Quote of the Day: Political Correctness Is About Decent Manners

Jonah Goldberg writes today about the growing generation gap within the conservative movement:

In the current issue of the Weekly Standard, Ben Shapiro has a fascinating essay on the profound divide between young and old on the right….Shapiro argues persuasively that young conservatives care about character and values, while older ones have largely abandoned such concerns, preferring solid policy victories and perceived wins in the war on political correctness.

What explains the opposing visions? Part of it, Shapiro writes, is the usual tendency of young people to gravitate toward libertarianism and idealism. But there’s another reason: Young people understand that some of the things old people see as “political correctness” aren’t necessarily the product of a Marxist virus that somehow escaped a laboratory at Berkeley. Some of it reflects an attempt to craft decent manners in the increasingly diverse and egalitarian society that young people actually live in.

As it happens, this is not quite what Shapiro says. Here’s his original formulation:

Saying innately offensive things and then justifying those offensive statements under the rubric of political incorrectness actually undermines the battle against political correctness. The left wants to make the case that when conservatives say they’re being politically incorrect, they’re actually covering for their own bigotry; lending that case a helping hand by promoting bigotry under the guise of fighting political correctness does the left’s work for it.

Shapiro is arguing that having an obvious bigot in the White House undermines the righteous battle against political correctness. Goldberg, by contrast, suggests that political correctness itself isn’t necessarily all bad. Those are two different things.

Needless to say, I prefer Goldberg’s version. I happen to think that political correctness is more fraught than liberals give it credit for: not all of it is for the good, and the part that is for the good can be genuinely confusing and onerous to those who aren’t steeped in the vocabulary demanded by its practitioners. Even if your intentions are good, it can be nerve-wracking to know that you might get walloped at any time for a mistake you didn’t even know you had made. This is especially true for the vast majority of people who aren’t all that skilled at using language in the first place, and liberals could afford to be a little more sympathetic about this.

That said, I wish more conservatives would go at least as far as Goldberg does. Young people actually live in the diverse society that many older people just read about. That means they have to act decently toward people of other cultures, skin colors, and religions not out of the dictates of PC, but simply in order to live their lives without coming to blows all the time. Figuring out how to do that is a matter of trial and error, and sometimes that means things will go too far or become too pettifogging. That’s just the nature of human interaction, which has long relied on semi-ceremonious codes of politeness to negotiate new and difficult situations. But it usually self corrects eventually and we end up with reasonable compromises. This would happen faster if there were more good faith on both sides.