Honey Instead Of Vinegar: Why I Don’t Demand People Be Politically Correct


If you’d like to lead a horse to water, it’s probably not a good idea to try and drown it. If want someone to adopt your ideas, you’re less likely to win them over to your cause by calling them an asshole.

The main problem with the more fanatical proponents of modern political correctness is that they shame people rather than attempt to persuade them. They talk down to them rather than looking them in the eyes. For all we hear about “tolerance,” it’s very rare to find people who really do tolerate those who think differently. It’s much more likely that you’ll see them interact with those who think differently through snark or hostility. Maybe it’s a good idea to abandon the idea that people who see the world differently than you are evil. For all we know, their intentions may be as good as ours.

Very, very, very few people are evil. Most of us are trying to do good. Think about the last time you did something really wrong. Did you not rationalize it in some way as an attempt to do good? When I was growing up and I hit my sister, it was always some attempt to achieve justice — because she had hit me or goaded me or was otherwise in need of retribution in order for the world to be good. Our actions need to be viewed in this kind of wide context. We aren’t trying to be bad, even when doing bad things.

I think when someone says a word we don’t like or has a belief we don’t like, we need to have a hermeneutics of charity. We need to assume that their intentions are good, even if they are being childish or stubborn in not seeing our side of the issue, remembering that we are childish and stubborn about some things, too. When we want people to agree with us, to have the same opinions we have we need to give them the material they need to change: our vulnerability, our stories — dialogue, not monologue.

But when we demand that people be politically correct, we ignore their epistemic needs. Reasonable people don’t give ultimatums because ultimatums ignore reality. An ultimatum says, “you aren’t there yet, but you need to lie and say you are.” Ultimatums are shallow, they want something in name only while ignoring the depth of circumstance the situation includes. They don’t work towards real change, towards a real shift in belief, they just demand an external change in action without offering an additional catalyst that might make it real.

Asking someone to follow a set of rules because they are politically correct is like giving them an ultimatum. It’s telling someone to do something, to change their actions, but to do it without questioning, without doing anything that would change the beliefs underneath the actions.

What I don’t like about political correctness is that it is a monologue and not a conversation. It’s like religion this way, there are a set of truths presented to you and to question them is to do something immoral. In fact, a great criticism Nietzsche made of Christianity in The Anti-Christ applies directly to those who demand political correctness:

They say ‘Judge not!’ but they send to Hell everything that stands in their way. By allowing God to judge they themselves judge; by glorifying God they glorify themselves; by demanding precisely those virtues of which they themselves are capable — more, which they are in need of to stay on top at all — they present a great appearance of contending for virtue, of struggling for the triumph of virtue. ‘We live, we die, we sacrifice ourselves for the good (truth, the light, the kingdom of God): in reality they do what they cannot help doing.

No one is capable of coming out of the womb with all the Right Ideas. We are born into a time and place and to people who largely determine what we think until we grow old enough to question it. Political correctness benefits those who already have (what they judge to be) the Right Ideas and opinions, but doesn’t account for those who are still learning. Worse, it removes the option of learning, it removes from consideration the very real possibility that we might not already have the politically correct opinion and the reality that we can’t swap opinions like clothes—we need a bigger catalyst than someone saying “that’s the way it is”. We need a story or a conversation, something that answers the why of changing a belief or changing an action instead of simply dishonestly demanding that it be done.

This is where it gets worse, in my opinion, because the demand for political correctness pits us against one another. It divides us into “us” who get it and “them” who are ignorant. Instead of understanding where a lack of perspective or experience may have informed a difference in opinion, we belittle and shame those who are different than us. We use the word “ignorant” to willfully misunderstand them. We harm the movements we claim to love by driving a wedge between ourselves and anyone who has not yet accepted it. We use vinegar rather than honey and still demand the flies come (and blame them when they don’t).

Here’s an article delighting in the belittling of men trying to understand feminism—specifically, the men’s defense mechanism of saying “not all men are like this” to women who are talking about problems women face at the hands of men. To clarify, yes it can be annoying and exhausting to keep explaining yourself or when third parties insert themselves into your conversation to play devil’s advocate to an argument you weren’t planning on making. But this is the only way forward. It’s tiresome, but more effective than the non-strategy of mocking people into further disagreement going on here. Defensive people aren’t open to new options.

I thought about this article last month when I was reading Viktor Frankl’s famous account of his life in Nazi death camps, Man’s Search For Meaning. Here’s what he had to say about his captors:

It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.

Yes, you’re reading correctly. Frankl is treating his death camp guards with more charity and kindness than I’ve treated people with simple ideological differences while we both sat in the comfort of a college classroom.

Frankl continues:

The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards. I remember how one day a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration. It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at that time. It was the human “something” which this man also gave to me–the word and look which accompanied the gift.

If we care about the principles we use political correctness to mean — avoiding insulting or offending groups of people — then we care about winning people to our side, and more than just in name only.

I know an ineffectual way to do this is with ultimatums, with demanding behavioral changes without supplying the impetus. I know another ineffectual way to do this is to alienate those I hope to convert. I want to inform where my impulse may be to belittle. And—most importantly—I know that I don’t want to lose my humanity in the process of being principled. I want to be like Frankl and be open to seeing kindness in all groups of people.