Ryan, Phil. 1996. On Political Correctness: Comment on Loury. Rationality and Society 8, no. 3 (August): 353-57.

This is the version submitted to the editor, and differs slightly from the published version.

Glenn Loury’s “Self-Censorship in Public Discourse” (1994) is an eloquent contribution to the study of “political correctness” (PC). This comment will argue, however, that a correct assessment of the effects of PC must be based upon a clear-eyed view of the state of discourse in our culture. If one idealizes the current situation, as Loury has implicitly done, one will exaggerate the potential dangers of PC and minimize the potential benefits of self-restraint in social discourse.

Loury defines the “regime of political correctness” as an “equilibrium pattern of expression and inference within a given community where receivers impute undesirable qualities to senders who express themselves in an ‘incorrect’ way and, as a result, senders avoid such expressions” (Ibid., 435). Certain expressions or opinions are invested with a “normative” layer of meaning that can overwhelm the “literal” layer: to use the term Black rather than African American may well negate the effects of “an otherwise admirable argument about diversity” (Ibid., 435). Not just specific words, but a whole series of arguments may also become taboo. Therein lies the danger: “the effective examination of fundamental moral questions can be impeded by the superficial moralism of expressive conventions” (Ibid., 441).

In the face of taboos, many will engage in self-censorship, which for Loury represents the greatest danger of PC. But the PC regime cannot be vanquished merely by pointing out its noxious effects. Because PC offers its adherents “security and comfort,” “genuine moral discourse” requires that “individuals, first a few and then many,” eschew the rationality of “utilitarian calculators,” and resolve “at whatever cost to ‘live within the truth'” (Ibid., 455).

Critique of the argument. For Loury, PC threatens the activity of serious moral discourse. Loury argues that disagreements on such questions as the prevalence of date rape or the nature of homosexuality are “inevitable, and healthy. They have the potential to engender constructive exchanges, from which all participants can learn and better public policies can emerge” (Ibid., 429). This claim seems to assume, among other things: (i) that the exchanges on various controversial topics will be constructive, even though these topics are closely linked to people’s self-identity and their moral self-evaluation; (ii) that all or even most participants in such exchanges wish to learn from them; (iii) that these exchanges will contribute to the emergence of public policies that are in some unspecified sense “better.”

These claims rest upon an unexamined metaphor, one quite politically correct within liberal discourse. This is the metaphor of the “forum,” alias the “marketplace of ideas,” the “place” where ideas clash, where hate speech is “answered” by “more and better” speech (Hentoff 1992, 221), where one can “advance the moral discussion” (Loury 1994, 440), where truth eventually will out. This liberal forum is defined merely by an absence: there is no explicit recognition that true dialogue is an achievement that requires much more than an absence of restraints and “self-censorship.” Thus, Loury argues that “sustained rational discussion” on the wisdom of sanctions against South Africa “simply did not take place,” owing to the ravages of PC (Ibid., 442): there is no consideration of other potential limits on “sustained rational discussion” of this issue, such as material interests, bad faith, or racism. The a priori positing of a “forum,” an arena of constructive dialogue, exaggerates the costs of taboos by claiming as their victim the activity of serious moral discourse that may or may not exist to any appreciable extent in the absence of those taboos, and minimizes the costs of a free speech regime.

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we will stipulate that there is no forum. It does not exist in fact, and even as a metaphor it clouds our thought as effectively as any taboo foisted upon the world by the politically correct. At best we have pockets of constructive dialogue among particular individuals, on particular questions. Such pockets can never be entirely divorced from the “real world” of everyday life, in which consciousness is pragmatic, in which people “do not flee from being deceived as much as from being damaged by deception” (Nietzsche 1968, 45). Here, “facts” are often shunned or embraced according to whether they are in some sense “convenient.” Am I black and unemployed? I can attribute this to the fact of systemic racism, about whose existence I have no doubts. Am I an unemployed white male? “Everyone knows” that all the jobs are going to women and minorities nowadays. A particular “fact” enters into circulation, and it is grasped and repeated by those who have no interest in ascertaining whether the fact is true.

Abandoning the metaphor of the forum complicates our evaluation of speech restraint. Let us consider the situation of a journal editor faced with a submission that argues that, on average, “Orientals” are intellectually and morally superior to “Whites,” who in turn are generally superior to “Blacks.” Our editor believes that there are pockets of constructive dialogue willing to address this hypothesis in an honest and competent fashion. But she is troubled: how will the article play “out there” in the real world? She fears that it will provide ammunition to forces that will not trouble themselves over the quality or lack thereof of this article’s scholarship. How convenient for those forces will be a “scientific” finding that “blacks” are inferior: are “blacks” absent from my workplace or university program? Why suspect discrimination when an explanation is already at hand? Why come to terms with the history of racism when it is clear that race-relations are governed by “natural” factors? How many people will latch on to this new “truth,” in order to evade their responsibility to seek the truth?

