Political Correctness and the Speech Fashion War

Friday, November 30, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

It's been awhile since I've done this -- awakened at a god-awful hour on Sunday morning, to write a blog about an upcoming show. I hope I'm lucid.

Today's show is about the political correctness. Our guest is Leonard Steinhorn, author of a rousing defense of the baby boom generation, to which I proudly belong, called The Greater Generation. According to Steinhorn, we baby boomers were the leading edge of a great sea change for the better in America. Our age cohort almost single-handedly ended racism, sexism, and homophobia. We brought down corrupt and mendacious presidents. We ended a pointless and forlorn war. By elevating the sanctity and fragility of the environment to national consciousness, we brought to heel a kind of anything goes capitalism that saw our lakes and streams and air as just more commodities to be used up and discarded. We took the university by storm, first as students and then as faculty, helping to make them more than perpetuators of narrow privilege. We took the conformist, hierarchical and oppressive America bequeathed to us by our so-called greatest-generation forebears and shook it up root and branch and in the process gradually remade it into a more caring, progressive, egalitarian society.

Assuming that we boomers really do deserve all this praise, it's still fair to wonder what any of this has to do with political correctness. Well, I think it actually has a fair bit to do with at least the fate of the term 'politically correct' especially with the claiming, reclaiming and disclaiming of that somewhat odd phrase.

I say that the phrase 'politically correct' is an odd one because I don't think I've ever heard anyone use that phrase in a straight-forward and sincere manner. In my experience, people on the left tend to use the phrase mostly in a sort of self-mocking, tongue and cheek way, while people on the right tend to utter the phrase only in a sort of defiantly dismissive tone.

That's not to say that there aren't serious issues behind all this. One of them has to do with the both the decreasing prevalence of things like overt racism, sexism and homophobia. I'm not at all sure, to say the least, that sexism, racism and homophobia have really been decisively defeated in America. Steinhorn takes pains, though, to remind us just how sexist, racist and homophobic post WW II America really was. He is surely right that the world we live in today is nothing like that America. Thank god.

Still, though there are still people who hold views that those on the left might want to characterizes as racist, sexist, or homophobic a striking thing started happening sometimes in the mid-sixties. At some point it became highly unfashionable, at least in the circles in which I travel, to publicly express views that could be considered even mildly racist, sexist, or homophobic. And I don't think that's just a reflection of the narrowness of the circles in which I travel. What I find striking about this is that I believe that the pace of change in the fashionably expressible vastly outstripped the pace of substantive social change on the ground. The result was that many people probably found that they could not fashionably say what they actually thought, for fear of being labeled racist, sexist, or homophobic.

Let's distinguish two things here: (a) being racist, sexist, or homophobic; (b) being labeled racist, sexist, or homophobic. I take it that you can be labeled racist either correctly or incorrectly. But I also take it that you can fail to be labeled racist even though you are one.

Now if it's unfashionable to express certain views and if the cost of expressing such views is that you get labeled a racist, then if people care enough about what they are labeled, several things can happen. First, many racists may retain their racist views, but fail to express them, because they disvalue being labeled racists, even though they value being racists (and may even value expressing their views, but not enough to incur the cost of being labeled racist.) Second, some non-racists may fail to express their views because of the disvalue of being wrongly labeled racists. Third, some people who believe themselves not to be racists and who value the expressing their views, will pay the cost of being labeled racists, but will resent those who do the labeling.

If the left thought that victory in what we might call the speech fashion war really meant a substantive victory on the ground, then the left may have made a significant miscalculation. Making it unfashionable to say certain things -- which, for awhile at least, the left really did seem to have done -- doesn't ipso facto make it unfashionable to believe those things. I take that to be a pretty obvious point. But the thought may have been that by driving certain views, as it were, underground, you make it impossible to for the views to be publicly defended. And one might think that views that can't be publicly defended will ultimately wither away.

