What is political correctness? When did it start to seep into mainstream culture? How is political correctness destroying American society? Michael Knowles, host of “The Michael Knowles Show” at The Daily Wire, joins me on “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss. We also chat about his new book “Speechless.”
“This whole culture has been upended,” Knowles says, adding:
Actually, notably, by the ’70s feminists, who said, ‘The personal is the political.’ They made every single private interaction open to public scrutiny. Now you’re seeing everything settle down again on the left’s terms. So you’re seeing a new set of standards. You’re seeing a new kind of censorship. You’re seeing a new kind of speech code. It just happens to be the inverse in many ways of the old standards that we had.
Listen to this bonus episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast,” recorded at Turning Point USA’s seventh annual Student Action Summit in Tampa, Florida, or read the lightly edited transcript below. Please excuse the background music and other noise.
Rachel del Guidice: We’re joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Michael Knowles of The Daily Wire. Michael, thank you so much for being with us.
Michael Knowles: Thank you for having me. It’s always great to be with you.
Del Guidice: It’s always great to have you on. You have a book coming out called “Speechless.” Can you tell us about the book?
Knowles: “Speechless” is a 100-year history of political correctness. People usually trace PC back about 30 years, to the 1980s, maybe the ’90s. Some people go back further to the ’60s. I think it really begins in the 1920s. It’s gone by different names over the years, which makes sense because political correctness redefines all the words. So now we call it wokeness or cancel culture, but I think it’s the same old scourge.
And it offers a little bit of a novel take on it, because there’s this strange phenomenon that we’ve been fighting against political correctness as conservatives for 30 years now. [Donald] Trump launched his campaign on it, and a lot of people have as well. And the harder we fight, the more ground we seem to lose. So I think the reason for this is that we’ve fallen for a trap. I think that political correctness aims to destroy traditional standards. That’s what it’s after. That’s all it’s after. And so, if you react to that by going squishy, by giving into the new standards, obviously that will advance the purpose of PC.
But likewise, even these stalwart conservatives who say, “I’m a free speech absolutist, I’m not going to give into your new standard,” in so doing, they abandoned standards entirely. Which actually advances the purpose of political correctness, which is the disruption of the old standards. So I think either way, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And the way we need to think of it, in my estimation, is that PC, wokeness, cancel culture is not a battle between pure free speech on the one hand and pure censorship on the other. I think it’s a battle between two competing sets of standards.
I think all societies have standards and taboos. This is true throughout all of history and especially in the United States. And the difference is this: In the 1950s, if you were a communist, you would be canceled. Today, if you are not a communist, you will be canceled. The fact of being canceled has not changed, but the standard by which you can be canceled has changed. And so I think we need to embrace a set of standards and lose all the shallow rhetoric.
Del Guidice: In the book, you talk about how political correctness had its genesis in the early 20th century … and it’s just gotten more and more escalated. Can you talk about some examples of where this started in the 20th century up until now, what we’re seeing? What it started as, versus what we’ve come to?
Knowles: One of the worst things that Benito Mussolini ever did was he jailed the Communist Party leader in Italy, Antonio Gramsci. Not because Gramsci didn’t deserve it. He did, that guy could have rotted in prison. But the problem was, [Mussolini] gave Gramsci a pen and paper and allowed him to write his most influential works, “Prison Notebooks.” And this was a beginning, I suppose you would say, of cultural Marxism. I know that’s a loaded term now, but he was a Marxist thinker and he’s applying Marxist principles to the culture.
And [Gramsci] said that the reason that the Marxian revolution didn’t work is because the conservatives had cultural hegemony. So the oppressed masses, they were still oppressed; they just didn’t know it. They happen to like their traditions and their communities. And so what he advocated was that radicals wage a war of position. Not a war of maneuver where you advance and retreat, but a war of position, whereby you infiltrate the prevailing institutions. And then you wield the political power to your advantage.
