Is the ‘shut up factor' intensifying in our society?

Posted at 3:37 PM, Feb 05, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-05 15:37:08-05

I have a question: Is the impulse to censor and condemn people we disagree with growing in our culture?

What got me started on this was an argument about political correctness.

Jonathan Chait in New York magazine has tried to take some of the correctness out of political correctness. Conservatives mock P.C. relentlessly and have for years. The jargon and stridency of P.C. make for a stale, cheap and easy target.

But Chait is in the clan of the Left.  Attacking within the tribe -- especially this tribe, especially in the age of web trolls -- takes some guts. And he has been duly attacked too voluminously, often with personal, not intellectual artillery.

Chait condemns political correctness because it is censorious at its core, “a system of left-wing ideological repression.”

“Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible,” he writes.

For sure, some ideas, some words, even some pronouns are “illegitimate” and should be forbidden. To disagree with that, even in the name of liberal free speech, is to blindly perpetuate structures of racism, sexism, genderism and other heinous “isms.”

What is most obnoxious is “that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses.” Chait has a gillion examples, but here’s one: “A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas.” 

Now, this a fight in a small world. And for all its sins, political correctness is most always on the side of the underdog. Its ideas are part of a good argument. But its “shut up” factor, its impulse to censor is a defining characteristic.

That can be said of many sub-cultures today however.  That is our primary complaint about talk radio, cable news and online comments.  People with different opinions should shut up or be shut up. It seems like tribal behavior.

Many, if not most clans have a form of internal P.C. Tribal aggression is not new.  Earlier thought police burned witches; we unleash trolls on heretics.

But is this growing in our own culture?

Maybe the Internet just makes it look that way.

The web allows anyone to spout bile and vitriol anonymously, instantly and publicly. It enables trolling. We know that people will write things in email and Web comments that they would never, ever say to a person’s face.

The arguments about politics, current events, religion and so on that we see online and in the media are indeed more vicious and nasty than what we saw in the days of slower media.

Is it because of changes of media or culture? The McCarthyism of the 1950s, for example, was more censorious, illiberal, un-American yet more powerful than any comparable contemporary American “ism.”  The immorality of the South’s segregationists makes today’s prejudices look mild.

But the public debates, the news media coverage and the opinion pages were much more polite and dignified. They also were more closed and controlled.

Now every keyboard is pulpit and the potential congregation is global. Maybe we’re just getting a better look at what has always been.  I don’t know. In P.C. terms, “I just don’t get it.”

[Also by Dick Meyer: ‘Science deniers’ believe what they believe because they believe it]

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