The Thought Police (2)


The kerfuffle over the Hugo Awards stirred up by beta-male pack behavior continues to smolder like a damp log. I get an odd ricochet now and then from sources who think I should be more interested, but the wise man knows life is short. As individuals these well-indoctrinated betas are not much to speak of, but the hive mind has its powers in a craven society, Condolezza Rice being the latest example. To summarize the Hugo ruction, if your  political opinions are not  left, the commissars of sci-fi orthodoxy want your voice silenced and your writing career left in ruins, preferably of the smoking-rubble variety.

Kristian Niemietz of the Institute of Economic Affairs had some interesting thoughts about political correctness. She says it’s all about fashion:

“Over the past few years, spiked online magazine has consistently and robustly defended the principle of free speech against the censorship demands of the politically correct, whatever quarter they may come from. It is great, of course, that there is at least one magazine in which the phrase ‘I believe in free speech’ is unlikely to be followed by a ‘but…’, and more likely to be followed by an ‘even for…’. But while I fully support the spiked line, I also think the spiked authors sometimes misinterpret the intentions of the ‘PC brigade’, and would like to offer an alternative interpretation rooted in boring, old-fashioned textbook economics.

Spiked authors believe that PC is driven by a loathing for ordinary people. According to spiked, PC brigadiers view ordinary folks as extremely impressionable, easily excitable, and full of latent resentment. Exposure to the wrong opinions, even isolated words, could immediately awaken the lynch mob. PC, then, is about protecting ‘the vulnerable’ from the nasty tendencies of the majority population.

But if PC was not really about protecting anyone, and really all about expressing one’s own moral superiority,  PC credentials would be akin to what economists call a ‘positional good’.

A positional good is a good that people acquire to signalise where they stand in a social hierarchy; it is acquired in order to set oneself apart from others. Positional goods therefore have a peculiar property: the utility their consumers derive from them is inversely related to the number of people who can access them.

Positionality is not a property of the good itself, it is a matter of the consumer’s motivations. I may buy an exquisite variety of wine because I genuinely enjoy the taste, or acquire a degree from a reputable university because I genuinely appreciate what that university has to offer. But my motivation could also be to set myself apart from others, to present myself as more sophisticated or smarter. From merely observing that I consume the product, you could not tell my motivation. But you could tell it by observing how I respond once other people start drinking the same wine, or attending the same university.

If I value those goods for their intrinsic qualities, their increasing popularity will not trouble me at all. After all, the enjoyment derived from wine or learning is not fixed, so your enjoyment does not subtract from my enjoyment. I may even invite others to join me – we can all have more of it.

But if you see me moaning that the winemakers/the university have ‘sold out’, if you see me whinging about those ignoramuses who do not deserve the product because they (unlike me, of course) do not really appreciate it, you can safely conclude that for me, this good is a positional good. (Or was, before everybody else discovered it.) We can all become more sophisticated wine consumers, and we can all become better educated. But we can never all be above the national average, or in the top group, in terms of wine-connoisseurship, education, income, or anything else. We can all improve in absolute terms, but we cannot all simultaneously improve in relative terms. And that is what positional goods are all about – signalising a high position in a ranking, that is, a relation to others.  This leads to a problem. Positional goods are used to signalise something that is by definition scarce, and yet the product which does the signalling is not scarce, or at least not inherently. You can increase the number of goods which signal a position in the Top 20 (of whatever), but the number of places in that Top 20 will only ever be, er, twenty. Increasing the number of signalling products will simply destroy their signalling function. Which is why the early owners of such a signalling product can get really mad at you if you acquire one too.  

We have all seen this phenomenon. Those of my age (1980 vintage) have probably witnessed it for the first time in their early teens, when an increasing number of their schoolmates tried to look like Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, and being a fan of that band lost its ‘edginess’. ‘Being alternative’ is a positional good. We cannot all be alternative [1]. Literally not.  

Now remember how the ‘early adopters’ responded when Nirvana fandom went mainstream, and their social status was threatened, because there are clear parallels with PC: some of them went on to more extreme styles; others tried to repair the broken signal by giving endless sermons about the differences between ‘those who are in the know’ and ‘the poseurs’. 

