The Blue Pill Without Amnesia–On the Philosophical Foundations of Political Correctness, Part 2.
4. Reversed Teleology
I wish to draw attention to a different aspect of the “retrospective twist” I described in part I of this essay.
As I indicated, this technique is applied by reading works of, for instance, Kant, with a contemporary mindset.
It is easy to frame Kant as a bigot, racist and unpleasant character overall – or to credit him with a kind of “oppressive universalism.”
I think this way of looking at historical texts betrays something about political correctness in general.
If one looks at the works of Kant by reading them with contemporary eyes, one is guilty of a kind of temporal disorientation.
It amounts to treating Kant as one of our contemporaries, and answerable to a kind of moral system that is presupposed rather than argued for.
To be sure, there are obvious racist and unpleasant passages in the work of Kant, but to overlook the fact that the good professor lived in a different time than us seems to me a first-order mistake, the magnitude of which should not be underestimated.
Again, a simple trick is played here. It consists of the following steps:
- I presuppose moral system C (let’s say, today’s tenets of political correctness)
- I read a historical text and point out that it does not align with C
- I claim that the historical author is a proponent of an oppressive/universalist system O
- Then I claim that C is superior to O – because self-evidently, its tenets are superior. Who is against more equality, for instance?
- I condemn the historical author as a bigot/racist and claim that he has sown the seeds of oppression (as defined with reference to C)
- I assert that the historical author can be placed in an inherently oppressive philosophical tradition, and hold a plea for diversity and multiple viewpoints
First, nothing in points 1-6 actually supports the superiority of C.
These points merely highlight the shortcomings of O.
Second, the trick here is a “reversed teleology.”
The claim is that authors like Hume or Kant were the unwitting (and sometimes conscious) architects of a history of Western oppression and universalism.
They are placed in an artificial construction, in which historical figures from different times and backgrounds are lumped together, with reference to features of their works that do not accord with contemporary sensibilities.
Superficially, it suddenly looks as if the whole of Western thinking is nothing but a carefully orchestrated effort to oppress, conquer and exploit others.
It appears as if Plato, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, and Hegel were seated at the same table, discussing ways to maximize oppression, misogyny and racism.
We can almost imagine Aquinas saying: “Well Mr. Hegel, if you could defend the State as the optimal form of living together, I will pave the way for you by insisting on the superiority of God-given authorities and governments.”
This sounds ridiculous, but it is just the reversed teleology reversed again.
A simple look at history shows how contrary the reversed teleology is to facts.
Oppression took also place in countries remote from the Western world.
History shows how this is a feature of all ages and kingdoms.
The 20th century witnessed some of the most grotesquely refined forms of totalitarianism that we know – quite a lot of them non-western.
Another example: for centuries, the Islamic world easily outdid the Western world in slave trade.
Likewise, the African continent has witnessed a veritable procession of dictatorships, in which black people mercilessly exploited and suppressed other black people.
Today, Philippine workers in Dubai and Qatar are mercilessly exploited and discriminated against by people of Arabic descent.
And arguably, China has set up one of the most invasive forms of public surveillance in the history of humanity, aided by advanced face recognition technology.
I could go on, but I hope the point is clear.
All thought could be abused to be oppressive.
In the hands of those willing to abuse an idea, every thought can be moulded in such a way that it becomes the regulatory ideal of an oppressive political system.
The ominous feature of this type of condemnation of complete traditions resides in its collectivism or guilt-by-association.
Suppose that I stated the following: “All Islamic philosophy is inherently intolerant.”
This would be not only a false statement, but it would above all be blatantly ignorant and intolerably vindictive.
But it is not vindictive because it is offensive – if one defends free speech, one may expect some offense.
The reason why it is vindictive is that a feature that has nothing to do with intolerance (namely, being Islamic) is cited as the very reason for its postulated intolerance, as if there is a timeless and inherent connection between the two terms.
The same holds for saying that “the Western tradition promotes inequality, white privilege, oppression, misogyny” etc.
The terms that are seemingly brought in connection with one another really have no mutual relevance.
That Western thought has been used to justify morally abhorrent practices does not count against it as a whole, nor does it prove that Western thought was invented specifically to invent such morally impermissible actions.
It counts against those who took political ideas and moulded them into something abhorrent and vindictive in the pursuit of their own agendas and interests.
So, should we distance ourselves from Kant’s racism? Yes, absolutely.
