The chattering classes, whispering classes, bully-victims and cancel-culture: life and education in the politically correct era
By Mark Lopez
I am really proud and excited about this book: School Sucks: A Report on the State of Education in the Politically Correct Era. It is a culture wars book that focuses on the education front.
And one of the things I am proudest of is the subtitle: ‘A Report on the State of Education in the Politically Correct Era’. We have truly entered a new era and I want to say I called it first, or I was among the first. Life feels different now.
I believe that the moment that best defines our current era, our new era, the politically correct era, is when a senior bureaucrat or politician is asked: ‘What is a woman?’ It is in that couple of painful silent seconds before he or she manages to answer, the spirit of our times is encapsulated.
The senior bureaucrat or politician knows what the right answer is, but they are consumed by their fearful speculation on the horrific potential consequences if they do not express the politically correct answer. They know that what they say could make or break their career. You see bewilderment, you see pain, you see anxiety, you see fear… You see the spirit of our times.
We live in the era of the bully-victim. Bully-victims are not victims in the true sense. They are bullies who present themselves as victims. They often come from an ideologically designated victim group.
In the politically correct era, incredible power is bestowed upon these individuals. They know that they only have to claim to be ‘offended’ and they can bring down the wrath of the oppressive apparatus of the state, the mainstream media, and social media mobs on some hapless individual who more often than not does not deserve anything like what they receive. Often it is not even the bully-victim who initiates this bout of cancel-culture; it can be done by others in the name of bully-victims.
It’s like the sooky school kid who learned he could get anyone into severe trouble by crying in front of the shoot-first-ask-questions-later disciplinarian teacher, a ruse that still works even if they are fake tears. It is an intoxicating power. And it is very difficult for those bestowed with that power to have the humanity to not use it.
Cancel culture is merciless and unforgiving. If you are cancelled, there is no forgiveness or redemption. If you are cancelled, the intention is that you are cancelled forever. Not only is your reputation and career supposed to be destroyed in life, but your memory is trashed or erased in death. You are cancelled forever, and sometimes it is for a slip of the tongue in an unguarded moment, or for something you said ten or more years ago that was acceptable then but not now. Anything can be dug up and used against you if the mob decides it wants to destroy you … and this can be done just for the fun of it.
We have become divided into what I describe as the chattering classes and the whispering classes. The chattering classes are the politically correct who like to happily express their politically correct views in public forums or with each other in social situations (famously over Chardonnay or café latte, hence they are also sometimes called the ‘Chardonnay set’ or the ‘latte set’).
Meanwhile, what I call the whispering classes are the rest of us, those who have politically incorrect views (which are most often based on facts and reason) and who have learned prudence in regards to carefully selecting to whom they reveal these views.
In the company of the politically correct, they will often just keep their mouths shut, or pretend to be politically correct, or avoid topics that risk provoking the hostility of the politically correct.
This entails another cultural phenomenon of our times: testing people out before you talk frankly to them. If you sense that the person to whom you are talking may be like-minded, or at least tolerant, you make a comment that could elicit either a freethinking response or an orthodox politically correct response. You listen carefully to their answer and their tonality, and you watch for micro-expressions that could indicate potential hostility. If they respond in a freethinking way, you make another slightly controversial comment just to make sure. If they respond again in a freethinking way, you drop some of your guard. If you realise you both are like-minded, you know you are safe and can converse normally and honestly. I recently said to a friend that it’s like being in the French Resistance during the Second World War.
This widely practiced tendency to test people out before talking frankly with them has meant that the politically correct are so used to hearing what appear to be like-minded people in their presence, or in public forums, that many of them probably have little or no idea of the extent of disagreement with political correctness in the community.
The ultimate enemy or target of political correctness and postmodernism (which is the body of theory that informs political correctness) is much broader than capitalism and the bourgeoisie, it is Western civilisation.
Something as vast as a civilisation is far from being beyond criticism, but appreciation is also in order. Humanity has its flaws and frailties, which will always produce social problems, and the history of Western civilisation includes the regrettable impact of its criminals and tyrants.
But when compared to other civilisations, it has been extremely successful. It has produced rich cultural gifts, a legacy of great art, architecture, music and literature.
Its political institutions, legal systems, social customs and conventions have produced societies that provide the highest standards of living in every sense − material, spiritual and aesthetic − and a quality of life in the twenty-first century that would have been beyond the imagination of people a century ago.
Much of the success of Western civilisation comes from seeking truth through reason, empiricism and the modern scientific method. This has produced a phenomenal expansion of organised knowledge, enormous innovation and technological advancement.
In addition, Western civilisation has also exhibited a capacity to produce people who reflect upon, and seek to reform and improve their societies, with positive contributions coming from both the Left and the Right. There are always many things that can be done more effectively, or more justly, but that reform can be accommodated within Western civilisation rather than be used as excuses to undermine it. Western civilisation is worth promoting and defending.
