Political Correctness, Or The Perils of Benevolence

December 1, 2003 Topic: Society Tags: CensorshipPostmodernismSociology

Political Correctness, Or The Perils of Benevolence

Mini Teaser: The soft despotism of speech codes.

by Author(s): Roger Kimball

All good people agree
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They.
--Rudyard Kipling

"We and They"

The term "political correctness" is such a familiar piece of moral shorthand that it is easy to forget that the phrase has been with us for only about a dozen years. "John or Mary or the University of Lagado is so PC"--it's never a compliment, but exactly what does the charge of political correctness imply? To a large extent, the familiarity of the phenomenon has bred, if not contempt, then at least an unhealthy indifference. Political correctness--the phrase and even more the idea--has had a curious and circuitous career, and the more we know about it the more distasteful and alarming it seems.

Indeed, we are often assured that political correctness--whether or not it posed a threat in the past--is no longer a menace. It has, the argument goes, either been defeated or simply faded away like a Cheshire cat with a scowl. Oddly, however, this soothing assurance generally comes from people who approve (or approved) of political correctness, so their relief at its disappearance is both disingenuous and unpersuasive. They succeed only in making one feel like the female water-skier on the poster for Jaws II who is unaware of the huge shark surfacing behind her over the words "Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water."

Today, most of us tend to associate the phrase "political correctness" with the conservative assault on efforts to enforce speech codes, to promote affirmative action and to nurture other items high on the wish-list of multicultural aspiration. You know the menu. Page 1: Guns, no; school vouchers, no; patriotism, no; George W. Bush, capitalism, the United States, No, No, No. Even mention the war to depose Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqi people and you get the hysterical keenings of someone like Harold Pinter, Susan Sontag and Paul Krugman.

On the other side there's Brussels, Kyoto, Durban, Wounded Knee ... like Molly Bloom, the very place names tremble with an excited "Yes." All this is marvelous fodder for the conservative satirist. For example, Fox News regularly features "Tongue Tied", which their editors describe as "A column from the front lines of the wars over political correctness, free expression and culture." In England, The Spectator runs "Banned Wagon", a weekly column devoted to exposing "restrictions on freedom and free trade." Other repositories of anecdote, analysis and anathema are legion. Ridicule of the ridiculous is the order of the day.

Indeed, the fact that criticism of political correctness occupies an important place in the armory of conservative polemic is one reason we are regularly encouraged to ignore it.

This effort takes a couple of forms. First, there is bald denial. We are told that really, at bottom, there is no such thing as political correctness: it is all an invention of, well, people like me: right-wing fanatics bent on turning back the clock of progress. This is the position of the politically-correct John K. Wilson, whose book, The Myth of Political Correctness, is still a standard for the PC crowd. The author's goal throughout its pages is to relegate the fact of political correctness to the realm of dragons, hippogriffs and Republican nightmares.

Second, there is the reliable "Yes, but ..." rejoinder. This comes in two basic versions, deflationary and defiant. The deflationary position says "Okay , political correctness does exist, but it is harmless, hardly more than an effort to avoid offending people: critics have exaggerated both the extent and the gravity of political correctness."

The defiant alternative, on the other hand, says "Yes, political correctness exists and is widespread, and thank God for that: it is not a bane but a boon: it just shows how enlightened attitudes about race-gender-class-ethnic-sensitivity-peace-homosexuality-the-environment-and-mustn't-forget-the-plight-of-foxes are spreading." Perhaps this is what Martin Amis meant when, writing in The New Yorker on July 12, 1993, he suggested that "at its grandest" political correctness is "an attempt to accelerate evolution."

In any event, because we tend to associate political correctness with attacks upon political correctness, it is worth noting that the epithet seems to have originated not with conservative commentators but with impatient college students in the late-1980s and early-1990s. "Politically correct" described the self-righteous, non-smoking, ecologically sensitive, vegetarian, feminist, non-racist, multicultural, Birkenstock-wearing, anti-capitalist beneficiaries of capitalism--faculty as well as students--who paraded their outworn 1960s radicalism in the classroom and in their social life. Mostly, it was a joke. Who could take these people seriously? It was also overwhelmingly an academic phenomenon, a species of rhetoric and behavior that flourished chiefly in and around the protected redoubts of the university. Thus it is that the acronym "PC" first won widespread notice in a student cartoon strip out of Brown University, an institution still distinguished for its abundant display of political correctness, if little else.

Of course, the roots of political correctness go back a long way. To some extent, I suppose, political correctness can be seen as part of the perennial human attraction to moral conformity, to be part of what the American art critic Harold Rosenberg memorably called the "herd of independent minds."

Political correctness can also be enlisted in what Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, called "democratic despotism." In pre-democratic societies, Tocqueville noted, despotism tyrannized. In modern democracies, it infantilizes. Democratic despotism is both "more extensive and more mild" than its precursors: it "degrades men without tormenting them." In this sense, Tocqueville continued, "the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world."

Tocqueville's analysis, although written in the 1830s, seems remarkably contemporary. Let me quote a few sentences. The force of democratic despotism, Tocqueville wrote, would

be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood. . . . [I]t every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. . . . [T]he supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided. . . . Such a power does not destroy, . . . but it enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Thus Tocqueville, who might have been writing about the latest initiative from the European Union.

Yet the impulse to conformity and democratic despotism are only part of the story. We come closer to the heart of political correctness--to the reality if not the phrase--with figures like Robespierre and St. Just. They and their comrades sought to bring post-Revolutionary France into line with what they called "virtue", the heady feeling that one was in the vanguard of enlightenment, an angel of truth, a beacon of uncommon wisdom.

It was--it is--a daring as well as an intoxicating vocation. In The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had warned that "Those who dare to undertake the institution of a people must feel themselves capable . . . of changing human nature, . . . of altering the constitution of man for the purpose of strengthening it." Robespierre & Co. thought themselves just the chaps for the job. The fact that they measured the extent of their success by the frequency that the guillotines around Paris operated highlights the connection between the imperatives of political correctness and tyranny--between what Robespierre candidly described as "virtue and its emanation, terror."

Nearer our own time, Chairman Mao, with his sundry campaigns to "re-educate" and raise the consciousness of a recalcitrant populace, offers a classic example of political correctness in action. Add to those efforts the linguistic innovations that George Orwell described in the Afterword to 1984 as "Newspeak" and you have limned the basic features of political correctness. The purpose of Newspeak, Orwell wrote, was to make "a heretical thought . . . literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words."

The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as "this dog is free from lice" or "This field is free from weeds." It could not be used in its old sense of "politically free" or "intellectually free", since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.

Just so, the politically correct of our own day seek to bring about a moral revolution by changing the way we speak and write about the world: a change of heart instigated and embodied by a change of language. Examples are legion. We are told to scrap the phrase "learning disabilities" and replace it with "learning differences." The announced hope is that little Johnny, who is a bit backward, poor thing, will not feel stigmatized; the secret hope is that by refusing to speak the truth, we can change the truth. The bbc tells its employees that they must use the word "partner" when referring to their wife or husband, since using "wife" and "husband" might seem to imply that the married state was somehow preferable to other possible modes of sexual cohabitation. Major newspapers in the United States refuse to accept advertisements for houses to let that mention that their property has "good views" (unfair to the blind), is "walking distance" to the train (unfair to the lame), is on a "quiet street" (unfair to the deaf). I know it sounds mad. It is mad. Nevertheless, it is true.

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