More on the Political Correctness Debate

Joys!  A video of my Political Correctness debate is now online.  I will resist the temptation to embed it on the blog.  (h/t Olly)

I’ve been reading Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays by the late David Foster Wallace.  In the rambling but delightful ‘Tense Present‘, he lays into the concept of Political Correct English (PCE), which he sees as dangerous:

I refer here to Politically Correct English (PCE), under whose conventions failing students become “high-potential” students and poor people “economically disadvantaged” … This reviewer’s own opinion is that prescriptive PCE is not just silly but confused and dangerous.

Usage is always political, of course, but it’s complexly political. With respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: On the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change. These two functions are different and have to be kept straight. Confusing them — in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language’s political symbolism … — enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE’s central fallacy — that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes — and of course it’s nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT’S delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage.

Forget Stalinization or Logic 101-level equivocations, though. There’s a grosser irony about Politically Correct English. This is that PCE purports to be the dialect of progressive reform but is in fact — in its Orwellian substitution of the euphemisms of social equality for social equality itself — of vastly more help to conservatives and the U.S. status quo than traditional SNOOT prescriptions ever were.

On this final paragraph, I disagree.  As I said in the Cambridge debate, I don’t think Political Correctness is the same as Orwellian Censorship, because the latter is intended to make you forget concepts, which is surely the reverse of what PCE intends and achieves.

In a later essay ‘Host‘, he acknowledges in a sidenote the decent aspect of Political Correctness, and captures my own feelings on the matter that I tried to lay out in my Cambridge speech:

EDITORIAL OPINION   This is obviously a high-voltage area to get into, but for what it’s worth, John Ziegler does not appear to be a racist as “racist” is generally understood. What he is is more like very, very insensitive—although Mr. Z. himself would despise that description, if only because “insensitive” is now such a PC shibboleth. Actually, though, it is in the very passion of his objection to terms like “insensitive,” “racist,” and “the N-word” that his real problem lies. Like many other post-Limbaugh hosts, John Ziegler seems unable to differentiate between (1) cowardly, hypocritical acquiescence to the tyranny of Political Correctness and (2) judicious, compassionate caution about using words that cause pain to large groups of human beings, especially when there are several less upsetting words that can be used. Even though there is plenty of stuff for reasonable people to dislike about Political Correctness as a dogma, there is also something creepy about the brutal, self-righteous glee with which Mr. Z. and other conservative hosts defy all PC conventions. If it causes you real pain to hear or see something, and I make it a point to inflict that thing on you merely because I object to your reasons for finding it painful, then there’s something wrong with my sense of proportion, or my recognition of your basic humanity, or both.

I think this is at the heart of it.  I don’t think it is viable to deny that, at times, Political Correctness has indeed “gone mad”, because that’s obviously not true – Ann Widdecombe’s speech to the Cambridge Union was a litany of ridiculous examples of the genre.  But that is not the same thing as saying that the entire concept is flawed beyond redemption.  Abandoning political correctness because of the “gone mad” elements would be to throw the baby out with the bath water, I think.

Put another way, had the debate at Cambridge been something like ‘Political Correctness Has Gone Mad’ then my allies and I might have lost.  Luckily for us, the debate was framed in precisely the opposite terms ‘Political Correctness is Sane And Necessary’ placed the burden of proof on the other side.  This was an impossible task when Medhi Hassan asked, at the outset, whether we wanted to return to the days of ‘Paki’ as an easy, acceptable perjorative.  Of course we don’t, and no amount of textual acrobatics from David Foster Wallace will change that.

3 Replies to “More on the Political Correctness Debate”

  1. Brilliant! Thanks so much for posting the link.
    Enjoyable debate on both sides, but very encouraging that the superior argument won.

  2. Also, please correct me if I’m wrong about this, but it appears that after Anne’s first inter-jection with the phrase “point of information”, every other interjection by others was for some reason also prefaced with the same phrase, whether appropriate or not.

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