Earlier this month a colleague at The Yorker asked me to take a look at a potentially contentious opinion piece. (I say colleague but I should point out that we neither receive a wage nor do this for a living; The Yorker, unlike other campus papers, is a private company, so I suppose we're colleagues.) The piece concerned political correctness and the author's resistance to it. He had been moved to write after a professor at a Canadian university landed himself in hot water with a number of students and fellow academics after refusing to use the preferred gender pronouns requested of him by a transgender student. It was an interesting subject to me, particularly as I had myself mistakenly used the inappropriate pronouns to describe a student at my own university. Unlike Professor Jordan Peterson, I had not realised that the student wished to be described with the pronouns of 'they', 'them' and 'their', so I suppose that I had made an innocent mistake.
The debate around gender pronouns is extremely interesting and I think that there are some philosophical avenues that have not properly been considered. But Professor Peterson's approach concerned political correctness and what he believes is a malicious attempt to control the words that come out of his mouth. In fact, he compares his resistance to gender-based pronouns to the defence of a value he believes is "not just another value" but "the foundation of Western civilisation." So, for the time being I will put that philosophical discussion on the shelf - along with the many, many other things that are in the queue - and offer some thoughts on political correctness.
Political correctness has featured heavily in the election campaign of Donald Trump. Many of his supporters detest political correctness and opposition to 'PC culture' comes from a variety of backgrounds and positions. The alt-right and its figureheads (including you-know-who) rail against political correctness as an evil authoritarian clamp on freedom of speech; British liberals believe that it is a terrible aspect of our culture, especially on university campuses, that waters down discussion and sanitises political opinions, lest they cause offence; and many ordinary, elderly people are sick of being told that so much of what they used to say in their youth is no longer appropriate or acceptable.
Political correctness is notably present in campus culture and has been noticed at many universities, in many countries. The feelings of angst against political correctness have been exploded by the kinds of people I mentioned above, who make it sound like it is tearing university life apart; though it does not govern my daily life or police my thoughts, the influence of political correctness on campus discussion and student politics is clear.
Political correctness manifests in many ways. Often, students protesting against academics' failure to adhere to political correctness can result in public condemnations and misrepresentations of people and their ideas. Explaining his frustrations with political correctness to Sam Harris, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt recalls being reported to the dean of a university for homophobia by a student. Haidt has spent much of his career researching the psychology behind our moral decisions (something which I think is highly important and lends a lot of credibility to the emotivist school of ethical thought - again something for another blog post). In a course on the psychology behind disgust, Haidt had presented a scripted debate that explored how we often describe things that disgust as immoral as well. The example in the debate concerned incest, but in the script, one debater referred to homosexuality: it might disgust a heterosexual man to witness sex between two gay men, but does his disgust logically lead to the conclusion that homosexuality is immoral? However, a student had not taken well to the inclusion of homosexuality in this way and made an accusation about Haidt to the university's authorities. Following emails and a large explosion of anger on social media, Haidt reluctantly apologised for his alleged homophobia.
For Haidt, this is a troubling phenomenon on campus. Students can complain to the academic authorities about content that they find to be insulting, stress-inducing or outrageous, even if an academic has no intention of insulting, inducing stress upon or outraging his audience. Certain topics of conversation are off-limits and to question their validity is to endanger an academic's career. When academics dare to cross that line, students can report their activities to the university administration and ask the institution's leaders to condemn this bigotry or go on employing them. "You can't use that word, you have to use this word; you can't wear that clothing, that's cultural appropriation... we get to dictate what happens on campus," says the 'illiberal Left', Haidt argues.
Haidt has a lot of good things to say about political correctness and it's hard, for me at least, to be immediately critical of the kinds of things that he believes. He doesn't criticise political correctness from the perspective of a Breitbart columnist or a men's rights activist, where criticism tends to be accompanied by mockery and belittlement. Haidt's article, "The Coddling of the American Mind", co-written with Greg Lukianoff, is well worth a read. (I'm also glad that Haidt is one of the few academics who admits that American politics has defiled the term 'liberal'.) However, political correctness should not be remembered as an innately evil force. Haidt makes concessions to the need for academic environments to be welcoming and inclusive, and so should we.
Political correctness has not been designed with the intention of fighting evil ideas or shutting people up. I believe that the people who promote political correctness have good intentions. It all boils down to the desire to be polite and respectful to people. I'm not denying that the extent to which some students want political correctness to apply is worrying, as Haidt and other academics have argued, but the honourable intentions behind political correctness should not be forgotten.
