Positional Correctness

The dynamics of political correctness are interesting, and perhaps rigorously modeled:

We have all seen this phenomenon. Those of my age (1980 vintage) have probably witnessed it for the first time in their early teens, when an increasing number of their schoolmates tried to look like Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, and being a fan of that band lost its ‘edginess’. ‘Being alternative’ is a positional good. We cannot all be alternative. Literally not. […] Now remember how the ‘early adopters’ responded when Nirvana fandom went mainstream, and their social status was threatened, because there are clear parallels with PC: some of them went on to more extreme styles; others tried to repair the broken signal by giving endless sermons about the differences between ‘those who are in the know’ and ‘the poseurs’.

PC-brigadiers behave exactly like owners of a positional good who panic because wider availability of that good threatens their social status. The PC brigade has been highly successful in creating new social taboos, but their success is their very problem. Moral superiority is a prime example of a positional good, because we cannot all be morally superior to each other. Once you have successfully exorcised a word or an opinion, how do you differentiate yourself from others now? You need new things to be outraged about, new ways of asserting your imagined moral superiority. […] You can do that by insisting that the no real progress has been made, that your issue is as real as ever, and just manifests itself in more subtle ways. Many people may imitate your rhetoric, but they do not really mean it, they are faking it, they are poseurs (here’s a nice example). You can also hugely inflate the definition of an existing offense (plenty of nice examples here.) Or you can move on to discover new things to label ‘offensive’, new victim groups, new patterns of dominance and oppression.

If I am right, then Political Correctness is really just a special form of conspicuous consumption, leading to a zero-sum status race. The fact that PC fans are still constantly outraged, despite the fact that PC has never been so pervasive, would then just be a special form of the Easterlin Paradox.


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