What women want?

“Political correctness” has been with us for several decades already. But in the past five years or so, it really seems to have gone mainstream. Who imagined, for example, even as late as 2000, that by 2014 same-sex marriage and parenting would be backed by popular and legislative consent throughout America, and in effect by the Supreme Court?

Now the PC cadres are trying to extend and consolidate their gains, in ways that make clearer than ever the true character of their movement.

In one recent episode, Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla, a well known Silicon Valley software company, was witch-hunted out of his job because, way back in 2008, he like thousands of others donated to a political organization pushing a California state referendum (Prop 8) against gay marriage—a position with which a majority of California voters and indeed a presidential candidate named Barack Obama then agreed.

In another episode, the Somalian-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ironically an advocate for women’s rights in patriarchal Muslim societies, was denied a previously-offered honorary degree at Brandeis University because, in the words of one protester, “A university that prides itself on social justice and equality should not hold up someone who is an outright Islamophobic.”

In a third incident, activists delivered a petition, signed by more than 100,000 people, to the Washington Post, demanding that it not publish any more op-eds that question climate change.

Then there was the recent column in the Harvard Crimson, by a student named Sandra Korn, who evidently feels that America is now ready for the final phase of the PC takeover:

If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?

Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, reviewing some of these episodes, described them as the products of a “totalitarian” attitude.

It declares certain controversies over and visits serious consequences—from social ostracism to vocational defenestration—upon those who refuse to be silenced.

Another commentator suggested that “[a] totalitarian streak is part of the left’s DNA.”

But while it’s true that some of the PC pioneers of the 60s and 70s had Marxist-Leninist leanings, I think the totalitarian impulse of the modern PC movement draws its sustenance mostly from a different source.

Call it a hypothesis. But as I’ve suggested in an old post, the PC phenomenon reflects, more than anything else, the relatively sudden empowerment of women in Western societies—and the corresponding influence on Western culture of a feminine mindset that has certain distinct biases and also puts less emphasis on open, reasoned debate. As I phrased it in that old post:

PC-driven marches and protests (on campuses for example ) typically are meant not to broaden a discourse but, rather, to repel or suppress an unwanted speaker — much as a mother, without any pretense of democracy or debate, would try to protect her children from an unwanted influence. (“Because I said so!”)

Now let me flesh out this hypothesis a bit more:

First, women due to their distinct traditional roles will have evolved (because we humans are not blank slates at birth) certain distinct mental biases.

One set of biases—as I suggested in another previous post—has to do with protecting children and the home environment from germs, toxins, etc. We see this in pregnant women’s strange food aversions and the well known nesting instinct, a behavioral program that hits women as they near their delivery dates. I suggest that women for similar reasons have a strong policy bias (on average, compared to men) in favor of curbs on putative harmful influences from the environment. And it seems to me that women over the past several decades have been particularly active in political movements that have to do with the cleanliness and healthfulness of foods, pollution and toxins, nuclear power and weaponry, and of course global warming. Women also seem to have greater suspicion of modern technological medicines and, compared to men, have a greater preference for “alternative,” “natural” remedies—and to that extent, unfortunately, help support a colossal snake-oil industry.

Another set of biases has to do with empathy, which some researchers consider the most distinctively female mental attribute. An increasing influence of this empathetic tendency—an immediate regard for the plight of others—could explain some of the more striking policy changes over the past few decades in Western societies. These include the rise of generous welfare programs, the liberalization of immigration laws, and the promotion of the rights of certain disadvantaged groups—women, gays, African-Americans, Native Americans, the disabled, etc.—even to the extent of discriminating against other groups under the euphemism of “affirmative action.” This empathetic influence probably also has much to do with recent changes in the military (now allowing soldiers who are openly gay, as well as more women, even in combat units—despite the sexual upheaval that has predictably caused) and in American foreign policy which now strongly pushes for the equal rights of women even in patriarchal and highly conservative societies. Even the contemporary literature of the West is now awash, thanks to a majority female readership, in empathy-evoking themes of loss and suffering.

Women obviously are less inclined to violence than men, and this preference for non-violence (e.g., diplomacy) and aversion to military casualties has had its own influence on foreign and military policy—to the amazement, presumably, of adversarial regimes like Iran’s whose cultures do not feel that influence.

I don’t find these cultural and policy shifts all that objectionable—they have been driven in part by an influential and biased media, but so far (not having experienced all their long-range consequences) Western populations seem reasonably comfortable with most of them. But the shift in how these policies are established in the new PC era is another matter.

