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Q. & A.
The Purpose of Political Correctness
A conversation with the columnist Nesrine Malik about who makes the changing rules of public speech.
June 3, 2021
“Cancel culture, in many instances, if one bothers to look underneath the hood, is corporate damage-control culture,” the columnist Nesrine Malik says.Photograph by Logan Cyrus / AFP / Getty
esrine Malik, a columnist for the Guardian
, has covered many of the cultural and political controversies that have emerged in the U.S. and Britain over the past half decade, including debates over Islamophobia and the cultural aspects of Brexit. In her first book, “We Need New Stories: The Myths That Subvert Freedom
,” Malik argues that much of the angst and anger over “cancel culture” and free speech are the result of misleading stories that Americans tell themselves. Her aim, she writes, is to “tackle the ways in which history, race, gender, and classical liberal values are being leveraged to halt any disruption of a centuries-old hierarchy that is paying dividends for fewer and fewer people.”
I recently spoke by phone with Malik, who was born in Sudan
and lives in London. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the state of free speech, how much of cancel culture is really corporate damage control, and why the work of the anti-racism consultant Robin DiAngelo
represents “an extreme bout of group narcissism.”
It seems to me that fights over political correctness or cancel culture are happening more within liberal institutions. Does that seem accurate?
That is entirely accurate. The front line has moved, as you accurately point out, from between right and left, or right and progressive, to within progressive circles and within liberal circles. And now we’re hand-wringing about these issues as well—political correctness and freedom of speech.
Free speech is a really big one that liberal institutions, liberal media institutions in particular, are quite disturbed by. And that’s a new development, and it’s a function of three things. One is the success of the right in mainstreaming these negative notions about progressive or left-wing culture, or social-political activism culture in general. The second reason is that liberal spaces have become really quite preoccupied—especially since the election of Donald Trump, in America, and the Brexit vote, in the United Kingdom—with the sense that the right is doing something right, and we were doing something wrong. And, actually, maybe we need to be more tolerant or more curious or more engaged or more open to these notions that we had rejected before. And now they have come roaring back at us and taken us completely by surprise. So it’s also a crisis of confidence within liberal spaces and within the liberal media.
The third thing is just the proliferation of social-media channels. There is now so much content out there that, before, we just didn’t see, or that liberal institutions weren’t particularly exposed to. These debates were confined to the academy and activist spaces. And now they’re everywhere, and liberal institutions, be they political parties or media organizations, have to reckon with how to deal with this kind of content—what to amplify, what to ignore. And, in that reckoning, they have become embroiled in it themselves.
Do you think, though, that these institutions are at risk of losing something valuable? I know you don’t see it as a free-speech issue, but do you think that there is a real danger of losing valuable ideas?
I do agree that these conversations that are happening within these liberal spaces are legitimate and valid and sometimes concerning. I’m not tempted to say that just because there is no cancel-culture crisis or there is no free-speech crisis it doesn’t mean that what is happening within liberal institutions in terms of limits on what people feel like they’re allowed to say, what people feel that they are permitted to get away with, in terms of slightly divergent political positions, is not a worry.
The thing that I think is happening falls along multiple lines. It’s, in part, a generational issue. There is a clear generational divide between people who feel like there needs to be less tolerance of certain political positions, certain opinions, certain views on race, on gender, on sexuality. I think the younger generation has a much more zero-tolerance approach to these things.
But there is a second part to that dynamic, which is that there are also more people in those liberal spaces that fall on the sharp end of the debates that people previously were quite indulgent of. There are more people of color. There are more people from immigrant backgrounds. There are more people who are gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, and the progress that we have seen in liberal institutions in opening up their doors to people from different backgrounds means that there is now a conflict about agreed-upon red lines that existed in those places before those people came in. And so it’s also a discussion about how a society expands and includes new people in these spaces that are very influential and that manage and amplify national debates on quite controversial or quite sensitive issues.
