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Trump’s election has undermined ‘political correctness.’ That might actually be a problem.

- November 19, 2016
Pro-white rights organizations the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement and Ku Klux Klan groups participate in a cross and swastika burning in Temple, Ga. (ERIK S. LESSER/European Pressphoto Agency)

Organizations tracking hate crimes have seen a spike in racist and anti-Semitic incidents over the last several days. In the words of Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center: “The white supremacists out there are celebrating his victory and many are feeling their oats.”

Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard who caused controversy with his comments on women, announced in The Post that he was never going to use the term “political correctness” again. The real threat, in Summers’ view, stems from the “terrifying events” that Donald Trump’s election has set off, leading to an upsurge in hateful incidents and speech.

Timur Kuran’s academic book, “Private Truths, Public Lies,” helps explain why Trump’s election victory has been associated with an upsurge in hate crimes.

Kuran may seem an improbable person to explain why public expressions of racism are increasing: He doesn’t believe that U.S. racism is as bad as many think, opposes “political correctness” and “affirmative action” and argues that the U.S. has metamorphosed “from a country that oppresses blacks into one that gives many blacks special privileges.”

Even so, his intellectual arguments can be separated from his political beliefs. His notion of “preference falsification” provides a plausible explanation for why many racists, anti-Semites and the like were reluctant to reveal their true beliefs until recently. It also explains why they are more willing to do so now that Trump has been elected.

Preference falsification means that people often don’t say what they really think

Kuran’s key idea is that ‘preference falsification’ explains many aspects of human society and politics. Preference falsification is “the act of misrepresenting one’s genuine wants under perceived social pressure.” Trivial examples of this are commonplace. When we go to our boss’s house for dinner, we don’t necessarily express our true opinion of his or her hideous taste in furniture, and may indeed praise it. At Thanksgiving dinner, we may want to bite our tongues when relatives express loud and confident political opinions that we completely disagree with. As political philosophers have observed, a certain degree of hypocrisy is essential to the smooth functioning of society.

Yet preference falsification doesn’t just apply to trivial forms of social hypocrisy. It can have profound social and political consequences. Most authoritarian societies force people to express public support for the regime, for example by effectively requiring store owners to have a picture of the dictator in their shop window. The reason is straightforward. If most people publicly express support for the regime, then no one can be sure how many people quietly oppose it. It might even be that a large majority of citizens oppose their government and want to overthrow it. However, unless they know that enough other people oppose the regime to overthrow it, no one will make the first move. Everyone fears that their own private opposition to the regime is not widely shared, rendering any attempt at regime protest doomed. Preference falsification plausibly explained why the brutal regime ruling Tunisia was stable for so long, and why it fell when Facebook made it easier for people to figure out that other people hated the regime too.

Preference falsification happens in free societies too

Most academics interested in the concept of preference falsification have examined how it works in nondemocratic regimes. However, Kuran’s book spends a lot of time arguing that it can have consequences in open societies too. He argues that social pressure generates the same kind of outcomes in open societies as state repression does in authoritarian ones, making people unwilling to express unpopular opinions. Kuran claims that both arguments for affirmative action and efforts to enforce political correctness rest on a kind of preference falsification. Many people disagree with these arguments, but are frightened to express their opposition in public, for fear of social sanction and shaming. Kuran is skeptical of claims that racism is a major problem in modern American society, although he notes that new empirical evidence might emerge that shows that his claims are wrong.

However, the notion of preference falsification is itself a value neutral one, which does not depend on Kuran’s own political beliefs. Although Kuran does not dwell on this, he acknowledges that preference falsification can in some contexts and from some perspectives be beneficial. We are probably all better off if we don’t tell our boss how horrible his or her taste is, or get into a heated fight over the Thanksgiving turkey that leaves everyone in the family feeling miserable.

Preference falsification might have helped suppress racist expression

As Summers’s opinion piece suggests, what some people view as problematic ‘political correctness’ might from another perspective be perceived as a mostly benign set of informal norms and social institutions that prevent people from expressing their actual racism. A large body of social science research indicates that racism is still relatively widespread within the American public. For example, Adivit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen’s influential recent paper shows how people are far more likely to identify as Republican, oppose affirmative action, have negative feelings toward African Americans and believe that black people ought to be able to overcome prejudice as other minorities did if they live in counties that had high slave ownership in the 1860s. This strongly suggests that attitudes to affirmative action and the like are indeed closely linked to historic racism.

Yet over the past few decades, it has become increasingly socially unacceptable to publicly express racist views or sentiments. People in public life who express these beliefs are likely to be treated as pariahs on the national stage. There is regional variation: For example, Jeff Sessions who was denied confirmation as a federal judge during the Ronald Reagan administration for expressing sympathy with the Ku Klux Klan, has repeatedly been elected as senator for the state of Alabama. Even so, overt racism is usually viewed with abhorrence.

This can plausibly be interpreted as a mixture of sincere change in beliefs and preference falsification. On the one hand, changes in attitudes to mixed-race marriages suggest that there are fewer strong racists in the United States than there were 40 years ago. On the other, people who are racists are more plausibly likely to keep their views to themselves except in certain contexts and perhaps certain parts of the country. Those who are still racist have had good self-interested reasons to falsify their true beliefs, either refraining from expressing their views in public or actively pretending to hold different views than the views they do hold.

That is what Trump has changed

Trump’s election victory has many consequences, which the social sciences are only beginning to parse. However, if reports of a substantial upsurge in racist incidents are correct, they suggest that one of these consequences is a breakdown in preference falsification around racism. People who are and always have been racists have just witnessed the election of a president who has made grossly racist claims about Mexicans and has surrounded himself with some people who are more racist still.

This does two things. First, it gives racists new heart by suggesting that many more people share their beliefs than they might hitherto have believed. Trump’s electoral success tells them that at the least racism is not a politically disqualifying problem for presidential candidates any more, and that perhaps for many voters it is a plus rather than a minus. Second, it tells them that if they themselves publicly express their racism, they are less likely to be socially punished than they previously believed.

Of course, we don’t know for certain that preference falsification is the real reason people seem to be more willing to show their racism in public than before. However, if it is, we can probably expect that there will be a long-term increase in the rate and level of public expressions of racism. Trump’s appointment of Steven K. Bannon as his head of strategy, and his nomination of Sessions as attorney general are likely to further suggest to racists that they do not need to hide their true views.

The direct policy consequences of Trump’s presidency will be very important. His election will have indirect consequences too. One of these indirect consequences is plausibly to weaken implicit social sanctions against racism and empower racists to publicly express their true preferences.