Flat White

Why the left has seized on political correctness and cancel culture

24 July 2020

10:50 AM

24 July 2020

10:50 AM

I first warned about the dangers of political correctness in the early 1990s after reading the American academic Dinesh D’Souza’s book titled Illiberal Education.  As evidence of the increasing prevalence of political correctness D’Souza quotes an academic saying “It is common in universities today to hear talk of politically correct opinions, or PC in short”.

The academic adds “These are questions that are not really open to argument.  It takes real courage to oppose the campus orthodoxy… I was a student during the days of McCarthy and there is less freedom now than there was then.”

In 2016 an Australian academic Merv Bendle also criticises universities for advocating “politically correct positions which are widely shared and immune to criticism”.   In an essay in Quadrant Bendle goes as far as arguing this “nihilistic worldview is now institutionalized throughout Western academia”.

More recent evidence of how the PC movement is suppressing academic freedom and imposing groupthink includes the University of Western Australia refusing to host a climate research centre headed by Bjorn Lomborg, Peter Ridd being sacked for questioning the impact of global warming on the Great Barrier Reef and 150 academics rejecting funding to establish a Western Civilisation centre at Sydney University.

As argued in Reclaiming Education edited by the Sydney academic Catherine Runcie the liberal ideal of a university embracing reason, objectivity and truth no longer exists.  Great literature is deconstructed and critiqued in terms of power relationships and the history of Western civilisation condemned as an example of white supremacism, misogyny and capitalist exploitation.

As to why political correctness is now rampant and why education has lost even the semblance of reason and impartiality a key event is the establishment of the Frankfurt School in Germany during the 1930s and emergence of critical theory.

The Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce in The Crisis of Modernity suggests the neo-Marxist academics associated with the Frankfurt School believed traditional Marxism was “incapable of explaining contemporary history adequately”.

Instead of attempting to overthrow Western, capitalist societies by focusing on the modes and means of production, the emphasis shifted to the culture wars and what Louis Althusser terms the “ideological state apparatus”.


Althusser argues the state uses institutions associated with religion, the education system, family and political, legal and cultural systems to enforce a capitalist ideology that conditions citizens to accept as natural or beneficial what is oppressive and exploitive.

Central to the Frankfurt School is critical theory – a revolutionary and emancipatory philosophy and guide to action premised on what Del Noce describes as “a process of liberation from authority, theological or human, transcendent or empirical”.  The only knowledge or social action worthy is that directed at establishing a “revolutionary form of utopia” leading to “universal worldly happiness”.

Ignored, as argued by Del Noce and as proven by history, is that every attempt to create a utopia on this earth only ever leads to “every cruelty and every violation of the moral order”.  Examples include Stalin’s gulag and mass starvation, the death of millions under Chairman Mao and Pol Pot’s return to year zero and forced imprisonment, torture and death.

Since the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s critical theory has morphed into a rainbow alliance of theories including neo-Marxism, postmodernism, deconstructionism and feminist, gender, queer and post-colonial theories.  All are rampant in our universities and their existence help explain why political correctness is so virulent and powerful.

Significant is that while these various cultural-left, neo-Marxist inspired theories are often in conflict what they hold in common is a deep-seated and lasting hostility and aversion towards the very beliefs, virtues, institutions and way of life that guarantee the peace and stability characteristic of so many Western nations.

Associated with critical theory is the concept of false consciousness associated with the Marxist Friedrich Engels.  Such is the dominance of the ideological state apparatus in indoctrinating and conditioning people that what they hold to be natural and reasonable is an illusion calculated to enforce capitalist hegemony.   

According to cultural-left feminists, women who are happy staying at home and being wives and mothers only do so because they have been conditioned since birth to assume what is condemned as a submissive and subservient role.

And if they were only Woke such women would also realise marriage involves institutionalised subjugation on the basis, as argued by Neel Burton in Psychology TodayTo find a taker, whether for marriage or just for sex, they need, much more than men, to conform to sexist, ageist, and racist stereotypes, and do appalling things such as wear makeup and high heels, which become the visible symbols of their oppression”.

An education based on merit, academic success and a commitment to the established disciplines is also misplaced as it is also instrumental in enforcing the hegemony of the ruling capitalist class.  As argued by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in Schooling In Capitalist America.

“The politics of revolutionary education like its philosophy are grounded in dialectics.  They must proceed from a commitment to a revolutionary transformation of our entire society”. 

Associated with false consciousness is unconscious bias; a situation where even though a person might be unaware of causing offence or intending to be unfairly discriminatory he or she is guilty of being politically incorrect.

The Australian Taxation Office, for example, warns against “unconscious biases” where employees unconsciously discriminate against those who are LGBTIQ+, indigenous, culturally or linguistically diverse, mature age, disabled or because of gender.

Such is the power and dominance of the cultural-left ideology and political correctness that the very underpinnings of Western liberal democracies are being subverted and destroyed.  If Enlightenment values like reason and rationality no longer apply the only outcome is epistemological suicide or violence.

If there is no common ground holding society together, as we split into various opposing groups based on ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality and fired by identity politics and a grievance culture, then as Geoffrey Blainey warned years ago the danger is we become a nation of conflicting tribes.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of A Politically Correct Dictionary and Guide (available at kevindonnelly.com.au) 

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