I'm not so sure. What can't be fashionably defended because it can't fashionably be said, can still be believed, and believed with great conviction and confidence. Rendering such views costly to express does not ipso facto render them costly to hold. Moreover, when a view held by many can't be fashionably expressed, one can't, I would think, really know whether the arguments on public offer that purport to refute the unexpressed views are actually being taken up and acknowledged by those who hold the underground beliefs. That is to say, the fashionable arguments on offer that parade as victorious may be enjoying an illusion of victory rather than the real thing.

I suspect that for at least some period in recent history, many people believed things that they thought couldn't fashionably be said. And I think some, especially on the left, may have once mistaken victory in, as it were, the speech fashion war for substantive victory on the ground. I think it no longer possible to make this mistake. Partly because the views that once looked to have been driven underground are now refusing to stay underground. That's part of an anti-political correctness backlash. But that, I think, is all to the good. What arguably lay behind the strategy of trying to eliminate certain attitudes by rendering the expression of those attitudes unfashionable was a quasi-whorfian hypothesis that that what can't be said can't be believed. But the whorfian hypothesis is false. And the strategy based on it only appeared to win the day.

There is much more to say. And certainly it could be said more clearly. But my juices are flowing at least. And I'm sure that after I'm exposed to John Perry and Leonard Steinhorn's arguments, I'll have completely changed my perspective.

 

Comments (19)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 1, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

It seems to me that the inevitability of a superfi

It seems to me that the inevitability of a superficial or an ill-driven fashion understanding of certain political correctness originates ultimately from an irrational/poorly educated public.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, December 2, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

"Political correctness" is one more popular neolog

"Political correctness" is one more popular neologism of the sort that is characteristic of psychotic thinking, i.e. words that are made up on the spot in response to irrational obsessiveness and compulsion. As with all such it's difficult to pin down an exact meaning (what politics? and why correct?). True for media-driven labeling in general (saves space for advertisement). Such terms indeed succeed well in reinforcing delusions. E.g., "geek". Were Aristotle and Plato ancient "Geeks"??

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, December 2, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

As an African-American(whatever that is supposed t

As an African-American(whatever that is supposed to mean), I get quite tired of being required to be outraged every time somebody uses the "N" word. I personally like people who stand by the courage of their personal convictions, no matter how misguided they may be. As we like to say in my community, we don't worry about the ones in sheets, we worry about the other ones. I am glad for some of the heightened sensitivities especially in the area of the "developmentally challenged" but personally I wanna be able to say that something looks "faggy" without drawing the wrath of PC Police. And frankly although I am a woman and all woman at that, all the pink clothing and accessories just look "faggy" on my rich darkly hued skin. Now dammit, I said it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, December 2, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

Ok, Cathy, you've lost me. You sound highly irrati

Ok, Cathy, you've lost me. You sound highly irrational here. The argument against using certain words or phrases is quite utilitarian. For every individual free to take certain actions there are tens, hundreds, and even thousands more unhappy with said action. You might appreciate someone using certain words or phrases, but what if those phrases became personal? What if they sparked riots? What if those comments harmed another individual? At some point here, I think individuals rights must give way to the legitimate moral claims.
Isn't it *moral* to preserve community? Isn't it *moral* to respect the dignity of others? Isn't it *moral* to view others as you would value being seen? I'm an African-American, too, and I think it my duty--no, my obligation--to live up to a decorum of respect that falls in line with the ancient traditions of Aristotle who believed the only way to be virtuous was to surround yourself around virtuous people. In my view, I can only do that, if I help lead my community to a life of virtuous and moral behavior.
PS And why, exactly, are we talking to that guy who wrote the "Greater Generation"? Are they not partially responsible for this "openess" (an Orwellian word if ever there was one). Well, that's another topic for another day.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, December 3, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

