Alice More: Arrest him!
Sir Thomas More: Why, what has he done?
Margaret More: He’s bad!
More: There is no law against that.
Will Roper: There is! God’s law!
More: Then God can arrest him.
Alice: While you talk, he’s gone!
More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast– man’s laws, not God’s– and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.
But the horrible irony is that PC is actually a horribly ineffective weapon against the devil of intolerance. Real bigots, like real rapists who we are told should be taught “not to rape,” care nothing whatsoever for shaming or moral chastising. To the contrary, they take pride in being monsters. To call them bigots or racists or what-have-you is for them a badge of honor.
No, as Professor Tom Nichols pointed out in his excellent article on PC and Donald Trump, what PC did was something else: utterly destroy the political center. Once upon a time, you could hold a middle ground, nuanced position on any given issue in public discourse. Now? You’re either all the way one way or all the way another way.
In going after the devil, PC has slain the good men, the knights who could fight the danger, or at least check or weaken it. It searched for enemies where none existed only to release the ones that did. It reminds me, sadly, of Europe of the 1930s, when democracy and any hint of moderation was so thoroughly discredited and weakened in the name of instant solutions and hatred of “the system” that everyone ultimately had no choice but to pick which side was less awful: Stalin or Hitler.
Radical Islamist terrorists certainly exist. We all know that. But fifteen or so years ago, to many of us on the political left, center, or even moderate right, it seemed at times that the threat of Islamic terrorism was a rhetorical trope more than a geopolitical reality. The Bush administration used the shock of 9/11 in service to an incredibly radical agenda, cynically conflating honest critics of particular policies with reflexive anti-American radicals, smearing the patriotism of people who had supported them in Afghanistan, but balked at invading Iraq. You’re either with us, or you hate America and you want the terrorists to win. We all know this by now as well.
Likewise, racists, sexists and rapists certainly exist. However, this generation of freshly-hatched university students, their heads filled with academic grievance-mongering and their hearts yearning for a grand, significant civil rights battle of their very own, started training analytical floodlights on language, video games and other harmless phenomena in order to make shadows appear larger and more threatening. The undeniable progress that society has made over recent decades regarding race and gender issues wasn’t good enough; in fact, it only added to the crusaders’ frustration. If devils couldn’t be easily found, they’d have to be invented. As should have been expected, the people who bore the brunt of their fanatical fury weren’t the proudly racist or the crudely sexist, but the mostly-liberal people who, up to the point of their own show trials, had thought themselves part of the fight against those reactionary ills. You’re either with us, or you’re with the misogynists. And the line defining who was a misogynist kept creeping closer. If you protested, you became a rape apologist.
The moderate Democrats circa 2003 thought that by giving the administration the benefit of the doubt, and by rhetorically distancing themselves from anyone to their left, they might be respected as loyal opposition. Likewise, many progressives made excuses for the social justice warriors, rationalizing that “at least they’re not Republicans”. They urged critics to soften their oppositional stance and inevitably smeared the character of anyone who refused. Honestly, though, I expect nothing less than fanaticism from those who would hunt devils, which is why I reserve the bulk of my contempt for the foolish cowards who make excuses for them in hopes of saving their own skins.