PC-brigadiers behave exactly like owners of a positional good who panic because wider availability of that good threatens their social status. The PC brigade has been highly successful in creating new social taboos, but their success is their very problem. Moral superiority is a prime example of a positional good, because we cannot all be morally superior to each other. Once you have successfully exorcised a word or an opinion, how do you differentiate yourself from others now? You need new things to be outraged about, new ways of asserting your imagined moral superiority.

You can do that by insisting that the no real progress has been made, that your issue is as real as ever, and just manifests itself in more subtle ways. Many people may imitate your rhetoric, but they do not really mean it, they are faking it, they are poseurs (here’s a nice example). You can also hugely inflate the definition of an existing offense (plenty of nice examples here.) Or you can move on to discover new things to label ‘offensive’, new victim groups, new patterns of dominance and oppression.

If I am right, then Political Correctness is really just a special form of conspicuous consumption, leading to a zero-sum status race. The fact that PC fans are still constantly outraged, despite the fact that PC has never been so pervasive, would then just be a special form of the Easterlin Paradox.

Keep up the good work, spiked team. But bear in mind that you are up against a powerful economic force.”

To which the Ace of Spades adds these thoughts:

“It seems to me that the “spiked online” explanation is the narrative of the PC brigades themselves — that is, this is how they convince themselves of their superiority and how they justify their judgmental, and frequently thuggish and stupid, behavior. As a Cognitive Elite, after all, they have the duty to protect their lessors from cognitive faux pas, just as a Wine Connoisseur has the duty (he thinks) to inform people that the particular wine they’re enjoying is actually jejune, crude, and lacking in angularity.

The snob has the duty to instruct his inferiors.

But I think this author is right– while the PC Brigade explains its behavior by positing that, as the Cognitive One Percent, they have the duty to make life miserable for everyone else, the actual explanation is simply the signaling of a highly refined palate and a cultivated sense of racism connoisseurship.

I’ve written about this myself.

What is the point of connoisseurship? Well, as a primary matter, to develop a refined, cultured, and sensitive palate for detecting the most subtle effects of a thing. The wine connoisseur trains himself to pick out “smoky notes” and “hints of blackberry” and wines that profited from “good ash in the soil.”

Of course connoisseurship is not restricted to the physical sense of taste; art connoisseurs are fond of saying things like “It’s the colors that aren’t present that really stand out!”

And connoisseurs of music are given to saying things as “What wonderful silences are in this piece, where you can simply enjoy the room’s tone, the vibrations and echoes in the walls themselves.”

The connoisseur is trained to sense things that no one else can sense, or, at least, no one but an elite cadre of dedicated Detectors of the Subtle and Sublime.

The secondary value of connoisseurship is, of course, impressing other connoisseurs, intimidating non-connoisseurs, and, by these effects, gaining a Social Advantage which maximizes one’s chances for financial and sexual success.

I actually think the secondary value is really the primary one but let’s be generous and just say it’s a nice unintended consequence.

Now maybe I was goofing on connoisseurship a little bit there, but I have to admit, I’d like to pick up that kind of skill. So long as it does not take a great deal of time and effort, I mean.

But of course it would take that. One can fake these things, as one can fake most things, but there’s nothing more embarrassing than a fake connoisseur outed as a poser.

I am suggesting, of course, that people of little talent and little liking of hard work and training have created a new connoisseurship, a connoisseurship rather easily achieved, requiring, as it does, so very little practice and so very little reading; they have created a connoisseurship of Racism, savoring (or so they say) each note so delicate as to be imperceptible to the proletarians whose sense are too unrefined to detect anything but the boldest, most obvious flavors.

And by demonstrating their connoisseurship of racism, they gain a social advantage, that of impressing the other would-be racist connoisseurs, and the various stooges and goons stupid enough to be impressed by this shabby parlor trick.

And, as with any fake connoisseur, as with any bluffer, they gain the most when they make the most ludicrous claims: “I can virtually taste the post-war global depression in this wine; there’s a character in the sweat of the grape-stompers that imparts to it a sadness that is almost transcendent.”

For connoisseurs, noting that a wine has a chocolate aftertaste is rather elementary and crude. No, to really impress people — or to really bluff — you have to really commit to it and claim that your tastes are so refined that they can perceive flavors which exist only on an atomic level:

“Mmm.. those d-orbital electrons are really a kick, aren’t they? The complexity of flavors he’s managed to achieve while working within the confines of just a few electron states is simply magnificent.”

And so it is with the Connoisseurs of Racism.”



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