The “alt-right” or alternative right, an amorphous collection of white nationalists and other radical right-wingers, has been in the spotlight after recent Hillary Clinton’s speech denouncing the movement and linking it to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. There has been much discussion of what the alt-right is and whether it has any real influence outside Twitter wars. The rise of this group is due to many factors; but it is also part of a larger phenomenon that can be described as anti-political correctness run amok.
When an #AltRightMeans hashtag sprung up in anticipation of Clinton’s speech, many of the tweets in it mentioned “political correctness” or “social justice warriors” and defined the alt-right as a rebellion against the stifling PC regime. While Trump has at most a tenuous connection to the alt-right—he has retweeted some alt-right accounts, and his new campaign chief Steve Bannon hails from the pro-alt-right Breitbart News—such resentment of “political correctness” is clearly a major factor in fueling the Trump train. When Clint Eastwood remarked in his recent Esquire interview that Trump is “onto something” because “he’s just saying what’s on his mind” while “everybody’s getting tired of political correctness [and] walking on eggshells,” he was voicing a common view of Trump’s appeal.
Contrary to the claims of some liberals and progressives, “political correctness”—speech- and thought-policing in the name of social justice—is a real problem, not just a matter of privileged people’s discomfort with being challenged and occasional, generally harmless overzealousness by “social justice warriors.” College professors and students, writers, artists, and others have been vilified, and often punished with tangible career damage, for trivial missteps and ideological transgressions: defending “culturally appropriative” Halloween costumes, suggesting that racism is not the sole explanation for some black students’ academic struggles, or publishing material deemed to “objectify” women in a sci-fi bulletin.
The backlash which has been simmering for a while and has surged in the past year is entirely understandable. But it also has a dark side: in the #AltRightMeans hashtag, tweets deploring political correctness mingle with ones asserting that “diversity is white genocide,” denouncing Jews, or lamenting miscegenation. Too many anti-PC culture warriors abuse the term “political correctness” as wantonly as social justice champions abuse the term “racism”—and, worse, promote or condone real bigotry in the name of anti-authoritarian rebellion.
Thus, Breitbart News recently jeered at the “PC police in meltdown” after bipartisan disgust at immigrant-bashing tweets by Ann Coulter. The far-right shock queen had mocked pundits Fareed Zakaria and Danielle Pletka, both foreign-born United States citizens, for having the gall to speak on issues of concern to Americans—in Zakaria’s case, “in a thick Indian accent.” If it’s “politically correct” to condemn such attacks, then the ranks of the PC should include Ronald Reagan, who once proudly noted that anyone from anywhere in the world can become an American.
Breitbart News has also defended the alt-right as a revolt against PC. In particularly, Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos, who gained fame battling “social justice warriors,” has repeatedly tried to downplay the movement’s bigotry and praised its willingness to defy taboos. (Disclosure: I have been a guest on Yiannopoulos’s webcast.)
Taboo-breaking “ironic bigotry” will inevitably serve to normalize and spread real bigotry
Yiannopoulos’s trajectory is a stark example of the pitfalls of anti-PC for its own sake. After defending GamerGate, the online movement that pushed back against “social justice” diktat in the videogame community (and was, in my view, quite unfairly portrayed as a misogynist mob), Yiannopoulos emerged as a leading voice for what he and frequent co-author Allum Bokhari called “cultural libertarianism”—an individualist, pro-free expression outlook opposed to identity politics and speech-policing. He also became a provocateur, gleefully practicing his own dictum that “the only proper response to outrage culture is to be outrageous”—for instance, responding to complaints about sexism in science and tech with a presumably tongue-in-cheek proposal for a five to 10 percent cap on female students in those fields.
The pursuit of outrage was a road that led Yiannopoulos to his current role as a “fellow traveler” of the alt-right. It has also led to his permanent Twitter ban for allegedly inciting racist harassment toward black actress Leslie Jones. In recent months, his provocations have grown toxic: In recent months Yiannopoulos has praised websites like VDARE, a white nationalist platform with a fixation on racial differences and the subversive tendencies of Jews, and people like Twitter Jew-hater and racist “Ricky Vaughn.” He has joined in the racist Twitter abuse directed at anti-Trump conservative Jewish journalist Ben Shapiro after the birth of his son, tweeting a taunt implying that the baby’s real father was black. Despite his own partly Jewish background, which he has used as a defense, Yiannopoulos has also toyed with the alt-right’s Jew-baiting jargon such as mocking Republican Trump critics for getting “shekels from their globalist paymasters.”
