Wednesday, February 02, 2011


As I've mentioned before, I'm in favor of political correctness, at least of its overall influence on the culture. It's a good thing that it's no longer acceptable even for a tell-it-like-it-is conservative to ignore the shared humanity of blacks, gays, Jews, Latinos, etc., when speaking. PC is, in this context, a form of civility that makes it possible for everyone to join in on a conversation.

But the human urge to bully is strong. Where some opt for veiled racism, sexism, etc., others prefer to behave as PC police. This does not, as is commonly assumed, mean silencing those who hold unpopular/provocative right-wing ideas. The preferred targets are liberals, progressives, members of what is ostensibly their own side, because these are precisely the people in whom this kind of bullying will cause a sad. To use a contentious example loosely based on interactions I've had... if you tell someone who favors a Greater Israel and the expulsion of the Palestinians that their views are unfair to the Palestinians, he will answer, 'Fantastic!' But if you tell someone who acknowledges Palestinian nationhood, who favors a two-state solution and splitting Jerusalem, that he clearly hates brown people, well done! He might point out that Jewish Israelis themselves are plenty brown, that reasons X, Y, and Z show that he does in fact consider the plight of the Palestinians, but this will make it all the more enjoyable for the accuser to explain what a racist he is.

In the more refined corners of the Internet, populated by those with liberal-arts degrees under way or under their belts, the vast majority of bullying takes place in the name of a good cause. This is what "your privilege is showing" is about, but as I show with the I-P example, it can extend to virtually any issue.

It occurs to me that there is no term for this form of interaction. I'd heard of something called "concern trolling," but the definitions I found suggest that that's something else. The term I previously gave it, "scrappiness oneupmanship" (no hyphen, oops), doesn't work either, now that I think of it, because the bully rarely spells out his own place in the privilege hierarchy. It's merely implied, via his accusation, that he knows what whichever form of suffering is like, or that if he doesn't, he owns his privilege, just like he may own some properties in St. Tropez. So what do we call this? Sanctibullying?

If pressed on why he chooses to antagonize a fellow pro-tolerance sort, considering all the genuine racism, sexism, and homophobia, etc., that are out there, the sanctibully will explain that it's just that he thinks his interlocutor is someone who could plausibly be brought over to the side of Good. Someone who's already against homophobia is just a nudge away from not assuming in conversation that people come in only two genders. Someone already not for a Greater Israel may come around to seeing that the entire Zionist project was imperialism at its worst.

I find this implausible. For one thing, it's so obviously much more rewarding for the sanctibully to pick on someone who is not an unabashed bigot. But also, these discussions, whether in a dorm, at a party, or online, are not only, as Conor points out, by definition restricted to the privileged, but also not very action-focused. The point is rarely to actually help those lacking a particular form of privilege, typically to embarrass someone for having shown insensitivity towards members of a demographic unlikely to be present.

But who's going to argue against self-awareness? Don't we want rich people knowing that it's rude to assume everyone thinks a $100 dinner-for-two is cheap?

This brings us to another problem with sanctibullying: the fact that the bully is ostensibly trying to help some underdog or another, making it so that the bullied must, before standing up for himself, concede that the Palestinians are indeed suffering, or that gay white cisgender men do have it easier than lesbians of color, must apologize for every possible relevant form of privilege he personally has been accused of being insufficiently self-aware about. The bullied party has to give the bully the benefit of the doubt, to assume that the bully is acting out of good-will, and is simply so passionate in his defense of the downtrodden that he accidentally insulted someone who, after all, has it pretty good in life.

I think it's important to distinguish between sanctibullying and plain old left-wing consciousness-raising sanctimoniousness. The instance of the latter I think of most immediately comes from a poetry class I took as a teenager, in which I referred to the love object in this one girl's poem as "he." I did so, I have to say, because she was always going around all lovey-dovey with her boyfriend, and this being teenage poetry, I assumed her poem was straightforwardly autobiographical. I was, in my mind, picturing the dude. At which point another girl in the class corrected me - the love interest could be a he or a she. Point taken. No bullying. That was that.


Withywindle said...

I'm tempted to say this is in some part sublimated politics. There's a history of Communists attacking Socialists (1920s on), Baptists attacking Quakers (1650s England), because they're competing for the same radical constituency. And then, small differences always irk more than large ones; worse a heretic than a pagan, etc. Which isn't to say your characterological analysis isn't also true, but I suspect a political complement.

(I wonder if there's an equivalent nitpick-bullying over on RedState, or what have you?)

Ah, shared humanity. We live in degenerate days. T'was better in good King George's glorious days:

Don’t like the French, Don’t like their frenchified ways.
Don’t like the French. Their notions don’t suit us, nor their ideas.
Don’t like the French. Don’t like their bowing and scraping.
Don’t like their hoppity-skippety ways.
Don’t like the French.
Don’t like their lingo.
Those damned mounseers!
England for me.
England for me
British brawn and beef.
England for me!
Home and Beauty!
Don’t like the French! Don’t like their frenchified etc.
Those damned mounseers!