Are women less inclined than men to use reasoned argument, in getting their way in the world? It seems like a misogynistic cliché. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe women did evolve to have somewhat different preferences in this category of behavior. For example, if someone is more driven by empathy in assessing a situation, she may be less able to take the long view—the more coldly reasoned view—and, having less of that cold logic to hand, may be less willing to engage in a debate on the subject. I think it’s fair to say that husbands and wives experience this dynamic routinely when they discuss, for example, how to raise their kids.

A recent essay by two influential anthropologists argues—ironically, using reason—that reason may have developed in human society as a general tool of influence rather than a superior route to the “truth.” I see no reason to assume that men and women, who have had largely separate spheres of behavior for most of human existence, were driven to develop the same skill in the use of this tool. It seems just as likely that women, instead of competing directly against men in this domain, became skilled in the use of a different set of persuasive tools—tools against which men are less able to defend.

Certainly the Western societies that were founded on principles of reason and democracy, science and free inquiry, were founded by men. And from the time those societies originated until now, there have been great upheavals of unreason—in those very societies—instigated principally by women. I think of the convent outbreaks of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, in which young nuns competed to act out the wildest forms of demonic possession or oppression they could imagine, and frequently made lurid accusations against each other as well as abbesses and priests (some of whom were burned at the stake). I think of the associated witch crazes of the American colonies, including the most notorious one at Salem, in which the tales of a small group of girls and women—adapted to the devil-obsessed Puritan culture of the time—led to the official executions of twenty people.

Women simulating illness (as a modern alternative to possession or bewitchment), and lying to support these simulations—and male doctors exhibiting a curious suspension of disbelief—have helped produce also Charcot’s famous, fake syndrome, hysteria, as well as Freudianism and other psychiatric fads that grew up around it in the twentieth century. Late variations on the hysterical theme included epidemic allegations of childhood sexual abuse, Satanic ritual abuse, associated “multiple personality disorder” (a particularly obvious version of spirit possession) and even abduction by aliens—and most of this lore was produced by female “victims” confabulating stories for male clinicians and therapists, the latter, again, being remarkably tolerant of all these histrionics.

And these are not just examples of general unreason. The basic theme of most of these tales—here lies the trembling victim, there stands the evil oppressor who must be silenced and punished—can be glimpsed also in our modern PC outbreaks.

Obviously not all or even most women go to such extremes of manipulation; nor are men immune to unreason. And of course not all the PC mobs these days are led by women (nor were they at Salem). Much of the follow-on support for these outbreaks probably comes from the simple, uncritical need to belong and conform. For some men, I speculate, it is also about gaining the particular favor—and favors—of women.

In any case, my main suggestion is just that, under the weight of women’s mass-entry into public life in the West, the culture has shifted in a way that has changed our policy issues and the ways we resolve them. In short, certain types of irrationality, debate-suppression, and mob contagion are now much more acceptable. And clearly we recognize the connection between the Puritan past and the PC present when we describe the hounding of someone like Brendan Eich as a “witch hunt.”

This is all just a hypothesis, but I see a virulence in the PC movement, reminiscent of what swept through New England three centuries ago, that should be alarming. It is an evangelical movement; it already has taken over some of the strongholds of the Western media (the New York Times and Washington Post routinely egg on the PC mobs); it seems to want to destroy its opponents by means fair or foul; indeed it increasingly denies them the right to criticize its dogmas or even to question them hypothetically. Could a scientist these days get a government grant to investigate, in an open-minded way, some of the suggestions I have made here? I think not. In fact, left to their own devices, Sandra Korn and her ilk probably would end up criminalizing the thoughts expressed in this essay. I would guess that by now someone such as Steven Pinker has allowed himself similar heretical thoughts—but does he or any other mainstream thinker dare put such thoughts into writing?

As for the long-run consequences of the PC movement, maybe in time it will overreach and burn out, but for now it is having effects that go beyond the ruining of a few careers, some public policy changes, and the suppression of conservative speech on college campuses. It is promoting the general erosion of science, free inquiry and democracy (already certain politicized issues effectively cannot be debated or researched), and it threatens traditional values to the extent that people in more conservative parts of America, for example, are talking about secession. It has even helped provoke certain countries—notably Russia—to make open breaks with the West.

At Mr. Putin’s direction, a committee led by his chief of staff is developing a new “state policy in culture.” Widely expected to be enacted into law, the proposed cultural policy emphasizes that “Russia is not Europe” and urges “a rejection of the principles of multiculturalism and tolerance.”

Certainly I’m no fan of Putin. But the West he attacks is, thanks to the PC movement, one that I think many Westerners will be less and less inclined to defend.