This guy has been very, very influential. Actually, the noted Gramsci scholar, the guy who translated his “Prison Notebooks” into English, is a man by the name of Joseph Buttigieg. Now, if that name rings a bell, it’s because his son, Pete, ran for president [in 2020] as a Democrat and now he’s the transportation secretary [in the Biden administration]. What’s amazing to me about this is Pete Buttigieg might be the most milquetoast Democrat who ran for president. And even the most milquetoast Democrat has this radical intellectual pedigree.
So from Gramsci, you get movements like the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Critical race theory is now very much in the news. From the critical theorists, notably Herbert Marcuse, you get the New Left. He becomes the father of the New Left in the 1960s. The New Left gives you the second wave feminists, who I think significantly advance the purpose of political correctness. From there, you get the campus takeovers of the ’80s and the ’90s. From there, you get the battle of the sexes. Not just feminism, but then the redefinition of marriage. From there, you get the transgender moment.
And I think you’re getting, after this whole culture has been upended … actually, notably, by the ’70s feminists, who said, “The personal is the political.” They made every single private interaction open to public scrutiny. Now you’re seeing everything settle down again on the left’s terms. So you’re seeing a new set of standards. You’re seeing a new kind of censorship. You’re seeing a new kind of speech code. It just happens to be the inverse in many ways of the old standards that we had.
And conservatives are left dithering and twiddling their thumbs and prattling on about how we should be able to say and do whatever we want, whenever we want. There’s nothing particularly conservative about that. It’s actually cost us the whole culture.
Del Guidice: In the book, you talk about how some Americans have become callous to this issue of political correctness in conversations that people have. And today, we’re used to not saying all these phrases, and kind of using our conversation certain ways where we avoid things.
Can you talk about how we got here and how you would encourage Americans to move beyond that and be, I don’t know, more critical when they’re thinking and talking … waking up from this callousness, how does that happen?
Knowles: The reason we got here is because free speech in the abstract doesn’t mean anything to people who have nothing to say. And for far too long, conservatives have had nothing to say. The only thing that they can agree on is that we ought to cut the marginal tax rate a little bit when we’re in power, before it goes back up again. Beyond that, what do we have to say on immigration? The Republican Party is basically divided on that issue. What do we have to say about marriage? The Republican Party went completely squishy on that issue.
What do we have to say about even transgenderism? For goodness sakes, we’re running a transvestite to be governor of California. And I don’t say this to be rude to Bruce Jenner [now Caitlyn Jenner], I don’t blame him for his own problems. I blame the Republican Party that hasn’t even managed to conserve the fundamental distinction in human nature between a man and a woman. The conservatives haven’t managed to conserve the ladies’ bathroom. And this is because they will not advance a substantive vision of the good. All governments pursue some vision of the good. All governments have some religious principles.
Andrew Breitbart, the patron saint of Hollywood conservatives, famously said, “Politics is downstream of culture.” Well, fair enough, though it’s more complicated than that. But culture certainly is downstream of religion. Cardinal [Henry Edward] Manning says at bottom, all human conflict is theological. Sometimes you’ll hear squishes say, “You cannot legislate morality.”
I’d say, well, then what are you doing? Because as far as I can tell, all legislation legislates morality. Whether you’re talking about the death penalty or whether you’re talking about parking tickets, you are making moral arguments. You are referring to the moral order. And conservatives have just given up on that. It’s a unilateral surrender and disengagement.
So I think we need to be able to say some things are good, some things are bad. Some things are true, and some things are false. There was a … former conservative writer. Now, I think, he’s pretty firmly on the center-left. [He] infamously said that Drag Queen Story Hour is, quote, “One of the blessings of liberty.” And that sound that you’re hearing, Rachel, is James Madison rolling over in his grave, actually, at the very thought. And to be charitable to his argument … there were many people who went along with it. He said if we tell perverts that they can’t jiggle for kids at the library, why, they might tell the rest of us that we can’t go to church on Sunday.
