The Language of Denial: Freedom of Speech in an Age of Political Correctness

Earlier this week I was reading one of the many excellent publications put out by the Centre for Independent Studies, a booklet called “You Can’t Say That!“. It is a collection of four essay about how there is an invisible self-imposed muzzle which is threatening freedom of speech. They struck a real chord with me, and I asked if I could share them on my blog. They kindly agreed.

The first essay is by . Sarrazin is a German politician, who is a member of the (centre-left) SPD. He wrote a book called “Deutschland schafft sich ab” which in English is Germany Does Away With Itself. The book saw the SPD try to expel him, and he was also forced off the board of the central bank. Incidentally the book is  the highest selling book on politics by a German-language author in a decade.

The Language of Denial: Freedom of Speech in an Age of Political Correctness

Thilo Sarrazin


Until 2008, I did not concern myself very much with political correctness. In my career as a civil servant, board member, and later on, as a politician, I had a reputation for being outspoken. But that reputation was mostly limited to my professional field and generally accepted.

Everything changed with an interview I gave in September 2009 about the socioeconomic problems of Berlin and their roots, and with a book I published in August 2010 under the title Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself).

Its main conclusions are:

  • Germany as a nation is doomed by its demography. The low and stable birth rate means that every generation is 35 percent smaller than the one before.
  • The brightest people have the fewest children. And for this reason, intellectual capacities and educational achievements in Germany will shrink even faster than the population. This is not a danger in the far future; the process is already in full swing.
  • The kind of immigration we have in Germany, mostly from Islamic countries in Africa and the Middle East, does not solve the problems. It aggravates them. Reasons for this are the Islamic cultural background and the poor average educational performance of these groups, which is far below the European average, even in the second and third generation.

These conclusions are of course controversial—as they were intended to be. In matters of society, there is no such thing as an absolute truth. And I am the first to admit this.

I had expected a controversial discussion. But nothing had prepared me for the public storm that broke loose upon the publication of my book. I was accused of advocating biological determinism and labelled a social Darwinist, a racist, and an enemy of the people and of social justice.

I survived morally and politically because of the enthusiastic support from large parts of the general public and the new online media. Because of this, the traditional print and broadcast media lost their monopoly of interpretation, and it was plain for everybody to see. Realising this, many politicians started a tactical withdrawal from the debate.

Subsequently, I stepped down as a board member of the Deutsche Bundesbank—but not before I had been formally cleared of all allegations of misconduct.

In the following months, I thought a lot about the controversial reactions to my book. My theory is as follows:

The code of conduct in a society, which is not laid down by law, changes over time. It is to a large degree implicit and not subject to formal—or even openly discussed—rules. But those members who do not observe the code run the risk of being excluded from ‘the good society.’

Having and expressing the ‘right’ set of opinions about certain scientific, social and political questions is an important part of this code of conduct. Most people want to observe the prevailing code of conduct, but being busy with jobs and families they have no informed opinion of their own on most matters. So they think and believe what the media say they should think and believe. Politicians, on the other hand, read public opinion solely based on media opinions. Most politicians sincerely believe that voters think what the media write or say.

Media are made by people, and media people recruit themselves in a process of self-selection, much as lawyers, doctors or engineers do. Polls show that media people mainly listen to other media people. Endorsed by this self-selection, media people on the whole have a set of opinions that tend to be on the left of mainstream society. I don’t say this is a bad thing, but it partly explains the mindset of political correctness.

Most people shy away from saying or even thinking anything that is perceived to be politically incorrect. So the mechanics of political correctness prevent the expression of dissenting opinions, notwithstanding the formal freedom of speech. It even stops the generation of incorrect thoughts.

The prevailing themes of political correctness are deeply ingrained in the (to some degree unconscious) mindset of the political class and the media. Reflecting on the reaction to my book, I identified 13 themes that constitute the main body of political correctness in Germany.

My book violated every single one of them.

Here is the list of political correctness in Germany. I think it describes the truth, but it takes some irony or humour to fully appreciate the list. The problem lies not in any single item on this list but in their combination and rigid application to political thinking:

1.     Inequality is bad, equality is good.

2.     Secondary virtues like industriousness, precision and punctuality are of no particular value. Competition is morally questionable (except in sports) because it promotes inequality.

3.     The rich should feel guilty. Exception: Rich people who have earned their money as athletes or pop stars.

4.     Different conditions of life have nothing to do with people’s choices but with the circumstances they are in.

5.     All cultures are of equal rank and value. Especially, the values and ways of life of the Christian occident and Western industrialised nations should not enjoy any preference. Those who think differently are provincial and xenophobic.

6.     Islam is a religion of peace. Those who see any problems with immigration from Islamic countries are guilty of Islamophobia. This is nearly as bad as anti-Semitism.

7.     Western industrialised nations carry the main responsibility for poverty and backwardness in other parts of the world.

8.     Men and women have no natural differences, except for the physical signs of their sex.

9.     Human abilities depend mainly on training and education; inherited differences hardly play any role.

10.   There are no differences between peoples and races, except for their physical appearance.

11.   The nation-state is an outdated model. National identities and peculiarities have no particular value. The national element as such is rather bad; it is at any rate not worth preserving. The future belongs to the global society.

12.   All people in the world not only have equal rights, they are in fact equal. They should at least all be eligible for the benefits of the German welfare state.

13.   Children are an entirely private affair. Immigration takes care of the labour market and of any other demographic problems.

That’s the list. In this condensed form, it sounds like a joke. But it’s not a joke. These are the hidden axioms of political correctness in Germany (and probably elsewhere) as I see them.

Every item on the list has a high emotional value for those who believe in it.

The core of the problem is that partly moral und partly ideological attitudes are taken at face value and mixed with reality.

It is a permanent task, I am afraid, to sort that out.

It makes me faintly optimistic though, that after all the turmoil, I am still morally alive and not, as a person and an author, ignominiously buried and forgotten. That had certainly been the intention of the vast majority of the political and the media class. But, for once, the general public publicly disagreed.

This, in itself, is a matter of satisfaction not only for me but for many people in Germany.

I’ll blog the second article next week.

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