Shelby Steele Now (Part 6): How Political Correctness Imposes an Empty, Tyrannical Conformity on Society
The first chapter of Shelby Steele’s book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country is a powerful, personalized critique of the reigning liberal paradigm and a valuable perspective our society confronts the seemingly hopeless polarization and challenge of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Today’s excerpt is about how political correctness stifles human imagination and leads to cultural stagnation. The entire first chapter is available online here.
Yet regimes of correctness (even the softer American variety) always stifle the human imagination and lead to cultural stagnation because they are inherently repressive.
They impose an empty and often tyrannical conformity on society. One need only think of communism and socialism in postwar Europe–entire peoples policed into a socialist form of political correctness by autocrats and their henchmen. America, of course, is not Eastern Europe, but many of our institutions are being held in thrall to the idea of moral intimidation as power. Try to get a job today as an unapologetic conservative in the average American university, or in the State Department, or on public radio. The point is that even in “the land of the free,” correctness has tentacles of power that reach out and determine the life possibilities of people, opening doors to some and closing them to others. Today our political identities embroil us in a kind of unacknowledged tribalism that transgresses our democratic principles.
In America today our great divide in many ways comes down to a feud between the repressions of correctness, on the one hand, and freedom, on the other. Were correctness to prevail, its know-nothingism and repressiveness would surely lead to cultural decline. Even if freedom offers no guarantee of something better, it is at least freedom, and the possibilities are infinite.
My ambition in this book is not to offer a pat series of solutions that might heal our great divide. We all know, to the point of cliché, what the solutions are: mutual respect, empathy, flexibility, compromise, and so on. I believe that great democracies–and America can surely count itself a great democracy–come to divides like this in order to grow and to reinvent themselves in response to great challenges, both from their own history and from the contemporary world they contend with. Because our culture is so habituated to freedom–freedom is our royal endowment–we don’t need revolution. We need the courage to see through to the bottom of things, to understand, and then to reinvent ourselves accordingly. Today’s great divide comes from a shallowness of understanding.
Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.