One of the most influential and popular ideas of the post-war era was that of the Authoritarian Personality, which linked fascism with a number of personality traits, including conventionalism, anti-intellectualism and prudery. Conservatism, in other words.
It has become popular to believe that being right-wing is synonymous with being authoritarian. Society may have no common culture or religion or body of literature, but everyone knows who the Nazis are. So as Nazism has pushed out everything else in the collective memory, it has become an attractive weapon against conservative ideas.
And yet authoritarianism is probably found both equally on the left and right; it just manifests itself in different forms. One example is the way progressives tend to see deviant political views. The response is often similar to how conservatives view crime, alternative lifestyles or other transgressive behaviour. This intolerance is usually termed ‘political correctness’, although it’s an imperfect phrase, because it applies both to a code of politeness (much of which I agree with) and also a method of enforcing orthodoxy. Unfortunately, it is the former, especially the stupider and more mundane examples, which attracts most attention, when in reality it is the latter which has far more impact.
PC is used to punish people who have voiced opinions outside of the acceptable range of opinions. It can lead to them being sacked, subjected to extreme abuse or made to suffer in other ways. In many cases the individuals are stating facts which are backed up by the available science but which offend some sacred group; it doesn’t help that the people in question often also say genuinely impolite things, too, and are often difficult people, and sometimes lacking social nous. (To use that famous historical comparison, Galileo was apparently a complete nightmare as a person.)
Political correctness in this form has been around since the late 1960s. It increased in the early 1990s as former students took up positions of authority. It has then ramped up again with the rise of social media. And yet just in the past 12 months there seems to have been a further acceleration of this quasi-religious craze.
Look at the way that Steven Pinker has been targeted for making the sensible point that political correctness has ‘red-pilled’ America and led many fairly intelligent young people towards the radical Right. These people, he said, were being ‘exposed for the first time to true statements that have never been voiced on college campuses or the New York Times or respectable media that are like a bacillus to which they have no immunity… and no defence to taking them to repellent conclusions’. He cited, for example, average crime differences between the races, but in his seminal book The Blank Slate, Pinker used the example of certain types of feminists who had hooked their political philosophy to ideas about human nature that were empirically false.
This, he pointed out, was dangerous, because feminism can stand on its own feet without resting on the idea that humans are a tabula rasa. And when independently-minded young people learn that the prevailing political philosophy, whatever its good intensions, is based on a series of beliefs that just aren’t true then they will gravitate towards whoever they feel is telling the truth – however mad, bad or dangerous to know.
Pinker’s remarks were seized on by numerous figures as showing his support for the ‘Alt-Right’ (whatever that term means), a pile-on that must feel quite chilling when it’s your name trending. He was saying nothing of the sort. Unfortunately, the cultural revolution seems to be entering its Robespierrean phase.
Allowing one side of the political spectrum to dominate, while showing intolerance towards opposing opinions, is dangerous for a number of reasons, not least that it will inevitably push the dominant side towards extremes.
Progressive politics must, by its very nature, move towards more extreme positions because it is a competition; as Kristian Niemietz of the IEA once suggested, PC is a form of fashion and so people on the left are in competition to outdo each other. This is why PC hatefests are often directed at other people on the left.
Many on the right would like to accept that on social issues, liberals have won – and instead, the right could focus on economics instead. While I accept the logic, it cannot work because progressivism is always changing, indeed perhaps accelerating. There are no surrender papers we can simply sign and move on. Every time conservatives blindly accept an innovation, the ground then shifts again. Natural conservatives then respond to liberal overreach by moving to the other extreme instead, at which point they end up alongside the authoritarians, who lack both PC orthodoxy and basic decency.