But we should also pay close attention to the larger progressive project that Kant was involved in, and that involved a world of “perpetual peace.”
That Kant had a narrow or by contemporary standards outdated vision of what this entailed does not count against the validity of the project as such.
It would be a moot point to claim that I fall in the trap of utilitarian reasoning here – as if the good a political vision effects can be subtracted from the evil it brought about.
The point is not to engage in a kind of moral bookkeeping, but to emphasize that even progressive political ideas contain bad spots – but that the latter cannot be used to undermine the whole idea.
Moreover, I think it shows a poor understanding of history to treat historical figures as contemporaries.
One of the great advantages of written history is that is shows exactly that the historical figures we look up to are in many respects utterly unlike us.
Some of the views they held and that were common in their day are now often regarded as monstrous or damaging.
History holds up the mirror to us and shows how far (or how close) we are from those views.
This point shows also the inherent duplicity of the retrospective teleology: it regards itself as the pinnacle of history – “never before were our values so progressive!”
However, if we imagine our descendants looking back on our era 200 years from now, what will they see?
How will they view the concepts of “micro-aggression” or “social justice,” and the way these concepts were enforced through public pressure?
Regarding oneself as the natural and best end-point of history is a dangerous fiction.
Many who held this view – from a moral, religious or ideological perspective – felt justified in carrying out heinous crimes in their attempts to realize their envisioned paradise on Earth.
If you are the natural endpoint of history, who will judge your weaknesses? Certainly not those who were eliminated in the process of getting there….
5. Dead, White, and Male: Diversity and Demands
The tendency to undermine the whole of Western thought by reference to morally impermissible ideas of key figures in that tradition take the form of “canon wars.”
That being said, I am all in favour of a broad, global education in philosophy, integrating ideas from thinkers spread across space and time.
However, this proposal seems to me justifiable on philosophical grounds alone.
When studying philosophy, it is essential to recognize that human reason has at different times and places and embedded in different cultures developed answers to a range of logical or existential questions.
To recognize this is to recognize the depth and pervasiveness of these questions, and this seems to me a precondition for doing any philosophy at all.
My dissent comes in at the point where activists and protesters demand a broad, (often non-Western) philosophical curriculum that is justified by the contemporary moral hobby project called “diversity.”
I assume that everyone recognizes the value of a broad education that includes aspects of one’s own culture, as well as those of other cultures.
However, the race for as much “diversity” as possible is often framed in terms of Western universities being “too white,” “too exclusionist,” or “too male-driven.”
Alongside this rhetoric, the idea is that white people and Western philosophy dominate academic discourse, a feature that is often held up as a prime target for deconstruction.
“Diversity” is then proposed as an antidote to remedy the situation.
More diversity would turn the university into a true representation of the population or would give an “equal voice” to minorities.
The first move is to remove established thinkers from the curriculum (because they were racist and misogynist, as per the two preceding points).
Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, etc., etc., etc.: they all need to be replaced by thinkers from different traditions or who belong to a minority.
The insidiousness of this move can hardly be overestimated.
First, it makes the study of Western philosophy particularly difficult if key figures are removed or their influence is deliberately tuned down – especially because they provide the core ideas on which Western thinking turns, and without which the whole development of this tradition cannot be understood.
Second, if the criterion for inclusion in the canon is “belonging to a minority” or “being non-Western,” such criteria tell nothing about the value of non-white or non-Western thinking.
When ethnic background or group size become more important than actual philosophical value, the discipline itself is weakened, because political-correct norms trump actual philosophical content.
Again, this is a case of the “retrospective twist” in action.
It is a contemporary version of political-correct ideology that is at work here in a populist guise, mixing a tinge of revolutionary romanticism with the basic tenets of a risk society that is obsessed with rights and an overall poor understanding of philosophy.
Multiculturalism as a cosmopolitan “conversation between cultures” promoted by such ideologues is in itself not a bad thing; but its “Enlightenment Lite” counterpart fashionable among those who ought to know better is a fallacious and morally dishonest invention.
It takes a narrow, legalistic and essentially rights-based notion of individuals and cultures as point of departure, not seldom mixed with elements of the simplified narrative that I discussed earlier.
Then it replaces freethinking with dogmatic assertions about egalitarianism, feminism, and equality.
