Against Correctness and the Taming of People

Correctness is a set of rules and mores constraining the form of public discourse and social behaviour. There is no place in a democratic society for “correctness” of any sort, least of all a correctness regarding politics: political ideas, speech and other expression. Let us reject standards of form in our debates, exchanges, interventions and criticisms.

The goal of political life is to influence society and be influenced by it. This can only happen through free exchange between individuals, where the form and content of the expression is decided by the speaker, for the speaker’s own purposes as an individual. For example, if a speaker’s goal is to provoke, enrage, excite, or otherwise move his or her audience, it is the individual’s right to attempt to do so. (That such communication tactics may or may not be effective in achieving some desired influence is a separate matter.)

Individuals who hold views that are not the same as dominant views often say things that are perceived to be insensitive or “hurtful”. These individuals may then be sanctioned under the rubric of political correctness with punishments such as public shaming, banishment from social groups, loss of employment, criminal charges, or extravagant lawsuits. The notion that societal correctness must not be breached is so strong that public institutions are permitted to take part in the punishments through public condemnations, enforcement of laws that criminalize expression of ideas, and use of public resources including financing lawsuits or refusing to provide services to individuals who choose to confront or who run afoul of the dominant standard.

One effect of this widespread imposition of correctness is a taming of the people – like the trained house pet that waits at the open door, not stepping outside until the master attaches the leash, people become trained not to step out independently into the wilderness of ideas and expression. Whereas once we may have spontaneously expressed our emotions and spoken our minds in public, to the community, now we tiptoe around potential sensitivities and threats of repercussions for being incorrect. We are chilled to the bone.

Who or what is the master? Societal (including “political”) correctness appears to be directed by peer-group mobbing that gets amplified in the media and is tolerated and encouraged by employers, lawmakers, and courts. Employers respond to and encourage mobbing by firing targeted employees, lawmakers respond through the passing of new laws to sanction incorrect expression, and the courts apply these laws to convict and sentence correctness offenders, thus sending a message to the entire society informing individuals of the limits, beyond which mobbing can be sure to draw blood. In addition, special interest groups lead the development of new taboos or act to reinforce old ones, by influencing public opinion at all levels.

Individuals who would participate in this type of mobbing by enforcing correctness standards in their political interactions should have regard for the harmful response of power (employers, government, courts, etc.) to the movements of the mob. Power today is happy to enforce contemporary correctness standards, just as it was happy to impose other correctness standards at other times (e.g. Victorian, religious, racist, homophobic, etc.), because such enforcement of the evolving superficial status quo permits the maintenance of the structural status quo and all its essential features (wage slavery, class hierarchy, military capability for war and conquest in other territories, etc.). Importantly, tamed and trained pets don’t bite the master’s hand. Rather, trained pets learn to accept and love the master, and to defend him to the bitter end.

Societal “correctness” is a control mechanism that maintains unjust hierarchy and precludes democratic social organization. Acts of incorrect expression are vital to challenging this societal ordering, and reveal the degree to which powerful groups have control over individuals’ lives. No individual expression can be taboo, off limits or “incorrect” in a real democracy. Likewise, a population tamed by the enforcement of correctness cannot create democracy.

Joseph Hickey is Executive Director of the Ontario Civil Liberties Association (OCLA). He is also completing his PhD in Physics. Read other articles by Joseph.