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"small differences always irk more than large ones"

That's definitely part of it, and if you ask the sanctibully, all of it. It's more frustrating when someone almost agrees with you than when they're in another framework entirely.

But with sanctibullying, there isn't necessarily any difference between the politics of the bully and those of the victim. This is where the I-P example wasn't ideal - slight differences cause anger in all directions, although a sanctibully will construct differences where there are none. So basically, forget the example I gave where there's a genuine difference wrt Zionism. The sanctibully and sanctibullied might want precisely the same things for the region, but the bully will have picked up on the fact that in any left-of-center discussion, telling someone, esp. someone Jewish, they secretly hate the Palestinians will sting.

Whereas in classic 'your privilege is showing' scenario, it's never established that the sanctibully is less privileged, or more aware of the privilege he has, or more convinced that privilege is society's greatest woe, than the victim. It's the construction of a difference - in position, in amount the bully vs victim care. The sanctibully willfully misinterprets, puts words into the sanctibullied's mouth, etc. The more the sanctibully protests that he actually agrees with the bully on the principles and on his own culpability, the more the bully gets from the interaction.

Withywindle said...

Then I may not have any good historical parallels.

rshams said...

The fact that so many of these sanctibullies don't have any detectable lack of privilege compared to their victims can actually be used toward further sanctimony.

Example, remembered and paraphrased from an campus online forum: "You [well-meaning liberal] are so blissfully unaware of your own privilege on this issue. Here's how your privilege skews your opinion and makes you a terrible person. I, myself, am also privileged, but I am aware of it and working toward change, etc., etc."

So, the sanctimony in this case is more of a "consciousness oneupmanship" rather than a "scrappiness oneupmanship." But still annoying and counterproductive.

Britta said...

There's a history of stuff like this, like Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution (which, quelle suprise, was made of teenagers). This is why, although as an actual Marxist I am probably to the left of most mainstream activisty-type "leftist" blogs, but I actually can't stand any of them. It's like, "what, you agree with me, but allow for nuance??? traitor!!"

In addition to the "your privilege is showing because you buy cheap frozen vegetables, or have been known to shop clearance at JCrew" (or whatever) card, there's also, on certain blogs, just plain rudeness. I have seen people been told to STFU, regularly, on certain blogs, and if anyone dares to point out that it is disrespectful to speak to anyone that way, you're told that you're "policing a woman's tone." It's like, uh, when is it feminist to be a giant jerk?
One reason why I like your blog is on the whole your posts and the people who comment are thoughtful and fairly respectful. I don't always agree with everything on here, but it's the sort of place where intelligent people can disagree.

Flavia said...

But with sanctibullying, there isn't necessarily any difference between the politics of the bully and those of the victim.

Absolutely. It's all about posturing.

And what you're describing is actually pretty close, I think, to the original meaning of "political correctness" back in the early nineties: a form of liberal one-upmanship. (Er, -womynship?)

PG said...

I find it so difficult to read Britta's posts about Certain Blogs' Comment Sections and not think "Feministe, right? Right?"

It's a bit complicated to say what's the original meaning of political correctness, because its earliest use is in reference to Communist regimes, where to be "politically correct" was to have the sentiments approved by The Party. Considering that a great deal of PCness these days is not particularly supported by either major political party (even the Democrats are wishy-washy on trans-gender rights, much less the idea of multiple genders or being gender-queer), I don't think the common American usage that arose in the mid-1980s fits with the original one.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Glad you're comfortable reading/commenting here, even if it's a "libertarian" blog.


I think you're right re: PC as it once existed. I suppose, then, that what I approve of is really the influence of PC on the broader culture, the extent to which bigotry is no longer acceptable to just toss into conversation.

I did look back (I know, I know) at the original Unfogged pile-on I dealt with, and was struck by how it's never established that I have a larger clothing budget than anyone there, or that I think what matters in life is how much others' clothing cost. (It also reminded me that the thread was ultimately picked up somewhere else, so one of the specific comments I remembered - about how even daring enter J.Crew shows privilege - may have been on a different site.) The commenters just imply, via their insults, that they wear thrifted Old Navy, that they proudly resist materialism and snobbery. It's about making them look good, while posing as crusaders in the fight against out-of-touch-ness.

Meanwhile, none of it convinced me that my original point - that the choice to put the Obama girls in J.Crew for the inauguration was, contrary to the too-fancy accusation, actually something of a populist move, and that it would not have been inappropriate for them to dress in something more hoity-toity on that day - was wrong, or that it in any way implies that I'm the sort of person who judges people I meet by what brand they're wearing. It certainly didn't convince me that what I wrote was out-of-touch.