We live in an era when free speech has been significantly eroded yet it has never been more important. Why is free speech important?
It provides a basis for human dignity.
It also provides the means to revise and change policies that do not work, which is vital at a time when so many of our elites are passionately committed to ideas that do not work and cause harm to those they are intended to help. That is why we need free speech now more than ever.
But we live in a time when the Internet search engines are rigged, social media newsfeeds are rigged, the mainstream media is mostly captured along with the entertainment industry and the arts, publishers are now allowing the words of classic texts to be rewritten by ideologues, university arts and humanities departments have not produced much worth reading in years, old films deemed politically incorrect are dropping off streaming services while old songs rendered ‘controversial’ are dropping off concert playlists.
And in this politically correct era, some poor kids are trying to get an education.
The education system was one of the first institutions to fall under the spell of political correctness and it has remained at the forefront of the political correctness revolution, and like the ABC, it is beyond biased, it has departed from its original brief of providing knowledge and skills and is actively reshaping Australia in its own image.
To outsiders, including many parents and grandparents, who are not aware of what is really happening in high schools, not much seems to have changed. The education system appears to continue as it has always done: students complete tasks, as they have always done, and teachers provide assessments, as they have always done. But the problem is that the tasks and the assessments have been hollowed out, drained of much of their educational value. If you look closely, you will see that the situation has changed dramatically for the worse.
I have looked closely. This book identifies the many problems and details their impact on real people. It covers many things, but let’s look at three areas:
1. The removal of reason and the imposition of intellectual constipation and mediocrity
With the fading out of logical reasoning over forty years ago, which was taught as ‘clear thinking’, all hell broke loose. With its natural predator removed from the educational ecosystem, radical progressive educational methodologies have been imposed on students that have virtually destroyed the cultivation of rational thinking.
The worst offender has been the imposition of the five paragraph essay. It has been a catastrophe. It damages the way students write because it damages the way students think.
An essay should be an exercise in problem solving and reasoning. The structure of an essay, a real essay, simply follows the patterns of logical reasoning. In an essay, a series of paragraphs make points that lead to a conclusion, with the conclusion being precisely what the preceding evidence allows you to conclude, nothing more and nothing less.
In the five paragraph essay, students are forced to follow a micro-managed colouring-in-book formula that is strictly policed by assessors and any deviation from this micro-managed formula is penalised in grades. There is no room for logical reasoning because the person who devised this formula did not seem to understand that the purpose of the essay is to express logical reasoning.
In the five paragraph essay, you are restricted to a one paragraph introduction, to only presenting three points in your answer that each have to be expressed in the three designated paragraphs, and a one paragraph conclusion.
Not four points or five, not two, or ten, it must only be three. This means that essays are less about producing a considered answer to resolve a question and more about meeting a quota of three points, and if you have only two points, no matter how convincing they are, students become desperate and feel pressured to come up with something, anything, to make the quota.
The five paragraph essay format has corrupted the scholarly practice of research by encouraging students, and teachers, to (irrationally) see answers as coming in threes. Instead of systematically gathering facts that are interpreted inductively to reach the conclusion, which is a sound scholarly practice, the reverse happens.
For example, when students have to write an opinion piece on a current issue, the contention (which is the conclusion) is usually decided at the outset (invariably it is a politically correct contention, intended to please the politically correct teacher). Typically, what follows is a Google search to find three points, at which the research suddenly stops. This is not research for discovery; it is just to find three points to underscore a preconceived answer.
In the face of this gross irrationality, the scholarly art of research has virtually collapsed. Students were once obliged to develop scholarly skills in research, note-taking and summary to produce a body of coherent, usable knowledge that set them up for effectively answering questions. Instead, research has become debased to a quick Google search to find three points and, once found, the ‘research’ comes to a screeching halt.
The irrational expectations intrinsic to the five paragraph essay jams up kids’ minds so they cannot think clearly. To get them to do something productive you have to get them to put aside everything they were taught in school and tap into their own common sense so they can formulate an answer, then we counterfeit the answer into the acceptable five-paragraph, three points per answer, format.
Sound scholarship and schooling have become so far removed from each other that it is like they are foreign languages.
2. There has been an increase of teachers who cannot assess accurately or fairly
The currently prevailing teaching methodology, known as constructivism, involves turning lessons into trivial games and quizzes rather than providing straight lectures or direct instruction. Or, it involves dividing the class into time-wasting discussion groups that each supposedly discusses different aspects of the topic so a representative of the group can then report back to the whole class on the group’s discussion, a practice that produces a cacophony of competing voices that generates little or no knowledge.
Constructivist educational practices are a major reason why a case can be made that, most of the time, school is not worth attending. But there is another problem.
Since the incentives are for teachers to turn classroom time into activities rather than the emphasis being on mastering their brief to give lectures or detailed instructions, there have been horrendous side effects.