Hmmmm, Maybe Corey is right. And if so, naming a

Hmmmm,
Maybe Corey is right. And if so, naming a teddy bear Mohammad should be punnished by 40 lashes. The problem with trying to stay within the boundries of morality is those said moralities are transitory and region specific. Instead of the dogmatic belief in the power of individual words and what they mean to a few, perhaps adherance to fundamental principlals of conduct would better serve the ends of those trying to bring about the better interaction between people. In short, be polite, try not to show hatred but be free to express ideas openly. "everything we really need to know we should have learned in kindergaten." Robert Fulgem

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, December 4, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

1 The 1960s arena, where one could practice rig

1
The 1960s arena, where one could practice righteousness of an adolescent sort and save America from its absentminded sinfulness, was begotten by a generation which had survived the ?29 Panic and fought a desperate war on two fronts with various totalitarian regimes. Of course, compared to saving Western civilization(hard to believe that those rubes supposed it worth saving)from the dark side of the force, the breaking of custom?s cake by that generation?s children must be more profound, yes? Well.
2
In addition to congratulating ourselves for our "more caring, progressive, egalitarian society"(a time when decade succeeds decade as post-this-or-that and de-this-or-that), where one cannot utter NO, save to say NO to NO, we are treated to the banality of this post. Ere geneticists manipulate us into certitudes of grace, we are left with 5000 years of human history from which to mine our supposes, and from this cornucopia of folly, fornication and autos-da-fe we might have presumed a posteriori and a priori that the vanity of those who?ve reckoned themselves history?s solution is addressed invariably by our (apparently)irreducible and savage contempt for remediation.
3
"Political correctness" is no more or less than the orthodoxy of the moment, that variety of cognitive/emotive reality regnant within a society. However the term came to mean the giving of no offense to those views become sacred(and by extrapolation to practices or persons congenial to the substance of one?s precepts), each age has had its theses of being, certitudes enforced via opprobrium and/or the clink, the rack or hemlock. Naturally, no high tide of an orthodoxy supposes itself but the mortal effusion of an hour, the effluence of will sanctioned by its handmaid, intelligence. Today, one despises the gruff nature of those who suggest that tomorrow might be dull if a Shakespeare had no reason to write as Shakespeare wrote, that is, if men could stitch no more upon time?s flesh their "dreams of avarice" or make pogroms or jihads or wrestle in the mud as mud for the "good." If men had to awake one dawn to endure an age with which one could find no fault, save that perfection doth cloy finally. But then, ala Dostoievski, men do rebel occasionally even against the symmetries of Eden and this act of lese majesty committed upon the logics of "sense and sensibility" may be, after all, the pith that surpasseth understanding and the peculiar genius of this self-absorbed, terrified and terrifying cosmic orphan.
By the by, who is Whorf? And should we glean our apothems from Klingon philosophers?
Cordially, Lawrence Cottrell.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 5, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

I think the problem with "Political correctnes

I think the problem with "Political correctness" is that it takes a good idea too far. The infamous "N" word for instance is a demeaning term - at least when used by non-African-Americans. In fact, if I had just used the "N-word" instead of "African- Americans" in this post, it would have aroused a storm of protest. Rightly so.
When I grew up in the 50's, everyone I knew used the "N-word". It describe a people who were: stupid, lazy, immoral, over-sexed, ignorant and smelled bad. They were good at basketball but couldn't play hockey or swim. Education was wasted on them and they were so inferior that you could pick them up by the toe.
The "N-word" includes all these negatives stereotypes within it's definition. This is why it should not be used by anyone who either values truth or wishes not to be offensive.
A common mistake with "Political correctness" is to treat perfectly innocuous words as if they were inherently negative or offensive.
For instance: I was once severely reprimanded for saying that a person who couldn't see was blind. I was told that the politically correct term was "sight challenged". Why? Because the word "blind" apparently labeled the person who couldn't see as inferior. Being in a non-philosophical mood, I ended the conversation with the politically incorrect: "F--- off!"
What I should have done was point out that was the word "blind" is merely an accurate description of a quality and implies inferiority only in the sense that, for humans, it is better to see than not to see. "Blind" carries non of the negativity or political content associated with the "N-word".
For me the worst aspect of 'Political correctness" then is that it undermines simplicity of expression and clarity of thought.
Sincerely, Ed Healy