I think it's fair, if one's assuming what's being discussed is the policing of chit-chat in America, at liberal-arts colleges, etc., to assume the "original" definition being referred to is the "womyn"-referencing one. It's great to know the original-original meaning of terms, but "PC," unlike for example "blood libel," had taken on a new and generally-known meaning in our society.

What interests me here is that PC is generally understood to be, for example, some great force preventing people from saying what they really think about women's ability to math, the influence of hip-hop, etc. When the actual victims of PC aren't provocative conservatives, but PC liberals themselves.

K.Chen said...

I have some observations based on my own experiences. Hopefully you don't mind.

Its a form of trolling, in that its deliberately provocative, but its not, in that the privilege conversation puts the accuser within the fold of the community's standard, and tries to put the accused on the outside.

Conversations about privilege are an uneven and unacknowledged mix of (supposed) academic knowledge and ideology.

There is a strong correlation between the your-privilege-is-showing accusers, and their later mentioning of their own participation in some sort of hopey-change gig, (raising awareness for something or another, equality workshop in college of some sort, but also occasionally volunteering in schools and the like)

The most obvious targets for privilege speak, say the commentators on Fox News, are not subject to it. Its much easier to call them racists, and sexists outright. Accusing someone of being consumed by their own privilege serves similar rhetorical and visceral urges.

I'm not sure what to call it either, but its definitely an in-group dynamic - the speakers will have a common culture, especially political, educational and socioeconomic. The emphasis is on orthodoxy over orthopraxy and only a little effort is made to connect the two.

I'm also reminded of Sayre's law "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue."

Sigivald said...

Makes me glad I just never have to deal with such people. (Odd, I suppose, since I have a liberal arts degree...)

I agree absolutely about the good influence of making casual bigotry unacceptable, though. (Which makes it more infuriating when The Correct People do it.)

(Maybe it's just me, but I don't even like the plain sanctimoniousness as shown in the last paragraph. I don't think it's wicked or ill-intended in almost all cases - just not actually very helpful.

Number of people harmed by the assumption that said poem was at least vaguely autobiographical, enough that the interest was reasonably assumable to be male? Zero.

[As an aside, overlap of people who would point that out but also suggest that Shakespeare's sonnets were aimed at a man rather than being of indeterminate or feminine object?

Sadly, probably not zero.

In my snarkier moods, I'd probably suggest "nearly 100%", even though that's certainly false.])

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


(Meant to include this in my last round of responses!) In my experience, the your-privilege-is-showing accuser rarely says anything either way about his own privilege or lack thereof. The conversation's kept on one side of the net, as it were.

K. Chen,

Maybe this is where online differs from in-person. Online, at least, these accusations tend (for the reason I mention in my response to rshams above) to be all about the accused, nothing about the accuser. It's implied that the accuser is fighting the good fight for social justice, but not stated outright.


The poem anecdote is an example of sanctimoniousness in which no one was being bullied. It was easy enough to just give the girl that point, that yes, in a literary text (loosely defined), you can only speak definitively about what's on the page, so if we're reading this as a text and not as the vaguely poetic musings of a teenage girl with a boyfriend, then fine, point taken, 'he or she.' My classmate did not, as I recall, turn this into an issue, declare me homophobe of the millenium, etc. Thus sanctimoniousness rather than sanctibullying.

Britta said...

Ha yes. I was trying to not "name names," and honestly, Feministe is probably the only big "feminist" blog I still ever even look at. Every time I do, I'm reminded of the saying, "don't stick your finger in the light socket and tell me it hurts." I think each time, it's a little worse than it was before. The posts are often in a shrill and combative tone, often about things like, "how DARE people not take me super seriously as a teenager???" and the comments are all either obsequious agreement along the lines of "you're the best!!", or the occasional obvious troll who then gets a 90-comment pile on. People who try to have a reasoned conversation on--I don't know, how even really smart and mature 18 year olds will see things differently at 28, or 48, or whatever, are shouted out of the comments. Since anyone interested in intelligent conversation gets driven away, the comments just degenerate further. (Not that I need to tell you any of this, since you probably already know...but since I do like ranting in Phoebe's comments, I'll say it any way :) I felt this also kind of happened to BitchPhD towards the end, and also Tigerbeatdown, where rudely mocking people you disagree with and then telling them to STFU seems to be the modus operandi around there. Then there are blogs like Shakesville which are so over the top group-think-like that I can't even bring myself to read them. Someone once pointed out Shakesville's comment policy, and I actually thought it was a joke.

What makes me sad is I AM a 20-something, leftist, politically aware woman in academia who I identifies as a feminist--I ought to be squarely in the main demographic of "young feminism" today, but instead I and every single other woman like me I know is completely alienated/disengaged from mainstream feminism, precisely because of the ridiculous sanctibullying. It reminds me of some of the worst excesses of going to a prestigious liberal arts school, and thankfully, since I don't have to relive them, I will choose not to.

