Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Political Correctness

Recently, they’ve been talking at the Pagan Temple about political correctness and whether or not the term has become something of a canard- a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. There is something to this; to me, political correctness seems terribly retro, something from the late 80s or early 90s, along with Nirvana and the Ben Stiller Show. People still seem to talk about it a lot, but I can’t remember the last time I had a run-in with a genuine PC lefty. In 1992, it was a weekly occurrence for me.

I’ve heard it said that the term “political correctness” is unfair because it evokes the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the PC college kids weren’t looking to go that far. But, people forget that “political correctness” was initially the term that those kids used to describe themselves- it was their ideal, and as hard as this is to imagine today, they were looking to evoke the Cultural Revolution as a sign of how radical they were.

The 70s and 80s were strange that way. When you read old lefty magazines from the era, it’s astounding how radical some people were. You can sense this frustration and anger at the end of the Age of Aquarius turning in on itself and curdling. This is the time when you get the real “up against the wall motherfuckers!” madness and intensity without the peace and love element. A lot of it is depressing. I’ve said before that when you survey the art from punk rock to the Night Porter, you get the feeling that the 70s were as nihilistic as we ever got.

Political movements spend most of their energy and time justifying their own existence. Actually, so do governments. What this means is that they all tend to be good at recognizing problems- some real and many not, and then suggesting solutions to those problems that only they can put into effect. As a general rule, they are right about the problems perhaps 20% of the time, and never right about the solutions.

Racism is a real problem in America. Being a cracker, I tend to forget this. And then, suddenly, one of my casual relations will say something scaldingly racist to me, because after all, we're both crackers, so I must get it, and then usually follow this with: "I mean, I just hate that PC shit!" and I'll think to myself: "Racism? You're still around?" And so it is. Like my relative who won't eat food if she thinks a black person prepared it. It's just so bizarre and surreal. Racism is like the 'flat-earth movement'; it's just so stupid and insane that you can't believe anyone buys into it. But, alas, it's the visitor who never leaves.

The political correctness movement was a product of the 80s, and was an even more bizarre solution to a really bizarre problem. I’ve never understood the idea of “empowering” people by treating them like fragile little children who can’t hear a disparaging word. In a country as vulgar and alive as America, it’s hard to imagine that political correctness could have a long shelf life. We don’t like being told what we can and can’t say. The idea of liberation through speech codes is pretty anathema to us.

And lo and behold, you don’t run into PC kids anymore, outside of Berkeley. At our university, being called PC is the kiss of death. So, the kids try to be as politically incorrect as they can. But, since they’re all trying to be crude, they have to go pretty far to shock anyone. When you have Axe Deodorant ads plastered all over your school that bash on single girls to sell their product, totally unquestioned by the student body, it’s hard to actually stand out as sexist. I’ll see kids make rape jokes and think ‘Just give up!’

The lefties at all four of the universities I’ve attended pretty much tried to be as crude as possible. This is actually appropriate in a way; the sixties lefties pretty much pioneered cultural crudeness. But, it’s also boring after a while. When you’re all watching South Park, what envelopes are left to push? And hasn't affectless disinterest been trendy for long enough?

At our university, the real crybabies aren’t the leftists anyway. When one of our World Civ. professors mentioned last year in class that the ancient Greeks were pretty accepting of homosexuality, half of the students left the auditorium, deeply offended at the mention of an ‘immoral lifestyle’. When the professor I taught for would discuss women’s history in class, several students would complain to me about it in recitations and call her a 'bitch'. When one of our professors talked about the Holocaust two years back, a political organization that monitors our campus for anti-Israel content decided that she hadn’t spent enough time on the subject and slandered her as ‘anti-Semitic” in the city paper. This in spite of the fact that she supports Israel’s right to statehood, and is, in fact, both Jewish and Israeli. Turned out the group was unaware of that. And let’s not get started on the campaign to get people here to say “Merry Christmas!” every year so as not to offend the Christians.

So, we’re through the looking glass. Now the lefties have shut up and the conservatives are the crybabies who need special protection. Wowee! What an improvement! For a while, I thought that we should call these people “Religiously Correct” or “RC”, but then I realized that they’re not particularly religious. And like the PC Nazis of old, they pretty much aren’t political either- they’re just hung up on trying to make other people do what they want. So, why not just call them what they are: PC zealots.


The Pagan Temple said...

Like I always say, the Right have always in their own way been as politically correct as the Left, they just have their own peculiar brand of it, and it's every bit as annoying.

Jae said...

Really enjoyed the article. Will have to keep up with your blog!

Rufus said...

Jae, thanks so much. You've got an interesting blog there too.

Pagan, they're pretty much the flipside of each other anymore, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

I disagree categorically with the post. PC is more alive than ever. Just look at the content and discussion of all academic materials, which is focused on gender and race, the key cards of political correctness. To question the assumptions within the arguments of modern humanities literature means instant death in the academy. When there is an imbalance between arguments (i.e. you can call someone a racist but they cannot call you a non racist without being outcasted by a group), the side of the argument with all of the power (i.e. the people calling one a racist) clearly should be labeled, which in this case a good name is political correctness. PC is alive: Look at Summer's at Harvard; he was fired for his non pc questions. Try and sit in your graduate class and question the scholarship of women or race without accepting their main ideas, or what the teacher thinks of them (dependent upon their ethnicity, sex, etc.); see what grades you get then.

