the mind. This can take the form of political activity, or it can be institutionalized in the form of diversity training, or education for “social justice,” or generally the rehearsal of these myths in every cultural venue. An ancillary technique is the negation of contrary thought, which constitutes the suppression of political incorrectness. Through these practices, PC moves toward appropriation of the whole culture.
Political activity is of particular interest. I have analyzed a situation at Oberlin College in which the college administration allowed a student mobilization to take place, even though it was supposedly a response to a racist manifestation, which they knew to be a hoax. The officials did that because the students demanded it. The fact that it was a response to something that did not exist was unimportant. In fact, it was not a way to do anything about something real, but only to keep the appropriate feelings alive, as if in a religious revival meeting, so students could renew their faith and their commitment to the drama.
We tend to think of actions like this as responses to offenses, and may be struck by how trivial the offenses seem, and how disproportionate the responses are. But that is because we are looking at the causality from the wrong direction. In reality, the offenses are taken as offenses only to provide an occasion for performing the political drama. That is why anything, no matter how seemingly insignificant, will suffice.
Principle Four: Invoke the love and the power of mother. Rely upon her and have faith that, unencumbered by the father, she will make our lives perfect and ensure that we are touched by nothing but love, like the young people in the iconic Coca Cola commercial. This is a proposition that appears only implicitly. It is quite unconscious. But it constitutes our guarantee that we can attack the social order without worrying about the consequences. Everything will be fine. Her power is infinite and she will take care of us.
The assumption of maternal power will have an obvious impact on the place of women, who can much more easily identify with the primitive, infantile image of mother and who are more likely to be so identified by others. They can add the rage of those defined as deprived due to their sex to the power that comes from this identification and create a role with immense strength. Put this together with the submissiveness of men, especially white men, that is a product of the repudiation of the father, and it is easy to see that leadership in movements of this sort is likely to be female. This is a falsifiable proposition that can be tested by examining the sex ratio of activists. My claim here is that one will find them to be mostly women.
Political correctness is predominately a feminine project and a manifestation of female power. And this female power is interesting in its own right. We are accustomed, as the feminists rightly tell us, to thinking of power in masculine terms: the power of authority, of force, and so on. But they do not give us a clear-eyed idea of what female power would amount to. It operates emotionally, through the granting or withholding of love, and what is more important to a person than being loved?
Political correctness can define the whole world and, within that definition, establish the only possibilities for life that are permissible. This means that the struggles around political correctness are existential. The issue is whether our lives can be lived. That is what gives it its power.
But as opponents of political correctness it gives us a better idea of the importance of what we are doing to consider the limitations on what these lives can amount to. They must be unidimensional, entirely constrained, and closed off from anything that is not contained within their original premise. In the classic formulation of totalitarianism, anything that is not mandatory is forbidden. Such lives must be devoid of wonder; they must be joyless, barren, and incapable of generating the accomplishments that, in the end, are all that can give us the sense that our lives have been worthwhile and, ironically, worthy of love. And this must be as true of those who push this project as of those who are subjected to it. It is easy to see how the PC warriors can make the lives of others miserable. It is useful to reflect that, ultimately, their own lives will be miserable as well.