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We can’t expect that to happen without some messiness or excess. And that’s where I disagree with people who have a moral panic about excessive patrolling of what people are allowed to say or what they’re not allowed to say in the public space or in the media. Excesses are expected, but they are not everything. We can’t collapse everything into the excesses or the transgressions that we see in these spaces, where people go too far in insisting that certain views or certain people who hold those views are ejected or shunned from their jobs or from polite society. I think that we should try to use them as guiding points in how we plot the path forward and how we calibrate our responses. But to expect these huge shifts in the makeup of the media and liberal spaces to happen without incident is unrealistic.
I perceive much of what’s going on along the lines of what you said, that people are being brought into élite institutions, and there’s this huge earthquake happening. It does seem, though, in America at least, that some of the excesses are being driven more by college-educated white people than by people of color.
That aspect of it is purely because white people still dominate these spaces in which we see these excesses. So I see this particularly in publishing, and it’s been a personal frustration of mine to see publishing open up so much to people of color, but only with respect to race-related grievance nonfiction or race-related grievance fictional suffering porn. Marginalized identities and marginalized views, by the nature of being marginalized, do not own the means of cultural production. They’re not in the newsrooms. They’re not in the commissioning meetings in publishing houses. They’re not on the boards of U.S. colleges. And, because white people are over-empowered or overconfident when it comes to their correct politics—not political correctness—they then go and enact what they think is the correct way to be an ally. And most times these ways are narcissistic, self-involved, and actually detrimental to the wider cause.
One thing that we have to be very mindful of is that, when there are offers of big cultural or corporate concessions to the demands of, for example, race-equality movements, those offers are not for us. They are not for the marginalized. They are not for people on the periphery. They are for the white consumers of politically correct, or politically-consonant-with-the-moment products. And those products are books. They are news articles. They are sometimes literal soup packets and milk bottles that have different branding on them. Then we end up in a situation where we prop up the status quo by catering to the white consumer’s guilt and the white consumer’s desire to appear politically aware and have the right credentials.
Did you follow the story in which the Philip Roth biography was discontinued by Norton after allegations of sexual assault against the author, Blake Bailey? (Bailey has denied the allegations.)
Yes, they are my publisher. So I have to.
This seemed to me like a corporate damage-control situation, where the publisher had screwed up by not taking seriously initial allegations against Bailey. So they did damage control, in the form of pulling the book, which everyone I talked to seems to think was bad. Now you are unable to get a book, which some people see as an abridgment of speech, but no one is happy about the situation, and no one feels this was a good thing for women’s rights or social justice.
Yeah. Cancel culture, in many instances, if one bothers to look underneath the hood, is corporate damage-control culture. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as nicely as “cancel culture,” and what the commercial entity sees is not what you and I see. It doesn’t see the contours of the social, racial, or gender-related grievance. All it sees are dollar signs or lack thereof. And so its response is, “How much of a risk is this to us?” They don’t make these decisions based on a commitment to higher principles such as free speech, or because they believe in a particular thing that they want to produce. In the end, books are products. And the people who publish books are vulnerable to public opinion.
Milo Yiannopoulos’s book was withdrawn by his publisher for no other reason than that Milo had made controversial comments about having sex with minors. Milo had said several things for many years beforehand that were controversial, but this was seen as one that was particularly commercially damaging. All the language that Milo’s publisher was using before it made the decision to withdraw his book was about these lofty ideals, about free speech, about how it can’t get involved in curating the public marketplace of ideas. You know, all they do is take people’s ideas and their experiences and they publish them, and they basically have no active role. And then, suddenly, they had a very active role.
One thing that does seem different to me about corporations now, though, is that they are often concerned about their employees and also the consumer. I think that social media is part of this, because employees have their own outlet to talk about these things. And this also goes to the age difference you were talking about.
Yes. In the book, I talk about something called growing pains. This is a function or a feature of growing pains in a society. And you’re right—these institutions, publishing houses, corporations, people are worried about their employees turning against them and exposing them in public spaces. You have more nascent whistle-blowers than you would’ve had ten years ago, and that is a function of social media.