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 5, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

A story: I was in a bathroom in Chinatown in Sa

A story:
I was in a bathroom in Chinatown in San Francisco. Two Chinese women came in and began to discussing a variety of topics. One commented that her brother was dating a new guy "he's Caucasian, you know." I felt a small wave of being offended. I immediately questioned this feeling. Why should I be offended? I'm Caucasian. I burn in the sun. I'm a white girl. I realized that the offence was not in the word, but in the thought - and in the specific thought that: "we are a group and THEY are not part of our group." As a white gal, the feeling of being a "them" instead of an "us" was foreign (no pun intended).
So ultimately I realized that the PC words do not matter. The reason they work at all may be in the small reduction in the sting of racism between the time they are first introduced to when they are accepted as mainstream. In this time lag, the meaning, the cultural baggage, the emotion and the ideas behind these new words have not yet caught up to this latest PC new-speak.
Angela
www.bodywreath.com
P.S. I'm also a little offended that my spell check capitalized Caucasian. It's not a country or a religion (not in the way it is currently used), I don't belong to an organized group. What's up?

Neil Van Leeuwen's picture

Neil Van Leeuwen

Saturday, December 15, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

There are good and bad sides to the movement towar

There are good and bad sides to the movement toward political correctness. The good: racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs that insinuate ugly and false generalizations have been largely removed from mainstream public discourse. The bad: one senses that there is a new kind of heresy-hunting going on, conducted by self-righteous, not-particularly-thoughtful individuals, who seem more concerned to point fingers than to promote honest discourse. Given that just about everyone has *at least one* politically incorrect belief (be honest), this situation creates the following dilemma: concealing/being dishonest about the belief one has vs. becoming a target of the heresy-hunt. That sucks. Fortunately, the heretic-hunters seem mostly interested in nailing politicians with their own sound bytes than in getting anyone else, which leaves the door open for the rest of us to engage in honest conversation about issues of race, sex, and gender. You can express audacious views as long as you pick words with care and skill. On the other hand, if you're not the best word smith, it may be wise to hang back and listen.
All the best,
Neil

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, December 20, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

It's been my own experience that Political Correct

It's been my own experience that Political Correctness is rarely about avoiding nasty terms in the presence of the person or group to whom those terms might apply. Rather it almost always involves different sensibilities among member of the same group, none of whom are directly implicated by the term(s) in question. I'm thinking mainly of family dynamics, e.g. the kid home from college who's takes offense to an older relative's use of an outdated ethnonym or label. I think the notion of kindness was invoked on the show, but where does that play in when no one in the conversation is directly implicated by the offensive speech? Who's being the unkind -- the 20-year old who's decided his parents are backward-thinking, or the parent who at best enjoys needling his overly-sensitive child or at worst feels threatened by his child thinking he's backward-thinking?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, April 16, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

While the over-reaching thesis of political correc

While the over-reaching thesis of political correctness might be overzealous policing of every term and word, and antithesis a reactionary backlash, it seems to me the appropriate synthesis is a focus on being sensitive in our use of language.
Reasonable accomodations should be made when a term hurts someone else's feelings. Use of outdated terms shouldn't be scorned or mocked, but gently corrected. Using "police officer" or "firefighter" instead of "policeman" or "fireman" is totally reasonable. Replacing all pronouns with "zi" may be going a bit far. Spelling it "womyn" seems a little radical.
Bottom line: language is powerful and we ought to be sensitive (not over-sensitive) when we use it.
P.S. Black folk were enslaved and Jim Crowed in America for a couple hundred years - is it really too much to throw them a bone and say "African American"?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, July 19, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

