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May 02, 2014

The Economics of Political Correctness

Instapundit links this interesting piece.

In economics terms, political correctness would be called a "positional good," a good acquired not for its own inherent usefulness, but for what it signals about the owner. (He says "signalize" -- I guess this is a term of art.)

He notes that positional goods only retain their power to signal something about the owner -- that he is high-status -- so long as a relatively few people also possess the good. Once many, many people possess the good, it can no longer serve the function of being positional.

Think about any faddish mode of dress; the fad's ability to signal that the wearer is fashion-forward is destroyed the moment "everyone" begins wearing it. At that point, the fashion-chaser will have to find some new outrageous variation to wear in order to signal his high fashion status.

And of course he wouldn't be caught dead wearing the togs that everyone else is wearing.

Political Correctness works the same way. As 90% of the population has adopted the basic idea of tolerance, the basic ideas of tolerance can no longer serve as a positional good, as "everyone is wearing it now," and new, ever-more ostentatious signals of Moral/Intellectual High Status must be conceived.

Thus, for example: microaggressions. Begin by noting the "micro" that introduces the term; only those of exquisitely fine taste in Racism can detect such subtle notes. Rather like a wine connoisseur's acute palate permitting the detection and appreciation of trace notes of blackberry and even wet manure.

Those who wish to signal their absolute tip-top status in the #NoH8 camp now talk endlessly about microaggressions, because this signals their (self-believed) membership in a cognitive elite. Should "microaggressions" ever become a generally-accepted way to think about racial slights, they will immediately abandon this term, searching out a Hot New Fashion in Anti-Racism.

He says this:

Over the past few years, spiked online magazine has consistently and robustly defended the principle of free speech against the censorship demands of the politically correct, whatever quarter they may come from. It is great, of course, that there is at least one magazine in which the phrase ‘I believe in free speech’ is unlikely to be followed by a ‘but…’, and more likely to be followed by an ‘even for…’. But while I fully support the spiked line, I also think the spiked authors sometimes misinterpret the intentions of the ‘PC brigade’, and would like to offer an alternative interpretation rooted in boring, old-fashioned textbook economics.

Spiked authors believe that PC is driven by a loathing for ordinary people. According to spiked, PC brigadiers view ordinary folks as extremely impressionable, easily excitable, and full of latent resentment. Exposure to the wrong opinions, even isolated words, could immediately awaken the lynch mob. PC, then, is about protecting ‘the vulnerable’ from the nasty tendencies of the majority population.
But if PC was not really about protecting anyone, and really all about expressing one’s own moral superiority, PC credentials would be akin to what economists call a ‘positional good’.

It seems to me that the "spiked online" explanation is the narrative of the PC brigades themselves -- that is, this is how they convince themselves of their superiority and how they justify their judgmental, and frequently thuggish and stupid, behavior. As a Cognitive Elite, after all, they have the duty to protect their lessors from cognitive faux pas, just as a Wine Connoisseur has the duty (he thinks) to inform people that the particular wine they're enjoying is actually jejune, crude, and lacking in angularity.

The snob has the duty to instruct his inferiors.

But I think this author is right-- while the PC Brigade explains its behavior by positing that, as the Cognitive One Percent, they have the duty to make life miserable for everyone else, the actual explanation is simply the signaling of a highly refined palate and a cultivated sense of racism connoisseurship.

I've written about this myself.

What is the point of connoisseurship? Well, as a primary matter, to develop a refined, cultured, and sensitive palate for detecting the most subtle effects of a thing. The wine connoisseur trains himself to pick out "smoky notes" and "hints of blackberry" and wines that profited from "good ash in the soil."

Of course connoisseurship is not restricted to the physical sense of taste; art connoisseurs are fond of saying things like "It's the colors that aren't present that really stand out!"

And connoisseurs of music are given to saying things as "What wonderful silences are in this piece, where you can simply enjoy the room's tone, the vibrations and echoes in the walls themselves."

The connoisseur is trained to sense things that no one else can sense, or, at least, no one but an elite cadre of dedicated Detectors of the Subtle and Sublime.

The secondary value of connoisseurship is, of course, impressing other connoisseurs, intimidating non-connoisseurs, and, by these effects, gaining a Social Advantage which maximizes one's chances for financial and sexual success.

I actually think the secondary value is really the primary one but let's be generous and just say it's a nice unintended consequence.

Now maybe I was goofing on connoisseurship a little bit there, but I have to admit, I'd like to pick up that kind of skill. So long as it does not take a great deal of time and effort, I mean.

But of course it would take that. One can fake these things, as one can fake most things, but there's nothing more embarrassing than a fake connoisseur outed as a poser.

I am suggesting, of course, that people of little talent and little liking of hard work and training have created a new connoisseurship, a connoisseurship rather easily achieved, requiring, as it does, so very little practice and so very little reading; they have created a connoisseurship of Racism, savoring (or so they say) each note so delicate as to be imperceptible to the proletarians whose sense are too unrefined to detect anything but the boldest, most obvious flavors.

And by demonstrating their connoisseurship of racism, they gain a social advantage, that of impressing the other would-be racist connoisseurs, and the various stooges and goons stupid enough to be impressed by this shabby parlor trick.

And, as with any fake connoisseur, as with any bluffer, they gain the most when they make the most ludicrous claims: "I can virtually taste the post-war global depression in this wine; there's a character in the sweat of the grape-stompers that imparts to it a sadness that is almost transcendent."

For connoisseurs, noting that a wine has a chocolate aftertaste is rather elementary and crude. No, to really impress people -- or to really bluff -- you have to really commit to it and claim that your tastes are so refined that they can perceive flavors which exist only on an atomic level:

"Mmm.. those d-orbital electrons are really a kick, aren't they? The complexity of flavors he's managed to achieve while working within the confines of just a few electron states is simply magnificent."

And so it is with the Connoisseurs of Racism.

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posted by Ace at 02:12 PM

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