The way we respond to political correctness should, I think, depend on the circumstances and the extent. There are times when I think Professor Peterson's response is appropriate but at other times not. If a transgender friend asks me to use the pronouns 'they, them, their' for them, I think it is polite, whether I think it right or wrong, to humour their request; but if a government made it law to address people in certain ways, then I think it is right to protest. If someone asks me not to use dated language e.g. terms like "spastic" or "retarded," I think it is polite to refrain from using these terms; but I would protest if my job were threatened if I were to use improper terminology. If someone asks me to stop discussing emotional topics like rape, depression, grief or abuse, then I will move the topic of conversation onto something else; but if I were an academic and my course were to be censored for mentioning these kinds of things, I would protest.
In a nutshell, political correctness should be advising us on how we ought to behave, not how we can and cannot behave. We ought to treat people with respect, be courteous to one another and respect our differences. Isn't that just civility? If political correctness strives for more civil behaviour in society, I'm all for it. But political correctness becomes bad when it is used to justify restrictions on things we can think, say, wear, do and more. As such, people who believe in political correctness should be careful when they apply their belief: they should remember that the word 'should' can be interpreted in different ways.
When political correctness leads to word policing, clothing restrictions and regulating what can and can't be discussed on campus, as Haidt mentions, it really is time to resist it. But when political correctness leads to people of ethnic minorities and other socially-disadvantaged backgrounds being treated with dignity, kindness and warmth, it really is hard to find a good reason to resist it.
Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US presidential election was a shock to everyone I know. Even those who expected a 'Brexit'-style turn of events were genuinely astonished that their predictions came true. To be frank, it's been over a week and I've still not quite digested what has happened. The combination of staying up until 7:00am GMT to watch the result and the result itself meant that for just under a week, I have been physically and mentally exhausted from what happened. Since then I think I have regained some control and composure, though for now I am still trying to work out who really won the presidential contest.
Yes, who really won the contest? I'm not launching a conspiracy theory here (besides, there are enough of those already, many of which probably contributed to Trump's popularity). I mean to ask who has truly won in the battle for the White House. Many groups are already claiming that their input was vital to Trump's success; others believe that his success is a landmark in America's history, culture and the nature of American society.
Donald Trump stood as a Republican candidate and went on to defeat the Democrat presidential candidate; his party also earned a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But we should not forget how reluctantly the Republican Party invested its support and resources in Trump. If it had been another candidate, it would be much easier to predict the direction of the forthcoming Republican presidency and make some guesses at policies, new legislation and the general approach to governing the United States. However, Trump's politics are wildly out of kilter with most of what the Republican Party has, up until now, advocated.
Trump appears to be an unprincipled, unbothered man who can adopt political positions on demand. But this is far from the political wilyness you could see in Yes, Minister; Trump's positions depend on whatever stokes controversy and whatever would gain votes. I am confident that he could easily have ran for a Democrat nomination. In fact, after campaigning hard to entirely repeal the Affordable Care Act ("ObamaCare"), Trump seemed to lose his enthusiasm for abolishing it following a short meeting with the outgoing President. Trump has flip-flopped around on a number of important political topics and debates. He has no allegiance to the Democrat or Republican Parties, only to himself and his family.
If Trump has no political thoughts of his own, saying whatever he needs to say to get votes, then we can effectively forget about his role as POTUS. All Trump will do will be the public face of the government: it will be his party feeding him speeches and ideas.
But this takes me back to the difficult relationship between the Republican Party and its own nominee. Trump is clearly not committed to the ideology of the Republican Party. Rallying people around a serious dislike of the other camp's candidate and complaining that the establishment has abandoned the general public does not equate to maintaining the values of the GOP. Furthermore, numerous high-profile Republicans have distanced themselves from Trump following his numerous outrageous remarks and comments, especially after the recording of his comments on groping women was revealed. Some Republican elites declined to vote for Trump on the day of the election.
Trump's campaigning and the support from various fringe groups, nationalist movements, conspiracy theorists and Internet pranksters has turned a spotlight on the so-called 'alt-right' and its membership. I've lost count of the number of articles I've read about the alt-right from the BBC, the Guardian and other media outlets. Trump's victory made many people worry that the alt-right's malicious and insensitive antics had been justified and accepted as normal. Trump's appointment of Steve Bannon as his Chief Strategist is also another hot topic in the press at the moment.
