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But the phenomenon of political correctness, as Hawthorne teaches, is nonetheless fundamentally about progress at the expense of the past.What frustrates those accused of violating the tents of political correctness is that the goalposts are constantly moving in the name of progress.The moral authority is never Burke’s “This faith in the now arises from a boundless confidence in contemporaneous reason that in turn implies a conception of man as the measure.
Among elements of the right, the issue is less progress than the present: Fealty to the sitting president can upend long-standing norms because the standard is not tradition but rather today.” Money, deeds to property, books of philosophy—everything burns.But the revelers, we learn, have neglected to torch the one thing that will regenerate all the rest: “the human heart itself.” A “dark-visaged” and red-eyed stranger who appears at the story’s end laughs: “And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery—the same old shapes or worse ones—which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes.”The bonfire is an important dimension of what travels under the label “political correctness”: the war on permanence.On either account, whether progress or presentism, there can be neither heroes—they come from the past, Genuine opposition to political correctness—as opposed to using the term to cloak incivility—must be anchored in a respect, arising from modesty, for the authority of the past.Burke’s respect for the collected reason of ages was about the idea that the accumulation of human experience might contain more wisdom than the smartest professor in the room right now.Consistent with this, on a sample of largely politically moderate Americans taken during the General Election in the Fall of 2016, we show that temporarily priming PC norms significantly increased support for Donald Trump (but not Hillary Clinton).We further show that chronic emotional reactance towards restrictive communication norms positively predicted support for Trump (but not Clinton), and that this effect remains significant even when controlling for political ideology.But it also denotes a genuine phenomenon according to which language and policies that were widely employed and endorsed yesterday are, with astonishing suddenness, execrable today.Now, let us specify what, in an age of political correctness, is obligatory: the N-word that Mark Twain stands accused of using too often in his masterwork is objectively offensive, and Washington and Jefferson are accountable for enslaving people, which must be weighed opposite their ample virtues.That a work of literature has endured in the canon (itself now an offensive term) for more than a century might suggest there is something to it that is not wholly evident if it is held up merely to the standards of the moment. In “Earth’s Holocaust,” after tobacco is tossed into the flames, an “old gentleman”—again, “old”—laments: “Well, they’ve put my pipe out . They will first fling us in, and finally themselves.’” They will.The politically correct today will be intolerable tomorrow. Greg Weiner is a contributing editor of Law & Liberty.