It demands “criticality” of a certain type – only a French-style “deconstruction of power structures” is allowed, and I wonder what Foucault or Derrida would do if they knew that their ideas were used by people to establish a political-correct duplicate of the institutional control structures they criticized – only this time with the help of their own writings.
By now, they must be spinning in their graves.
If such shallow, dogmatic visions of morality and society are promoted as progressive, no wonder that genuine freethinkers and those with a pragmatic conception of life turn their backs.
Special condemnation should be reserved here for philosophy professors and educators who – in the guise of critical theory – have contaminated a valuable debate with hysterical, pseudo-intellectual, noble-sounding, incomprehensible, incoherent, self-serving, jargon-filled propaganda, complete with a technical vocabulary that descends into the realm of the quintessentially crazy.
We can only quote the incomparable Schopenhauer here, since he also commented – with rising bafflement – on the deplorable state of 19th century German university philosophy:
Following the homeopathic method, the weak minimum of a thought is diluted with a fifty-page torrent of words and now, with truly limitless confidence in the truly German confidence of the reader, quite unperturbedly, it prattles on page after page. In vain, the mind, condemned to reading this, hopes for proper, solid, and substantial thoughts; (…) Now what makes the scribbling of our philosophasters so acutely void of thought and thus tortuously boring is ultimately, to be sure, the poverty of their intellect, but in the first instance the fact that their delivery consistently happens through highly abstract, general and exceedingly broad concepts and, therefore, proceeds mostly through indeterminate, ambiguous, and vague expressions.
This spirited observation was published in 1851 and was aimed at the German university education during the 19th century.
It is all the more distressing then, that it has lost nothing of its relevance at the beginning of the 21st century.
The absolute absence of thought in the academy is all too easily overlooked by the majority of its employees.
The reason for looking away is simple: by observing that the emperor wears no clothes, one must simultaneously admit that one has been running around naked for years as well.
What does not help is the extreme competition in academic circles, combined with an increasing pressure to publish, publish, and publish.
How should an idea develop, mature and gain depth if it is allowed no time?
Even the greatest mind cannot produce an endless torrent of truly original thoughts, let alone publish them at regular intervals.
Yet, those that churn out publication after publication in the same stale jargon would have us believe that they are capable of this craft.
We are to assume that their minds function on a level that is far removed from the cognitive capacities of the rest of us.
However, as the tree is known by its fruit, we should be presented an endless flow of true originality when reading such authors.
Not surprisingly, the opposite is the case – and this makes Schopenhauer’s’ criticism so painfully accurate.
Third, if being white, male and dead is a criterion for exclusion or replacement, can the advocates of tolerance explain why they pick on three features that no person can do much about: sex, skin colour, and mortality?
Nowadays, one’s sex (and gender) seem negotiable features, but that is just a recent phenomenon.
Why is “belonging to a minority” an inclusion criterion, while “being white” or “being male” is an exclusion criterion?
Note how hypocritical this move is: suppose a qualified person were being denied a tenured post because she was “black and female” – the cries of outrage would be heard everywhere – and justifiably so.
This problem can be traced back to the notion of “representation,” in which universities and societal institutions are required (or compelled) to be a “mirror of the society.”
This may be understandable for certain institutions, but I doubt this value in the case of the university.
The university is by no means a mirror of society to start with – the section of the population that is endowed with the intellectual capacities to start or finish a higher education programme is limited.
Moreover, the sad reality is that many people in minority groups have less access to higher education than their peers in different, better-off groups.
No one denies this, and the issue can be largely framed in socio-economic terms.
However, to hire and promote this or that member of a minority group as a professor in some field is an empty gesture – especially if it is done to satisfy some administrative obligation or to appease a demanding public.
Is this person really intended to represent the whole minority of which he happens to be a member?
Did this group even elect him to do so?
And – most importantly – why do we assume that this minority group speaks with one voice and holds one point of view?
Are such groups not comprised of individuals anymore?
The politically correct gesture of this abuse of the notion of representation should be cast in Marxist terms: it is an attempt to deny the inconvenient reality that some groups are seriously disadvantaged – giving the opium-of-equality to the people instead of tools to remove the actual inequality.
And instead of trying to level the playing field, so that a Rawlsian “equality of opportunity” is realized, it is easier to appoint a person of colour or woman here and there and ignore the actual problem, namely the structural imbalances in the educational system.