Re: the Philosophy Talk show on "God" (now in re-r

Re: the Philosophy Talk show on "God" (now in re-run):
Not addressed in that program: "God", a capitalized proper name connotes
an existing person or personage or person-like form. "order" is a simple noun.
So if we say that some order entailed the creation of the universe or was entailed by
the creation of the universe, then hey! no problem, BUT as soon as you say "God"
you are invoking an anthropomorphized, texturized soy-bean product first
concocted by a Mesopotamian field hand 8000 years ago, no?
That guy from Claremont is clueless. The Universe was created to appeal to
our sensibilities, he said? Duh: this bud's for you! See the USA in a Chevrolet!
Duh, God, a Madison Ave. marketeer? Duh!

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, August 2, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

In response to Lawrence Cottrell and anyone intere

In response to Lawrence Cottrell and anyone interested in proper philosophical discussion:
Whorf refers to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, not a Star Trek character. In a nutshell, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the limits of language are the limits of a language speaker's reality; e.g. the Inuit language has several words that describe different kinds of snow, but the English language only has the word "snow." If you're familiar with the novel 1984, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is directly applied in Newspeak.
Now, your post reads beautifully and froths with fervor. However, in philosophical discussion, literary quips are generally avoided. This is mostly because literary language often contains gaps in reasoning and also vagueness, ambiguity, and general imprecision. For example: you compare the enforcement of political correctness to events such as the horrors of the Inquisition and the death of Socrates. Firstly, there is a gap in reasoning: you do not explain WHY political correctness is similar to those events. Of course, you could claim that your reason is implied, but that is impermissible in philosophical discussion, which stresses explicitness. I could also refute your claim as an ad hoc fallacy. Which leads to the second point, I could claim that the comparison commits the fallacy of false analogy. I think many would agree that the enforcement of political correctness is nowhere close in degree to the torturous killings of the Inquisition.
Rigor is essential in philosophical discussion, and I hope what I wrote helps you and others understand common errors made in philosophical discussion.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

Dear Mark, When Philosophy has nothing left of

Dear Mark,
When Philosophy has nothing left of substance, when, that is, it's a discipline for discipline's sake, one ought consider becoming a plumber, the latter being a useful occupation.
(1) If men are no more than "the limits" of their linguistic "reality," the poet is more real than the Philosopher. I am the former, mostly.
(2) If Philosophy is no more than analysis of grammars, she has become the tramp of a credentialed naivete clinging to a deductive clemency not even interesting; ontology, once Philosophy's reason for existence, is de trop but had at least the capacity to kill or resurrect, to cause a stir on some rialto or in some garret.
(3) If men are no more than "the limits" of their linguistic "reality," they are nothing per se. If they are nothing in se, "good" and "evil" are grammatical convention, and one is entitled to feed men to the fishes for amusement's sake or sacrifice hecatombs for aesthetic symmetry.
(4) Unlike a genuine science, which may get us to Mars, Philosophical scientism is where grown men play jacks when the occupation of spiritual Asclepius is no longer available to them. If Minerva can not inspire us into a chapel or onto a barricade, cause some authority to wish to trepan one, a Philosopher ought be embarrassed at the irrelevancy of his Ph.D.
(5) Explicitly, "each age has had its thesis of being," and whether deviation from an orthodoxy has brought upon the miscreant an auto-da-fe, a gulag, a gas chamber, a shunning or a "C" when one deserved a "B," the simple truth of my assertion seems to have leapt the ha-ha of your comprehension. Moreover, what ever "gap" you've imagined in my brief frolic within the marches of your domain seems to arise from your supposition that orthodoxy is less orthodox because it does not kill but only coerces humanely, i.e., modern deduction is on the non-dark side of the force. Well. Given the language limitations of your "reality," you'll forgive me if I prefer a good tickle on a Sunday afternoon to the condesensions of a logic-chopping martinet presuming to edify me regarding ratiocination's catechism.
Cordially, Lawrence Cottrell

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, December 22, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