Yiannopoulos, Bokhari, and some other defenders of the alt-right argue that its in-your-face racism, whether real or a performative, is a reaction to the excesses of “PC” and “social justice”: the suppression of “hurtful” speech, which invites mutiny; the runaway expansion of the concepts of racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc., which trivializes these concepts and weakens their stigma; the often virulent rhetoric targeting “privileged” whites and males, which discredits liberalism’s claim to universalist humanism. This is at least partly true. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good or smart reaction.
In a cartoon tweeted recently with the comment, “#AltRightMeans not being susceptible to buzzwords,” several stick figures, one in a Trump hat, are berated by a figure yelling, “Racist! Sexist! Homophobic! Neo-Nazi!”—whereupon the hat-wearer stumps the haranguer with a thumbs-up and an unfazed “OK.” We’re probably meant to think that Trump Hat isn’t actually saying anything bigoted; but the punchline still works if he is. Alt-right sympathizers have suggested that deliberately breaking the taboos against racism, sexism, homophobia, or even neo-Nazism destroys the left’s power to use these labels to silence dissent.
There are, at a minimum, two problems with this argument. First, taboo-breaking “ironic bigotry” will inevitably serve to normalize and spread real bigotry—which, while much rarer than it once was, is hardly extinct. Second, the effort to destigmatize racist, sexist, or homophobic (let alone neo-Nazi) speech is likely to boost “social justice” extremism on the left, feeding a vicious cycle. It will lend credence to leftist claims that “political correctness” is simply basic decency and respect toward women, minorities, and gay or transgender people.
It will also reinforce the notion that American culture is still a hotbed of bigotry which must be zealously fought. It will also drive away old-style liberals who oppose the authoritarian left, such as Jonathan Chait or Judith Shulevitz.
The anti-PC rebellion often overlooks the fact that there are two different kinds of “political correctness.” What one might call “PC-lite” became a tacit consensus in the 1960s: the severe stigmatization of speech that overtly attacks or insults people on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, religion, and other group characteristics, especially ones historically linked to discrimination and prejudice. (In other words, decency and respect.) Hardcore PC, which arose in the 1980s, waned toward the end of the 1990s, and came back with a vengeance in the 2010s, is something very different: a crusade to cleanse culture of anything that could conceivably be interpreted as demeaning the “marginalized” or perpetuating oppression.
PC-lite means you don’t question an immigrant’s Americanness or make fun of a foreign accent. Hardcore PC means that asking an immigrant where he’s from or complimenting her English is a “microaggression.” PC-lite means that calling a black person an ape (as some of Yiannopoulos’s followers did to Jones) or a savage (as alt-right author Theodore “Vox Day” Beale did to science fiction writer N.K. Jemisin) gets you booted from polite society. Hardcore PC means you can be labeled racist for failing to include black characters in a videogame set in medieval Central Europe or for mentioning black-on-black crime.
A rebellion against hardcore PC, which chills intellectual discourse and turns human interaction into a minefield, is long overdue; but if it turns into a rejection of basic decency, we will all be the losers—including the revolutionaries themselves.
Lauren Southern, a Canadian university student, freelance journalist and activist, discovered cultural libertarianism due to her frustration with the illiberal mindset of modern progressivism and feminism. Drawn into alt-right circles, Southern, now 21, initially assumed that the racism and anti-Semitism she saw and heard was simply provocative humor. Then she began to realize that many of her new allies meant it.
Southern, who recently spoke to me by email and phone, still believes there are “sane” people who consider themselves alt-right and is not sure if the “hateful” ones are a majority. But she has been increasingly disturbed by the vitriolic bigotry—and the effect it was having on her.
“I’ve been joking along so much that I think I’ve lost myself a little,” Southern told me. “Sometimes I feel like I’m becoming a sociopath.”
Having soured on the alt-right, Southern is still passionate about cultural libertarianism. However, she says, “you can defend free speech while not [condoning] what these people are saying.” She points out that while Twitter’s cultural libertarians oppose bans on offensive speech, “we also condemn those who make #killallwhitemen memes and genuinely hate men or whites. I don’t see why this shouldn’t be treated similarly.”
Encouragingly, some critics of political correctness are now speaking out against what British journalist Brendan O’Neill calls “the derailment of the important task of challenging PC” by anti-PC warriors whose main weapons are racist or misogynist slurs. Right now, “free speech activist” in a Twitter bio has become a code word for “white supremacist.” That’s not a good thing for free speech.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.