The Benefits of Being Politically Correct

By: Lipton Matthews

Stories depicting the savagery of cancel culture are becoming increasingly popular. As expected, many invoke political correctness as the genesis of this development. But rather than looking for simple explanations, we must ponder why people conform to politically correct opinions. In truth, conformity has a biological basis. Humans are social creatures who thrive on intimate connections. Hence conforming to social conventions by expressing politically correct assumptions is one way to signal membership in a community. As such, conformity protects people from the emotional scars of rejection.

Indeed, conforming to social norms like respecting property rights and being polite yields favorable results. Without a doubt, positive conformity is crucial to the success of our species. Yet retrograde conformity, indicated by the fame of ideas like white privilege and systemic racism, can foster destructive results. Preventing the growth of retrograde conformity is challenging, because the success of an idea is not hinged on intellectual rigor.

Like biological organisms, an idea’s receptivity is linked to its capacity to increase social fitness. People imitate each other, so ideas are reproduced mimetically. Therefore, the prosperity of an idea is driven by conformity bias. As a result, heterodox ideas even if they are rigorous cannot compete with mainstream views. Moreover, researcher Robert Henderson points out that the ability of socially accepted beliefs to increase social bonds explains the appeal of cancel culture: “Cancel culture strengthens social bonds…. People enjoy uniting around a common purpose. They derive satisfaction from coming together against a perpetrator. They enjoy the solidarity it provides.”

Further, sanctions are created to stifle controversial claims and are reinforced by institutional protectionism. When journals and newspapers retract articles for failing to affirm orthodox beliefs, this is emblematic of institutional protectionism. Unfortunately, such actors may think that they are acting morally by shielding the public from offensive views. Similarly, like conforming, we are biologically predisposed to acting morally. So, gatekeepers may contend that allowing the free flow of ideas could act as an incentive for their appropriation by rogue actors.

However, this contention is misguided. In the absence of a robust market for debate, society suffers from intellectual stagnation and citizens are forced to substitute rhetoric for evidence. For instance, if researchers could study racial differences without backlash, we would be in a better position to cater to the diverse needs of the population. This sentiment was articulated in a 2002 paper published in the Journal of the National Medical Association: “There is good evidence to show that therapeutic substitution of drugs within the same class places minority patients at greater risk. This is because effectiveness and toxicity can vary among racial and ethnic groups.”

Another reason for the success of politically correct beliefs is that they confer psychological benefits. By promoting the rightness of mainstream narratives, elites can present themselves as morally superior and cement their influence in society. Economist Jennifer Roback refers to this phenomenon as “psychic rent-seeking.” Because of the social rewards derived from institutional protectionism, elites are unlikely to tolerate intellectual innovations, since they can undermine institutional authority.

But the cure for political correctness is to be found in a free market for ideas. Economic historian Joel Mokyr rightly contends that the free market for ideas led to the discoveries nurtured by the Enlightenment: “European political fragmentation created the environment in which dissident and heterodox opinions could be put forward with increasing impunity. Had a single, centralized government been in charge of defending the status quo, many of the new ideas that eventually led to the Enlightenment would have either been suppressed or possibly never even proposed.” Only a free market for ideas can solve the problem of political correctness and prevent its pernicious effects.

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