PG said...

But if one isn't aware of how the phrase "politically correct" originated, how can one assert that its original meaning had something to do with spelling it "womyn"?

I haven't read Feministe in a long time -- not since a certain guest poster was there -- but it was mostly the commenters rather than the original bloggers (Jill, Piny) who drove me off. With regard to alternative big feminist- identifying blogs, I think Alas a Blog has a pretty decent commenting community, at least as measured by the bullying types being the ones pushed out. I also always think it a good sign if a commenting community includes a couple of frequent, non-troll commenters who disagree with others' beliefs (eg at Alas, one who opposes same sex marriage).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Having the good fortune to know plenty of intelligent feminist-identified people in real life, my sense is that the privilege-is-showing dynamic stops being a real-life, in-person issue past high school/early college. (Where oh where could I begin with high school anecdotes about this. And I liked high school!) It dominates online because, as I mentioned before, the accuser doesn't want to get into his own business. The problem is organization, or even just communicating beyond one's real-life circle. If the medium itself causes the conversation to become counterproductive and to alienate its would-be audience.

I feel like the answer to this isn't all that complicated. Sites like we all know which ones could just make it a policy, as they already do with "body-snarking" and such, that commenters think before hurling a "you're privilege is showing." This would require pointing out why sanctibullying is a problem, the fact that it shuts down conversations and does not, as is popularly assumed, "raise awareness." But I think it could be done.


What I meant by "original" was, if someone in the US, in 2011, refers to what PC "used to" mean, without specifying any more, the common assumption would be "womyn," armpit-hair, and Bennington, and not Communist political maneuverings in fern lands. There's an implicit "in our society, among those like ourselves" being added. If someone tells me that they're a Republican, I don't think vive la République or Plato, even though the term has pre-McCain origins.

(Look, we're disagreeing! Is this the part where we snark on each other's looks and presumed romantic histories, and start hurling the gratuitous insults?)

PG said...


The reason I was thinking out loud about the Communist origins of "politically correct" is that it dimly occurred to me (and I didn't articulate this well) that the term actually may have started as an insult to leftists. That is, in saying a liberal who defers to POC in what they want to be called and thus says "African American" or "Native American" is being "politically correct," the insulter's intent is to pretend that there's some Party line -- comparable to the Communist Party line -- to which liberals must hew for fear of ejection from the Party. Conservatives are very fond of adopting terms from Communism and claiming liberals are being that thing: "fellow traveler," "useful idiot." So although I've always thought of PC as a form of good manners (thereby including the limitation on scolding other people about their breaches, that if one does so in order to discomfort them, one has committed a breach oneself), I'm wondering if the term ought to be used.

As for presumed romantic histories, I'm sure your disagreement with me about the usefulness of considering phrase origins all arises from your bitterness over the breakup of your liaison with William Safire.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I see. So you're saying that when it originated, PC was about losing one's lefty cred. But I think it still makes sense in the conservative definition - conservatives are saying that one risks not merely lefty cred but being shunned from society if one uses the wrong term, expresses controversial right-wing views, etc. I'm not agreeing with conservatives on this, just pointing out that their view is logically consistent with their assumption that they are victims in our culture. They're obviously not worried about losing lefty cred, but might be worried about, I don't know, getting fired from a job. (The plot of "The Human Stain," say, which begins with a prof getting unfairly accused of having said something racist.)

Meanwhile, what I'm saying is that conservatives, if logically consistent, are mistaken, insofar as they're not the principle victims of the PC wording-police. Which suggests that the culture is not dominated by lefties. Rather, conservatives are left alone, while (many) lefties are having too much fun YPIS-ing one another to focus on their actual opponents.

PG said...


Oh sure, the conservative usage of the term is historically consistent: it's bad to be PC and people just do it because external forces require them to do so or otherwise pay an unjust price. I was just wondering whether non-conservative people ought to use "political correctness" to refer to "good inclusion manners," in order to avoid having it assumed that what they want is for it to be spelled "womyn."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think I'm following you. But this is why I refer to the influence of PC on the culture - something far weaker than PC-PC asking people to use "womyn," hardly evidence of a left-wing take-over of the culture, but rooted in the same thing. I think it does come from PC's influence that it's not socially acceptable to show up at work or among friends and start going all Archie Bunker. The shift took place at the same time, and is in part about not using slurs, so I'm not sure where else we're thinking it came from. Evolution of mores, perhaps, but encouraged, no doubt, by those most keen on moving that particular change along.

FanSpastic said...

I consider it a 'brainstrap' mentality, we worked hard for our educations, it isnt our job to educate people who refuse to learn! All I hear is 'i worked hard for my money, why should I pay taxes to sustain people who refuse to work!'