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The Purpose of Political Correctness

Nesrine Malik, a columnist for the Guardian, has covered many of the cultural and political controversies that have emerged in the U.S. and Britain over the past half decade, including debates over Islamophobia and the cultural aspects of Brexit. In her first book, “We Need New Stories: The Myths That Subvert Freedom,” Malik argues that much of the angst and anger over “cancel culture” and free speech are the result of misleading stories that Americans tell themselves. Her aim, she writes, is to “tackle the ways in which history, race, gender, and classical liberal values are being leveraged to halt any disruption of a centuries-old hierarchy that is paying dividends for fewer and fewer people.”

I recently spoke by phone with Malik, who was born in Sudan, and lives in London. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the state of free speech, how much of cancel culture is really corporate damage control, and why the work of the anti-racism consultant Robin DiAngelo represents “an extreme bout of group narcissism.”

It seems to me that fights over political correctness or cancel culture are happening more within liberal institutions. Does that seem accurate?

That is entirely accurate. The front line has moved, as you accurately point out, from between right and left, or right and progressive, to within progressive circles and within liberal circles. And now we’re hand-wringing about these issues as well—political correctness and freedom of speech.

Free speech is a really big one that liberal institutions, liberal media institutions in particular, are quite disturbed by. And that’s a new development, and it’s a function of three things. One is the success of the right in mainstreaming these negative notions about progressive or left-wing culture, or social-political activism culture in general. The second reason is that liberal spaces have become really quite preoccupied, especially since the election of Donald Trump in America, and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, with the sense that the right is doing something right, and we were doing something wrong. And, actually, maybe we need to be more tolerant or more curious or more engaged or more open to these notions that we had rejected before. And now they have come roaring back at us and taken us completely by surprise. So it’s also a crisis of confidence within liberal spaces and within the liberal media.

The third thing is just the proliferation of social-media channels. There is now so much content out there that, before, we just didn’t see, or that liberal institutions weren’t particularly exposed to. These debates were confined to the academy and activist spaces. And now they’re everywhere, and liberal institutions, be they political parties or media organizations, have to reckon with how to deal with this kind of content, what to amplify, what to ignore. And, in that reckoning, they have become embroiled in it themselves.

Do you think, though, that these institutions are at risk of losing something valuable? I know you don’t see it as a free-speech issue, but do you think that there is a real danger of losing valuable ideas?

I do agree that these conversations that are happening within these liberal spaces are legitimate and valid and sometimes concerning. I’m not tempted to say that just because there is no cancel-culture crisis or there is no free-speech crisis it doesn’t mean that what is happening within liberal institutions in terms of limits on what people feel like they’re allowed to say, what people feel that they are permitted to get away with, in terms of slightly divergent political positions, is not a worry.

The thing that I think is happening falls along multiple lines. It’s in part a generational issue. There is a clear generational divide between people who feel like there needs to be less tolerance of certain political positions, certain opinions, certain views on race, on gender, on sexuality. I think the younger generation has a much more zero-tolerance approach to these things.

But there is a second part to that dynamic, which is that there are also more people in those liberal spaces that fall on the sharp end of the debates that people previously were quite indulgent of. There are more people of color. There are more people from immigrant backgrounds. There are more people who are gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, and the progress that we have seen in liberal institutions in opening up their doors to people from different backgrounds means that there is now a conflict about agreed-upon red lines that existed in those places before those people came in. And so it’s also a discussion about how a society expands and includes new people in these spaces that are very influential and that manage and amplify national debates on quite controversial or quite sensitive issues.

We can’t expect that to happen without some messiness or excess. And that’s where I disagree with people who have a moral panic about excessive patrolling of what people are allowed to say or what they’re not allowed to say in the public space or in the media. Excesses are expected, but they are not everything. We can’t collapse everything into the excesses or the transgressions that we see in these spaces where people go too far in insisting that certain views or certain people who hold those views are ejected or shunned from their jobs or from polite society. I think that we should try to use them as guiding points in how we plot the path forward and how we calibrate our responses. But to expect these huge shifts in the makeup of the media and liberal spaces to happen without incident is unrealistic.

I perceive much of what’s going on along the lines of what you said, that people are being brought into élite institutions, and there’s this huge earthquake happening. It does seem, though, in America at least, that some of the excesses are being driven more by college-educated white people than by people of color.

That aspect of it is purely because white people still dominate these spaces in which we see these excesses. So, I see this particularly in publishing, and it’s been a personal frustration of mine to see publishing open up so much to people of color, but only with respect to race-related grievance nonfiction, or race-related grievance fictional suffering porn. Marginalized identities and marginalized views, by the nature of being marginalized, do not own the means of cultural production. They’re not in the newsrooms. They’re not in the commissioning meetings in publishing houses. They’re not on the boards of U.S. colleges. And, because white people are over-empowered or overconfident when it comes to their correct politics—not political correctness—they then go and enact what they think is the correct way to be an ally. And most times these ways are narcissistic, self-involved, and actually detrimental to the wider cause.

One thing that we have to be very mindful of is that, when there are offers of big cultural or corporate concessions to the demands of, for example, race-equality movements, those offers are not for us. They are not for the marginalized. They are not for people on the periphery. They are for the white consumers of politically correct, or politically-consonant-with-the-moment products. And those products are books. They are news articles. They are sometimes literal soup packets and milk bottles that have different branding on them. Then we end up in a situation where we prop up the status quo by catering to the white consumer’s guilt and the white consumer’s desire to appear politically aware and have the right credentials.

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