To which I would respond, they’re already telling us we can’t go to church on Sunday. They told us that for the better part of the year. And furthermore, even beyond that practical issue, if you are telling me that we actually do not possess the moral judgment and the faculties of reason to discern between a pervert twerking for a toddler and a pastor preaching the Gospel, if we really think there’s no way to tell the difference between those things, then we have surrendered our capacity for self-government. Which relies on moral judgment and reason.
And I think when John Adams says the country’s built for moral and religious people, he’s not being superstitious. He’s not being a Bible thumper, far from it. He’s observing a fact of politics. That if you want to govern yourself, you need to have a reliable vision of the good and the bad and the right and wrong and the true and the false. And the right has surrendered that and it’s allowed the left to take over the culture.
Del Guidice: On that note, what would your advice be to Republicans and some conservatives who really have walked away from promoting the good, and have invited transgenderism and questions on marriage, all of these different issues … How would you say we should steer the party and the movement back to promoting the good?
Knowles: Put down the Ayn Rand. Put down the silly platitudes of the last 15 years. Conservatives used to understand this. I mean, you don’t even need to go all the way back to the Founding Fathers, who wrote at length about the difference between liberty and licentiousness. The difference between tamping down, actually limiting, what you want to do and your appetites in order to have a higher freedom, which is what they understood liberty to be. Instead of licentiousness, which is just pursuing whatever appetites you want. The heroin addict shoots up, gosh, isn’t he free? No, he’s a slave. And our Founders knew that.
But even more recently, I think William F. Buckley Jr., as urbane, as mainstream a conservative as ever there was, in his first book that launched the postwar conservative movement … Everyone remembers the title “God and Man at Yale.” Very few people remember the subtitle, which was “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom.'” [Buckley] called academic freedom, as the left used it, a hoax. He said it’s ridiculous. Yale wouldn’t hire a Nazi to teach sociology. We wouldn’t tolerate these things. It’s not cancel culture when a guy shows up in a swastika to the water cooler and starts yelling “Sieg Heil” at work. If he loses his job, it’s not cancel culture. It’s just called having standards.
Bill Buckley, actually, his next book was a defense of Joe McCarthy. Wonderful little read. But a dozen years after that, on his [TV] program, “Firing Line,” he was having a debate with a neoconservative author. And this guy, Leo Cherne, said to Bill, “Bill, surely you believe that the open society is fundamental to everything we hold dear.” Open Society, by the way, it’s the name of George Soros’ foundation. It’s a very left-wing kind of idea. And William F. Buckley Jr. said, “No, I don’t want society to be more open.” And he said in his very Buckley way, I’m an epistemological optimist. Meaning I think we can know things. I think we can settle some things.
And I think we need to embrace that as conservatives, despite whatever shallow slogans we’d been reciting the past few years about free speech absolutism or whatever. I think we need to recognize that the difference between a man and a woman is settled. We can know it. We don’t need a free marketplace of ideas to debate it. We don’t have one anyway, because three oligarchs in Silicon Valley working at the behest of the liberal leviathan are actually controlling the flow of information around our public square.
We can know things. We do have things in common. We do live in society. And there is nothing unjust about wielding the political power that the people occasionally give us. Actually, that’s the point of politics.
Del Guidice: I think part of this whole discussion is the question of absolute truth. And I think some people, to the detriment of the movement, they’ll say, “Well, we don’t want to define something as being true, so we’re just going to leave that open.” But in ways, that weakens the party because people then don’t know what is true.
And so I think some of this definitely is about a hearts and minds issue, but some of it is just speaking of absolute truth. So what would be your advice … and what are your thoughts on finding that sweet spot?