Some might condemn the way in which the editor has put the matter: her job is to assess the scholarly competence and weight of a work, period. But as an ethical injunction, this is far from self-evidently valid. Few would argue that an editor would be morally obliged to publish a competent analysis of the easiest way to build a neutron bomb. Once we have rejected the notion of a scholarship devoid of responsibility for the consequences of its action, the questions being mooted by our hypothetical editor become legitimate.

The foregoing considerations have not determined the editor’s decision: they merely indicate its elements. She refuses to be guided by an ethic of “pure scholarship” that ignores the social consequences of her actions. But neither does she believe that the “unpleasant” or “painful” nature of some arguments is reason enough for their suppression. Rather, she must weigh the potential effects of an article both within and without the pockets of dialogue.

For some, such considerations will lead to the repression of those “delicate and difficult matters that we would all prefer to cover up or ignore” (Loury 1994, 454; emphasis added). But there are no such “delicate and difficult matters”: the pluralism of social life entails that the very matters I would prefer to “cover up” are those that someone else wishes to shout from the rooftops. There is no “we,” no “all” that stands united on any particular question. The scholar who presents views that are unpopular in some circles may thus become a hero in others. The hypothetical author who penned the article that so troubled our hypothetical editor had no trouble getting it published elsewhere. Various members of his department now refuse to speak to him. On the other hand, he is famous for the first time in his life, always in demand for conferences of right-thinking colleagues and talk shows, and enjoying new research support from one of the foundations that generously bankroll “courageous” scholars.

Even should the personal costs for our hypothetical scholar outweigh the benefits, it is not immediately obvious that this is a bad thing. If it can be demonstrated that certain types of scholarly activity have noxious social consequences, attaching some level of cost to those activities may ensure that those who engage in them do so after having given serious thought to the matter. This state of affairs will of course dissuade the cowardly and opportunistic, but it needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed that this is a bad thing.

Does this argument ignore the dangers of self-censorship? Let us examine the question more carefully, ignoring the taboos of liberal correctness. Loury’s eloquent denunciation of self- censorship draws upon the thought of Vaclav Havel. A “struggle is fought within each human being,” a struggle between the “aims of the system,” and the “aims of life.” We are each possessed of a good side that yearns “for moral integrity, for free expression of being,” and a bad side that is willing “to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along.” This bad side produces a “utilitarian acquiescence” to the taboos of the community, an acquiescence without which PC could not take hold.

But let us imagine that, along with Havel’s words, Havel himself is transported into mid- 1990s North America, and forced to spend a week watching daytime T.V. or listening to “talk radio.” Is it outrageous to suggest he might eventually shout “a little bit more self-censorship, please“? Could the experience convince Havel that our bad side, the side that leads us to ignore “humanity’s rightful dignity,” is as likely to lead us to yap endlessly as it is to shut us up? Could it lead him to wonder how North American intellectuals, living in what is arguably the most vulgar and shameless civilization in human history, could be so exercised by the problem of self-restraint and so oblivious to the problem posed by its absence?

Freedom is one of our civilization’s oldest values. Self-restraint is another: “Keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141). This restraint is a virtue grounded in the awareness that words have power and that we are responsible for each one we utter. A key question for assessing the “PC debates” is thus whether most opponents of PC are resisting a self-censorship grounded in cowardly acquiescence or a self-restraint grounded in prudence and responsibility. When one hears a professor complain that “I have to measure my words carefully” (Corelli 1992, 42), it is not hard to detect some nostalgia for a golden age when power relations in the classroom were such that professors rarely found themselves called to account for their words. Now that these idyllic conditions no longer hold, it is natural that those who were once unaccountable should resent the change. At the same time, no-one is so foolish as to claim a sacred right to irresponsibility. Thus, they will naturally batten on the most absurd cases of speech control they can find, and invoke the ghosts of McCarthy, Stalin, and any other spectres likely to invest their struggle with a veneer of historical grandeur.

Certainly there are those in North America who would impose speech controls that would seriously inhibit responsible scholarship, and we who support that scholarship must resist such controls. Yet there are also many who are searching for some means to hold accountable those who have refused voluntarily to hold themselves accountable for their words and deeds, and many oppose such accountability for reasons that are less than noble. The “PC debate” is not a simple battle between forces of pure light and darkness.

Finally, we should note that the foregoing arguments add to, rather than taking away from, Loury’s concern for transcending utilitarian calculation in the name of truth: our “living within the truth” must involve both the courage to speak the truth and the willingness to exercise prudence in our written and spoken words, to accept responsibility for those words, to remember that words have great power, for good and ill.


Corelli, Rae. 1992. The silencers. Maclean’s, 27 May, 40-50.

Hentoff, Nat. 1992. ‘Speech Codes’ on the campus and problems of free speech. In Debating P.C.: The controversy over political correctness on college campuses, ed. Paul Berman. New York: Laurel.

Loury, Glenn. 1994. Self-censorship in public discourse. Rationality and Society 6:4: 428-61.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1968. The portable Nietzsche. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Harmondsworth: Penguin.