I’m teaching Argumentation to my students this unit, and one of the things I’m emphasizing is definitions of terms. In interest of that, I want to talk about this issue of “political correctness.” I discussed this on another blog, but the issues surrounding this election (specifically the recent racial tensions on Baylor’s campus, on which more later) force me to break my silence again.
Let me make one thing clear. One of the definitions of political correctness – which I suppose we could circumscribe as “mandated castration of vivid language to remove possibility of offense / dissent” – describes something truly vile, truly Stalinist. When language as such is “policed” for conformity to a state-defined ideal, then language has died. I could not agree more, and I oppose such silly coinages and “sanitation engineer” or “vertically challenged” as much as the next person. They’re patronizing and not seriously used by the interest groups they are supposed to flatter.
However, I feel that something else is at play. In the wake of Conservative punditry’s revolt against some of the sillier neologisms of the Left (and/or the academy – let’s talk about rhetoremes in homosocial discourse communities! Anyone?) and of the election of Barack Obama, heralded as a neo-Marxist jacquerie even by members of our own Senate, some individuals are using this heroic stance against “political correctness” as a justification for all sorts of xenophobic slurs. Uttering a non-politically-correct phrase becomes such a holy grail that pundits are now willing, from time to time, to simply throw (say) the entire population of the Middle East and North Africa under the culture-wars bus. “Barack Obama is a terrorist,” they say, crying “foul!” when somebody tries to tell them that dark skin and passing acquaintances with U of Chicago education professors does not a Fedayeen make. “Just look at the mandarins of PC trying to shut me up. Well, I’ll tell it like it is, blah blah blah …” No, you won’t. You’ll inflame the passions of the electorate on both sides, making it more and more difficult to reconcile after the dust has settled.
“Barack Obama is an Arab,” they ignorantly declare, only to be told “no. No ma’am. He’s a good family man.” The irony of that statement is intense, considering that values-focused white middle class “real Americans” have a divorce rate that dwarfs that of Arab nations. That’s not supposed to be a value judgment on the two cultures. It’s just ridiculous that “family man” is now the opposite of “Arab” in our culture. It really, truly alarms me how much the American mind has united “Arab” and “Muslim” with “terrorist.” It’s a hideous piece of xenophobia absolutely unworthy of polite discourse, the discourse of the “polis,” which is the ultimate root of that Political in Political Correctness. Speech that is gelded by thought police is one thing; speech that is decorous and apt for the agora is another thing entirely.
Americans, our “polis” is made up of a lot more than white-bread, bourgeois, mainline Protestant four-person families. Almost everyone I know drops out of these categories at some point. Some of you don’t like this; some of you (and I am addressing pundits here, because I’ve only heard this from them, not actual friends of mine) wish that this were otherwise, that immigration had been restricted to white Europeans because they accommodate to our “values” better. Check out the writings or statements of Tom Tancredo, Pat Buchanan, Rep. Virgil Goode, and others for this idea. It’s quite real. But listen: first of all, this is unjust because the Native Americans never got polled as to whether our Mayflower forbears adhered to their “values.” Second, this is manifestly ridiculous from a historical perspective: I think it’s safe to say that more than half of my readership is Catholic, and have you heard of the Know-Nothing party? They hated Catholic immigrants because guess what? They didn’t conform to American values (and were probably spies for Catholic monarchies to boot). But I’m willing to bet that you are glad to be living in the US now, and glad moreover that the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants have brought so much richness (and so many Cathedrals) to the cities of America. I certainly am. So: to push the boundaries of the debate to reflect skin color or some even more nebulous set of social memes, instead of religion, is madness. It’s a knee-jerk reaction of fear on the part of whites: fear that someday, somehow, they will no longer be the dominant voice of the American Polity. Well, I have news for you: cultures change. People move. Birth-rates adjust themselves. But if you really think you’re going to be ruled by some Black Panther Politburo or a revanchist Aztlan-themed Mexicocracy, you might just want to consider being a little nicer to your future masters. They may eat you second-to-last as a thank-you.
I think I just got onto a rant. Oops. Anyway, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re at least interested and will leave a comment. I honestly don’t think anybody I know thinks this way. If you happen to have written odious editorials, though, please take this to heart and think about the historical lunacy of your exclusivism. And please, everyone, don’t use the anti-PC mantle of Orwell to justify odious things. Right now Baylor students are using that very argument to justify the instigation of a shouting-match with African American students after the election. That’s not anti-PC; that’s horrible. Overtures toward our own mini-Kristallnacht. Please join me in speaking up against these backward ideas, and oppose the real Political Correctness, not the kind that just means being civilized.