Knowles: So, the easiest way into this … I know people are going to accuse me of being an authoritarian and an illiberal. Though, as I point out in my book “Speechless,” my views are far more liberal than say, John Locke, the founder of liberalism. So if I’m an authoritarian, I guess he’s a fascist. I think my views are far more liberal than John Milton, who wrote “Areopagitica.” It’s the most famous defense of free speech in the English language. He wanted to censor Catholics, which would be very bad news for me, by the way.
So I think one way in here would be enforcing our obscenity laws again. We’ve had obscenity laws since the beginning of the country. As recently as the 1990s, we have Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate and the White House signing anti-indecency laws. Actually, we always talk about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. We always forget that’s part of the Communications Decency Act. The central provision of which, unfortunately, was struck down.
The Child Online Protection Act was the one that came after that. This had broad bipartisan support. As recently as a dozen years ago, prosecutors threw a pornographer in federal prison for almost four years just for obscenity, and nobody batted an eye. Nobody believed that hardcore porn is somehow protected by the first amendment.
So if we can assert that, if we can say, rightly, and I know it when I see it, if we can actually use our moral judgment, then hopefully that will be the case. But unfortunately, the people who make these arguments are drowned out, just as much as we are right now by the music in the background. They’re drowned out by the voices of a radical skepticism that says that we can’t really know anything at all.
Del Guidice: Going back to “Speechless” and the book, what is the long-term danger of political correctness if we continue in this vein?
Knowles: Political correctness will be the regime. All political correctness is, is an attack to topple those traditional standards, as I mentioned earlier. So on the one hand, we’re going to have some people in the PC wordsmiths and speech police, insisting that a man … to use an earlier example, that a man can be a woman. This is an ancient heresy called Gnostic dualism. It says that our bodies have nothing to do with who we really are. I’ve got a deep voice, I’ve got an Adam’s apple, but if I say I’m a woman, then I just am a woman, right?
Now, on the other hand, the left will give us the opposite. They’ll say, actually, your body is all that you are. You’re just a bag of flesh. You’re just a meat puppet. And all of your hopes and dreams and joys are actually just an illusion of misfiring synapses in your brain. Well, that is the exact opposite view of the transgender view. And they will simultaneously push both to destroy the traditional understanding of human nature. Namely, the hylomorphic one, thanks to good ol’ Uncle Aristotle, that mankind is body, soul, and spirit brought together.
So it’s a purely destructive campaign. And it will knock down every statue, it will hollow out every institution, and it will utterly rip the spirit out of our civilization, as it largely has.
Del Guidice: In the book, you also talk about the power-hungry language architects behind and … in control of this movement. How would you encourage people today who aren’t following the rise of political correctness to be aware of this when they’re living their daily lives? And when they’re having a conversation and a word is mentioned, where they can have their ear to the ground and be like, “Oh, this is politically correct and I need to be aware of this and maybe communicate differently or think about this in a different way.”
Knowles: I think we’ve got to recognize that everybody uses euphemisms. When I see a woman of a certain age, I don’t call her an old hag. I call her a woman of a certain age, which is a word and a phrase to soften this harsh concept. But it doesn’t deny the reality of that. She really is a woman of a certain age. When I say so-and-so passed away, it’s kind of weak language, but it describes the spiritual fact of death.
[Political correctness] is a little different than that. PC doesn’t just soften reality, it actually inverts it. So there’s a phrase that’s very popular now in legal circles and in academia. The phrase is justice-involved person. A justice-involved person. Now you would imagine a justice-involved person could be a judge or a lawyer. Or maybe it would just be a really good guy who is pursuing justice.
No, it’s a euphemism for a criminal. So I think, wait a second, I could describe a criminal in a number of ways. The one way I can not describe them is being justice involved. But the reason for this, of course, is that it totally shapes and colors the way that we treat our criminal justice system. If he’s a justice-involved person, then it would be very wrong to punish him, wouldn’t it?