Rufus said...

See, what's strange about comments like this is that I do, in fact, sit in graduate seminars and question the content on race and gender. And I do, generally, get the highest possible marks, in spite of the fact that I do this, or perhaps because of the fact that I do this. And, I'm sorry, but the "instant death in the academy" line is just empty hyperbole. In our department, we have at least four openly conservative scholars. As one of them has made tenure, and another is actually reaching retirement age, and they are 'loud & proud' about their political affiliations, I can't see how this has ended their careers, or how my cultural conservatism, which winds up in half of my essays, is hurting mine. Last semester, I wrote a 35 page essay which, extensively critiqued the pedagogical methods of Western Liberalism from Rousseau to the modern academy, and got an "A+" for said essay. I've questioned race theory several times, and feminist theory more times, and done so in a fairly strident way. And I'm still here. As are the more traditional conservatives that I've known in the academy.

As for Summers, rewarding the man who defrauded the government and provoked the largest lawsuit ever against Harvard with a chair makes Summers look like an idiot, if not corrupt. Did they overreact? Absolutely. Was it motivated solely by political correctness? Well, probably not. And does this event justify making categorical statements about the academy? Absolutely not. Since you didn't sign your name, I have no idea if you are in academia. But, in seven years at four different universities, I have seen nothing that can remotely justify the shopwarn cliches that you have posted here.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry for not posting a name, the nature of my graduate program does not allow me to. But, I am at a very top PhD program in the humanities, and I have seen and experencied the power of pc all to often. I am happy to hear that your program is so tolerant and open. Maybe political science is a little better than American Studies, English, and history, because I have seen stellar students write excellent disserations, never to land a job, because they offended hiring committees with their disseration topic. Or like myself and my friends, we get all of our pc work published and accepted at conferences with ease, and anything non pc doesn't get past the editor of the journal or into the conference. I would impress upon you not to characterize your experiences as the rule, but more of a particular atmosphere cultivated at your program. For example, when they poll Harvard and Princeton, the overwhelming majority (90%+) are democrats. While I am neither a dem. nor a rep., hiring committess obviously just don't hire those who don't fit their agenda. There have been studies on the publication rates of republicans, which show that they indeed are high, but the tenure rate is much lower than dems. To deny the pc nature of the academy, I believe, is absurd. Nearly every person doing a disseration in the department is doing it from a 'liberal' perspective, i.e. looking at history through the lens of cultural studies, subjectvism, feminism, etc. This is because the admissions committee picks them, not necessarily because they have higher GRE scores. In fact, the most pc disseration writers usually had the lower scores, but their politics carried them in. Maybe, as I said earlier, political science departments are a little more ideologically open to different interpretations. Also, the higher the prestige of the school, it seems, the more ideologically bent they are. But maybe you are at a top program where they emphasis diversity of thought actually, and not just in rhetoric. I guess some programs like Chicago or Hopkins have more of a conservative bent I hear, which might be the case where you are at.

I do enjoy reading your spirit of argumentation, however. But, you must admit, you are one of the few people who don't see the bias inherent in the liberal arts sections of colleges. And by the way, I do not like Horowitz's manhunt, which I believe is more neo-con than truely free speech or free thought, and so I am not coming from a Fox New right perspective. Maybe your classical conservatism has more acceptance from political sci people, I don't know.

Good debate, mate.

Rufus said...

I'm not entirely sure that we're not talking about two different things anyway. What I would like to see isn't an academy that has x% of conservatives or liberals, but one in which people's politics wouldn't affect how they do research, which seems to be your experience.

But, I think you're talking about two different things as if they were one. The sort of behavior that you've encountered sounds very unprofessional and should absolutely be countered. But, you can't conflate that with voting Democrat. If 90% of professors vote Democrat that doesn't mean that 90% of them block the tenure of conservatives or preach their politics in the classroom or whatever. In my experience, about 90% of cops vote Republican, but that doesn't mean that 90% of them will pull over any car with a Kerry bumper sticker.

And it seems like a better idea to oppose unprofessional behavior than to worry about what political party people vote for. At William & Mary we had plenty of liberal professors, but our standards for professional behavior were, I would think, higher than they seem to be at UC Berkeley or Brigham Young. I guess what I'm saying is that 90% Democrat at Evergreen University is probably very different than 90% Democrat at Chicago. Besides, ideally, a scholar will do their research and hang back from the politics of society. When I say that my work is culturally conservative, that might be misleading. Usually, I think it's pretty hard to pin me down on those things. But, I guess I'm more of the sort that finds Proust to be the greatest novelist of all time, more than the sort that would find him to be racist or whatever.

Anonymous said...

I think we've hit on an agreement of points. Yes, it is unprofessional to let ones political bias affect their relationship with students and faculty, if not their work as well (but our views mold everything we do). But let me scrounge up the report about conservative scholars and tenure, because I think that it does show that there is indeed some bias in the academy's tenure system, at least at some schools. Schools do not have almost entirely one political view across the entire staff because it is the pure truth, but more because they work as a group, often unaware, to pick people who are more like them. I'll get back to this. And by the way, I like Rudyard Kipling for the same reason you like Proust--great novelists write with their age, not with the anacronistic views of a few scholars from the future.