To summarise my reason for confusion: soon to be entering the White House is an apolitical businessman and reality TV star, espousing views that do not always run parallel with the party for which he stood, supported and championed by an 'alternative' political movement that lacks its own formal presence in established politics.
The Republican Party finds the alt-right ugly and the alt-right finds the Republican Party ugly as well. The Republican elite endorsed their unexpected candidate with their noses pinched and do not wish to embrace the nationalist politics and collectivist, dare I say anti-capitalist ideas of the angry alt-right; the alt-right claim that Trump's victory was a victory against political correctness, the dodgy establishment, corrupt politicians, feminism and more, but they routinely mock other conservatives who aren't part of the alt-right.
What happens now? In my opinion, while everyone is concentrating on the Democrats and how mistaken they were to have fielded a candidate who was the face of the status quo that so many people detest, we should look at how troubled the Republicans are as well. They thought they were going to lose the presidential race, the House and the Senate; they thought that they had failed to convince the general public that taxes were too high, ObamaCare was evil, that Clinton wanted to take their guns etc. Somehow, the Republican candidate won, but he was endorsed by people who hate the politicians of the mainstream parties and want to "drain the swamp."
I don't know who really won the presidential contest. The Republicans won but so much support for their candidate came from people who don't believe in the Republican Party's values.
Early into my dissertation research, I was disappointed to find that a number of my earlier sources were in fact of American origin. Cecil B. Hartley, whose book was the inspiration for my investigation into British etiquette manuals in the 1800s, was, I discovered, an American author and biographer. His books were published in America, intended for an American audience. Regrettably I had to remove Hartley from my list of resources.
Oddly, American websites and universities seem to provide the best collections of British primary sources. Several etiquette manuals published in Britain have been digitised and stored by American universities, made freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Nonetheless, finding resources has proven hard. Etiquette manuals were often written by anonymous authors, describing themselves as "A Gentleman," "A Lady," "A Member of the Aristocracy" or simply not describing themselves at all. The guides often repeat each other's content, almost word for word: Routledge's Manual for Etiquette (1889, possibly) repeats the same tale about a careless French poet at the dinner table as mentioned in Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, or The Principles of True Politeness (either 1852 or 1863). Several individual guides were republished under different titles. Numerous dates of publication are given for the same guide. Finally, most guides bore very similar names: compare Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen with Habits of Good Society: A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen (1859), as well as Etiquette for Ladies (1851) with Etiquette for Ladies; or, The Principles of True Politeness (1852) - all of which, bearing in mind the factors I've listed above, could be the same publication albeit under a new title and a new date.
Charles Day's etiquette manual, The Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits, has been especially difficult to track down. I have acquired multiple accounts of the title, the date of publication and the location. The British Library provides images of an 1854 edition of Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, first published by Day in 1834; The Spectator makes reference to it in 1836; one Wordpress blogger takes quotations from an 1844 edition published in Boston, stating that it was originally published in 1836. In his essay " "Alone into the wide, wide world": Trollope's Miss Mackenzie and the Mid-Victorian Etiquette Manual" Andrew Maunder quotes from the same publication albeit from 1849. Online, one can find an 1844 edition intentionally converted for American audiences, titled Hints on Etiquette, or a Guide to the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits as well as Etiquette, or a Guide to the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits supposedly authored by Count Alfred D'Orsay in 1843, published in New York. Count D'Orsay's guide is almost identical to those of Charles Day. In the 1844 edition for Americans, it is noted that the guide has gone through twenty-two editions "and has been made the standard of modern society in England."
Day's introduction to the guide - using here his 1844 Boston edition, simply because there are clear page numbers - once again presents etiquette as a paradox in relation to social mobility, a regular theme that will likely be the basis of my dissertation. In the Preface, Day indicates that he is writing for the benefit of readers who are not aware of "what is proper" which "[comprises] a large portion of highly respectable and estimable people" who are yet to "become acquainted with the usages of the (so termed) "best society"..." This is a specific audience, not, as Day makes clear, an audience inhabited by the best of society, for it "would be absurd to suppose" that the "upper ranks of the middle class in London are ignorant of the regulations laid down." Day is instead targeting those in the country (i.e. out of London and 'high society), "where the tone of society is altogether lower".