Not only does this mean that students learn little in class and come away with an understanding that is patchy, at best, and flawed, at worst, but by having teachers focus their energies in the wrong places, many end up with insufficient or erroneous knowledge so they are not equipped to assess accurately or fairly.
The result: students are frequently rewarded for wrong answers and penalised for right answers because the teachers involved know no better. What teachers in this situation tend to regard as quality student work that deserves to be rewarded highly are essays that reflect the teacher’s own ideas, no matter how shallow or flawed these ideas may be.
Keep in mind this important principle: students are not so much rewarded for merit but according to their teacher’s ability to perceive merit, and for quite a few teachers this is limited, and for some, very limited.
This is not an aberration but rather it is common. It raises questions about the legitimacy of assessments including the decisive ones contributing to university entrance scores.
And then there is the bias in assessment.
Here is an example one of my students experienced a couple of days ago. This is a topic a teacher set for the class to produce an oral presentation, which is a talk to be presented by the student to the class: Disruption or continuity? Where to now for climate change action?
Notice the leading question. And the suggested reading for the students to use to prepare the talk is all left-wing sources, almost all being newspaper articles from The Guardian, including: ‘The Earth is in a death spiral. It will take radical action to save us’. Students are supposed to take that article seriously.
And these students will be assessed by this teacher who has a portrait of Karl Marx stuck to the top of his laptop. This teacher is not some hick at some new state school in the outer suburbs, the teacher assessing my student is the head of English at an expensive well-known private school, and if I told you the name of the school you would probably fall off your chairs.
The prevalence of this politically correct, left-wing bias in assessment also raises the question of how many deserving students fall short of receiving the grades they need to enter the university course of their choice because they were marked down for expressing politically incorrect ideas.
This ideological bias is unjust and unfair and it can and does hurt young people. It is important to remember that young people with conservative or liberal views have feelings too.
3. The lost educational opportunities due to the ideologically-biased curriculum
A politically correct ideological bias in the curriculum has severely limited the scope of inquiry, debate, and discussion in schools. Think about that for a moment. For an education system this is a damning criticism. It means that the education system is failing in its core responsibilities.
The opposite should be the case. An education system should be widening the scope of inquiry, debate and discussion. Instead, the politically correct agenda is prioritised, promoted, celebrated and legitimised, while other beliefs are ignored, marginalised, disparaged or denigrated.
One of the most anti-educational and anti-intellectual dimensions of the English course is the blatant ideological bias in the official English text list for year 12. These are the novels, plays, and films etc., which they have to study. Currently, there is a list of 36 texts from which each school chooses four.
As a case study, I read and analysed the entire 2018 list to find that 33 out of the 36 texts were politically correct and left-wing or they could be interpreted or reinterpreted as compatible with the politically correct, left-wing world view. Pick any other year, and the list tells the same story (give or take a text or two).
The ideological narrowness of the text list denies young Australians a chance to appreciate the spectrum of ideas that may inspire writers and which shape their world or which shaped history. Enriching learning opportunities are squandered due to the insularity of this ideological bias and the desire to use the texts for social engineering.
But with the steady rise of the influence of postmodernism, this deep-seated left-wing bias in the education system has taken a turn for the worse. Since 2019, to be selected for the text list, it is now no longer good enough to be left-wing; if an author is male or white he may not make the cut.
Yes, they are choosing texts for study, or rejecting them, according to the gender or colour or sexual preferences of the author or the gender or colour or sexual preferences of the main protagonists in the story. Yes, it has come to that. And the powers that be snuck this in without telling anybody.
This is at the expense of choosing novels, plays, and films etc. on the basis of their cultural and aesthetic value and their place in the history of literature or cinema.
The inevitable result: the culling of white people and males. Remember, the subject is English, so a great many of the major contributors to English literature have been white people and men have been prominent among them.
These prejudicial quotas are stripping a subject like English of much of its valuable content by closing down much of our shared cultural heritage, since white people and males have made enormous contributions that have enriched the lives of everyone.
The use of the text list to promote the causes and agendas of the politically correct represents a dereliction of duty as educators and an abuse of bureaucratic power. This has resulted in the institutionalisation of political prejudice.
Ironically, in an education system that professes to promote ‘diversity’, one of the principal failings of this education system is its lack of diversity, and by that I mean a lack of the diversity of ideas.
By the way, if you are wondering about the picture on the front cover of the book. It’s Cassandra, the ancient Greek mythological figure blessed by the gods with insight but cursed that no one would believe her. It’s an in-joke on myself, on being a culture warrior in the twenty-first century.
Speech delivered at the launch of School Sucks: A Report on the State of Education in the Politically Correct Era, Il Gambero Restaurant, Carlton, Melbourne, Australia, 1 May 2023
Published as: ‘The chattering classes, whispering classes, bully-victims and cancel culture: life and education in the politically correct era’, The Connor Court Quarterly: Issue Dedicated to Education, no. 15, May 2023, pp. 5-23.