I guess the choice of the word “whistle-blower” comes down to whether you think these things are good or bad.
Yeah. It’s very hard to be someone who is actually quite excited and inspirited by these belated transformations that are happening in these élite liberal institutions, while also seeing incidents that seem like the pendulum swinging too much to the other side, that do seem like overcorrections. It’s a very bloodless thing to say, but that’s what happens when change takes long to happen. You get a situation in which you are stormed, as opposed to things happening in a regulated, modulated, sensible way. When you don’t manage change well, you end up with a sort of coup, and coups are nasty.
And I’ve seen things that are concerning, when people have committed a professional error or faux pas and then been punished for it by losing their jobs, even though they have gone through an internal process of adjudication and discipline, because it had come out into the public space. That I find concerning. You start then behaving like politicians, and you start thinking about reputational damage. You start thinking, Maybe we just throw this person under the bus to show that we are moving in the right direction. And so that method is one I find extremely disconcerting, because real people are getting caught up in it. But to collapse all of it into that, I think, is not accurate.
We were talking about corporate damage control, and you said you didn’t think that it was ideological. Robin DiAngelo’s work on white fragility has been used by a lot of corporations for training seminars, but her book is also developing what you might call an ideology, and one held not by underrepresented communities but by educated white people.
I think it’s only an ideology insofar as it is an extreme bout of group narcissism. I don’t think that there is any sort of politically transformative goal behind it, other than to further reinforce white liberal narcissism. And it’s basically so flamboyantly extra, right? Which I think is a giveaway, in this performative-solidarity literature and performative-solidarity consumption of that literature. It makes me think that it is actually more about engaging in cultish self-help trends or self-improvement trends than it is about wanting to enact profound change in which your demographic loses quite a lot of capital actually, if you were to do it right.
The second reason why it’s a kind of group narcissism is that it promotes this notion that identity politics is about easing the passage of people of color in élite spaces. It’s about being nice to them. It’s about accommodating them and understanding how white people need to undo so much of their programming so that they can welcome people of color in their own spaces. It’s about giving people a piece of the pie, as it were. And so, instead of helping the grass roots to drive and push the periphery more toward the center—for example, by encouraging participatory democracy, voter registration, etc.—all it does is it basically expands the weekend barbecue. It also promotes a view that reform is via individual guilt and correction, and distracts from the systemic ways that identity politics is being nurtured by the media and politicians. So, while we are busying ourselves with corporate H.R. techniques, a ground movement of entitled white grievance has been building up in the United States.
You say in the book that we could do with more political correctness rather than less. Where do you think that we need more political correctness?
Well, I think we need more political correctness in the way that we have commodified people’s pain in our media discourse. One of the things that have been very difficult to see over the past five years, in particular, is this creation of an almost Colosseum-like public arena, where people shout at one another, and abuse one another, and we bring down the dignity of people as they try to make points about their safety and their respect.
For example, the Muslim ban was a very big moment in my life, because it was so clear to me that we had reached a point where we had so dehumanized Muslims in our public consciousness and in the public space that it became possible to enact that kind of law, and the ensuing discussion was people kind of equivocating, right? People being, like, we need to figure out what’s happening with the bad Muslims, so we can keep the good Muslims in. All of that was extremely undignified, extremely painful, extremely detrimental to the perception of Muslims. I think it’s a function of people on the right, in particular, thinking that having less political correctness was the way forward.
It’s just about respect. It’s about how, when you extend a certain sanctity of language and dignity to human beings, that then extends to their real life. And so, when I say we need more political correctness, I’m talking primarily in the realm of the media, where, on the opposite side of the spectrum to the discussions that we were having earlier about the constrictions of liberal space, we also have seen a commodification of the conflict between identities. I think that has been damaging to the public discourse. I think that it has contributed to racial tension and has contributed to a general fraying of our relationships. And so the reason I encourage political correctness is that it’s tense out there. We all are bringing certain ideas, certain backgrounds, certain religions to the discourse. And the only way we can oil that conversation is to extend the protocols of political correctness to everyone.
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is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
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