In the small city that I live in I have noticed th

In the small city that I live in I have noticed that it has become very popular to "help" the refugee families from Africa. Working as a social worker in a setting which is truly diverse and multi-cultural I noticed a few things that concerned me this week. First of all, there is a tendency among the "refugee helpers" to want to give them more services and help and to allow for more socially "inappropriate" behavior to continue. For example at holiday time, most of the families in the setting in which I work want and need help with gifts, clothing and food. I find that the one thing that most of the families have in common is poverty. Yet several staff members and outside companies wanted to sponsor a refugee family from Africa. Today was our last day before holiday break and at the end of the day a co-worker called me and said, "Why did you not deliver the gifts to the -----family (a refugee family from Africa)? I was first defensive explaining that, through an interpreter, I had discussed how the gifts could be picked up and the father, who had a vehicle would be happy to pick up the gifts. I went in to the office to "vent" because I was shocked and this person came busting in and said, "I just thought that it might be helpful for you if I delivered them!" I again, explained that there was a plan in place. At this point I was angry because there were racist overtones. Many families without vehicles had come with strollers or had found rides to get gifts. I did deliver some but am a one person show and could not do it all. I finally kind of lost it when I saw the person in the parking lot. I said, "You know I am a straight shooter, and I am wondering why you would ask me why I hadn't delivered the gifts"! She denied ever saying that and I called her on it and said, "Yes you did". I, once again explained what the plan was but she showed no remorse. She later called,.... blah, blah, blah, " I wasn't sure if it was because they aren't Christian". Another incident involved a family where the family has a huge van, they live around the corner and the father drove the women to the agency and had them all load the goods while he sat in the car. He also refused to pick up a huge basket of food a few weeks ago and had me and his wife carry food for ten up to the third floor. I think that he is sexist, plain and simple and needs to be educated that other women in this culture will find him as such if we do not let him know this. The family also has a vehicle, help from a settlement agency with finances, employment and all kinds of support. I realize that they face great difficulties coming to a new culture, though these families have been here a few years, but I also feel for the hundreds of other families who have no beds for their children, no work, no food etc... who are not refugees. In this small city it has become politically fashionable to help refugees from Africa even if it means that in the short run they receive special privileges that others who live in poverty do not receive. Just venting. I am sure someone will call me racist but I am not a racist. I just believe in equity.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

The institution of politically correct speech was

The institution of politically correct speech was a low point in the history of free society. Juan Williams, the public radio analyst and correspondent, could probably attest to this claim. As you may know, if you were paying attention, Williams was fired for remarks made on O'Reilly's show---remarks which were interpreted by NPR as disparaging Muslims. NPR's reflexes are keenly attuned to any sort of language which might create an unfavorable image. Williams may take some sort of defensive action---or he may not, if he ever expects to work in broadcast journalism again.
In whichever case, a career was needlessly cut short by a paranoid employer's knee-jerk reactivity. Which further supports my contention that if anyone asks for your honest opinion about anything, be very careful about just how honest you choose to be.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

On Juan Williams' firing by NPR: It wasn't what he

On Juan Williams' firing by NPR: It wasn't what he said that condemned him in the eyes and ears of NPR---it was where he was when he said it. I agree with Neuman on his main point. Politically correct speech was a low point, but only one of many. The sickness in our society only begets more sickness.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, October 21, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Clearly, we had no need to worry about Williams. N

Clearly, we had no need to worry about Williams. No sooner than he had lost one job, he had another---so we are told---big contract. There may be some lesson here. Or not. If there is a lesson, it may be this: If you are properly connected, you cannot fail. That's a Jewish thing, isn't it. Oh, but look out---my bigotry is showing? Please. Let's just talk about reality, shall we? How long have you lived and what do you think you know about bigotry. Good and I doubt it.
Truthfully, I was never worried about Williams. Never found him compelling and found much of his reportage mediocre, at best. So, maybe his new job will be more fulfilling and will showcase his true talents. Want to bet?

 
 
 

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