Meanwhile, those in the political-correctness camp can boast their allegiance with disadvantaged groups, parading the newly-appointed person of colour/woman/non-specific gender-orientation/ethnic minority before the eyes of the public, while loudly claiming that without their efforts, this appointment never would have happened, while happily shying away from actually solving the problems that lead to inequality in the first place.
What remains for these academic and political elites is to institutionalize a structure of “micro-policing” (and we thank Foucault for the term “microfascist” here) in which each and every one of us should carefully watch their step in order not to offend or exclude anyone, or cultivate an opinion that is too far removed from the “Enlightenment Lite” mainstream.
How is this done?
By applying a very old trick that is so trite that its renewed usage borders on the ridiculous, providing us a nevertheless with a clear view into the unoriginal minds that took it from the shelf.
The trick applied here is guilt-cultivated-by-posing-demands.
Religions and totalitarian regimes have applied this trick with astonishing success for centuries.
Original sin tainted the believers, and even their most strained efforts to exculpate themselves were not good enough.
Confessions, prayers, flagellations, sums of money, processions: so many rituals to feed a feeling of guilt that was mercilessly imposed on them by clerical authorities that fed on it.
And we can interpret this feeding in a double sense: the clergy reinforced their stronghold over people’s mind by using their own money, and the more the laity tried to appease the demands, the more the clergy assumed the role of authority by raising the bar.
The prisoners of this system not only paid for their own prison building, but also legitimized the abusive behaviour of the wardens.
The micro-policing of contemporary political correctness functions by applying the same trick.
Such collectives pose demands on those within its sphere of influence: you cannot say this word, you cannot do that, you must take care when doing this, use this language to avoid problems, etc., etc., etc.
The problem? It is never enough. The harder you tiptoe, the more stringent the demands become.
An old Biblical theme surfaces here: from those that have nothing, the most shall be taken; conversely, from those that obey the most, more will be demanded, even their sanity.
The collective of voices that demands such obedience feels itself legitimized by the all-too-willing satisfaction of its demands, and changes the rules at will, keeping those struggling to be obedient continually on their toes.
You will never know when you have said something that was allowed yesterday but is considered (!) offensive today.
It reminds one of the fates of various Soviet composers under Stalin: you could never be sure if the new symphony you had composed would be considered “formalist” or “containing anti-democratic tendencies,” depending on the prevailing mood of those in power.
This perpetual uncertainty and the looming presence of immanent collective rejection creates an intellectual environment in which cowardice is taken for prudence; creativity is dangerous; disagreement signals risk; and authentic, serious thinking is a mortal sin.
On the other hand, self-flagellation (“I know I am not a woman, so I cannot possibly understand your predicament”), conformity, fear, blending in, obeying group demands and bland unoriginality throughout are encouraged and rewarded.
In passing, is it not clear how limited and belittling this vision of human relations is?
In an introduction to a story about an AIDS victim, Stephen King wrote the following:
I hate the assumption that you can’t write about something because you haven’t experienced it, and not just because it assumes a limit on the human imagination, which is basically limitless. It also suggests that some leaps of identification are impossible. I refuse to accept that, because it leads to the conclusion that real change is beyond us, and so is empathy.
Those that claim that they defend inclusion and an emphatic society by combatting racism, inequality, xenophobia etc. hold a vision of empathy that is remarkably meagre.
If I cannot empathize with someone else, then the political-correct project can only be realized through policing and instilling fear.
And exactly, this is what we see in the emergence of a new type of liberalism – if it may be called such, since the political-correct defenders are light-years away from classical liberalism.
The new liberalism knows no opt-out clause, and its methods are derived from the worst excesses of human oppression – which is all the more ironical, given the identification with the oppressed that its proponents love to congratulate themselves about.
The new liberalism, paradoxically, is inherently coercive.
) See: https://againstprofphil.org/2015/09/17/from-enlightenment-lite-to-nihilism-how-professional-philosophy-has-totally-let-everyone-down-about-the-real-purpose-of-an-undergraduate-liberal-arts-education/ [accessed 20 September 2018].
 Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) p. 147.
 And even the focus on “originality” or “novelty” betrays already how much the philosophical idea is seen as a commodity that can be marketed in order to establish one’s professional academic status. But a prior question must be asked: whether philosophizing has anything fundamentally to do with inventing something original or novel?
 This really happened to Sergei Prokofiev.
 Stephen King, Bazaar of Bad Dreams (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2016) p. 457.