Here come the contradictory passages, barely a few pages apart. At the end of the Preface, Day indicates that if at least one "honest family" were to enjoy an easier journey into 'society', he will be satisfied and the etiquette manual will have been a success. This is a clear and positive nod to social mobility. Day is keen to "smooth the path" for middle-class families who wish to raise their social status; the etiquette book's teachings suggest that social rankings in Victorian society are fluid. Yet, at the start of the Introduction, Day writes that etiquette is
a shield against the intrusion of the impertinent, the improper and the vulgar - a guard against those obtuse persons who, having neither talent nor delicacy, would be continually thrusting themselves into the society of men to whom their presence might (from the difference of feeling and habit) be offensive, or even insupportable.
Let's jump right to the end of the manual for a second round of contradiction. In the final paragraph (p. 52 of D'Orsay), Day writes:
Gentility is neither birth, manner nor fashion - but in the MIND. A high sense of honour - a determination never to take a mean advantage of another - an adherence to truth, delicacy and politeness, toward those with whom you may have dealings - are the essential and distinguishing characteristics of a GENTLEMAN.
These last lines would suggest that one does not need to be of noble birth or background to be a gentleman; rather, a knowledge of particular social virtues are required. Yet, in the paragraph directly above these closing remarks, Day admits that the guidance listed in the handbook are unlikely to enable the reader to genuinely advance in status. The assistance is instead intended to help them hide their lesser status in the company of the upper classes. As Day puts it:
Although these remarks will not be sufficient in themselves to make you a gentleman, yet they will enable you to avoid any glaring impropriety, and do much to render you easy and confident in society.
Like other authors of etiquette manuals, Day describes etiquette as a guard that surrounds high society, preventing the unwanted from getting in. But whereas other etiquette manuals admit that etiquette is an exclusivist creation of the ruling class, designed to preserve its values and ways from the intrusion of others lower down the food chain, Day seems to go further, admitting in his etiquette manual that the teachings prescribed can only help the reader imitate the habits of the upper class. Readers may be able to better mask their humble origins or lack of noble birth from the upper class but they will never truly be able to enter its ranks.
Day's perspective is not unique. Many Victorians believed that a person could not shake the class into which he or she was born. To engage in mimicry would be a misleading and embarrassing action, as it would dishonestly portray the pretender as belonging to a higher status than he actually was. This is a surprising contradiction if you imagine the number of etiquette manuals that were on sale at the time, providing instructions for people who wished to mimic the mannerisms of the upper class in order to be seen as members of the upper class themselves. Learning etiquette would seem to be fruitless if etiquette enforces the belief that a "vulgar" person cannot imitate the behaviour of a member of society and be acceptance.
Nonetheless, Day's manual (indeed, the many variations of it) proves to be an excellent source for my study. Day's introduction is one of the most passionate defences of manners that I have seen during my research. He insists that manners are "indispensable to the well-being of society". if society lost them, "it would inevitably fall to pieces, and be destroyed." Day is also a writer who makes his awareness of the emerging bourgeoisie, the nouveau riche, plain. Historians have linked the emergence of a new middle class, whose wealth had come from industry, commerce or finance as opposed to land or noble descent, and the demand for etiquette manuals in order to help them slip into high society unnoticed. Day writes:
...in a mercantile country like our own, people are continually rising in the world. Shopkeepers become merchants, and merchants manufacturers; with the possession of wealth, they acquire a taste for the luxuries of life, expensive furniture, gorgeous plate, and also numberless superfluities, with the use of which they are only imperfectly acquainted. But, although their capacities for enjoyment increase, it rarely happens that the polish of their manners keeps pace with the rapidity of their advancement: hence such persons are often reminded that wealth alone is insufficient to protect them from the mortifications which a limited acquaintance with society entails upon the ambitious.
This paragraph shows that Day was well aware of the kind of reader to whom he would be writing. Other authors write introductions in a vague way, making vague reference to a need for manners to be upheld, for their own sake. Day, however, shows his knowledge of the changing social circumstances.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I see a lot of merit in Marjorie Morgan's argument that etiquette was simultaneously an enabler and limiter of social advance. Day's source goes beyond a debate of class and leads me to contend that the etiquette manuals of the 1830s - 1890s were nothing more than statements of fashionable behaviour for the new middle class to emulate in order to appear presentable to the upper class. Their promises of social advancement through an education in etiquette were severely undermined by the widespread thought that birth, station and rank were relevant to being a member of the higher classes.