The same thing goes with, notably on the transgender issue, “trans woman,” or now even just “woman” to describe a man. If Bruce Jenner is a trans woman or just a woman, then he has … she, sorry, has every right to use the ladies’ room. But if he is just a man, a very confused man or a man who’s pursuing some appetite of his, then he has no right to go into the women’s room. And our language is going to frame that debate.
Again, the example I use on this is same-sex marriage. When I think of the same-sex marriage debate, I’m reminded there never was any debate. A debate about same-sex marriage would involve a discussion of what marriage is. For all of human history, everywhere on earth, people thought sexual difference had something to do with marriage. It’s kind of at the heart of it.
Then about five minutes ago, radicals said, no, no. Sexual difference does not have anything to do with marriage. So OK, we could’ve had that debate, but we didn’t. Instead, the leftist wordsmiths assumed their own conclusion. They begged the question. They said, “Look, we already know that sexual difference has no interest in marriage. So we’re just going to ask who has the right to get married?” Well, if it’s a question of who has the … everyone has the right to get married. That was never the real issue at stake.
So even just by using a phrase, such as same-sex marriage, they manage to rig the debate before it even began. And we need to be very aware of this. It might be socially awkward, but we cannot use their words. When I hear conservatives say, “Who cares about the pronouns? It’s not a big deal.” Who cares? The left cares. The left is spending a lot of time and money and energy trying to get us all to use ridiculous words to deny reality. They’re doing that, this word smuggle. And the whole premise is an entire political regime.
Del Guidice: Michael, before we’re up, I want to ask you about critical race theory. This is something that’s become so prevalent, especially during COVID, when students were at home and doing their classes online. Parents heard what they were hearing and being taught, and now a lot have questions about what’s being said in their classrooms now that they’re back in school, so many of them.
What is your perspective on CRT, and how do parents go about addressing their concerns, if they have them?
Knowles: Well, I’ve been reliably informed by the public teacher unions that … and the mainstream media and the Democrats—but I repeat myself—I’ve been informed that critical race theory is not real. It doesn’t exist. It’s not being taught to our students. And also, it’s wonderful. And it’s very important that we teach it to our students. And I’m being told that at the very same time. The left is running away on this issue.
And by the way, critical race theory is a well-known intellectual movement. It’s got a long pedigree. It’s a derivation of critical theory, which goes back about 100 years. For those who do not want to follow the pretentious jargon, it’s a simple theory. The theory is to criticize everything about the United States and to center it, as the 1619 Project does, essentially around this issue of racial injustice and slavery.
It’s a dreadful movement, in no small part because it very often denies objective reality. And I think this shows us how we need to react. Because a lot of conservatives, they say, “Well, let’s expand the curriculum. Let’s teach everything and the kids can make up their own mind.” First of all, a third grade classroom is not a free marketplace of ideas, OK?
Second of all, critical race theory [is] denying objective reality [and that occurs] in critical theory broadly. Denying objective reality … and you can add a lot of other intellectual movements to this. Poststructuralism, postmodernism, deconstructionism. That actually undermines a student’s education by denying their faculties of reason and objective truth that they can know. Which is the entire point of education.
So I think it’s very important to kick this stuff out of the schools. The hope that I have here, though, is that even though you’ve got dithering conservative leaders and you’ve got very effective leftist radicals, you’ve also got a lot of ordinary people. I’m thinking of the mothers of all ages and races, showing up to their school boards and saying, “Hey, you preening, elitist jerks, get this out of the classroom.”
And the more that those elites sneer and they say, “You don’t even understand critical … you haven’t even read Kimberle Crenshaw.” The more they sneer, the more they call them deplorable and irredeemable and Bible-thumping, bitter, clinging idiot rubes, I think you’re going to see an even further alienation of the majority of the American people from our desiccated ruling class. And that’s a true cause for hope.
Del Guidice: Well, Michael, that is the best note to end on. Thank you so much for joining us once again on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s always great having you with us.
Knowles: Thank you, Rachel. Great to be with you.
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