Steve Vivian - The Per Contra Interview with Bill Turner
With brute eloquence, Shakespeare reduced Richard III to a hunchbacked tyrant. Since then, historians have worked to sort the fact from fiction in our understanding of the king. As it turns out, he was not a saint, but he wasn’t nearly as bad as the most famous of English writers had described him. Richard III was a victim of political correctness in literature long before the term was coined.
Politics have always exerted influence on both language and the writers who use it. In some cases, recently and notoriously Soviet Russia, politics have dictated what words and what writers would have access to the eyes and minds of the people who read. Dissident views are often swept aside by the authoritarian impulse, both in non-fiction analyses and in the worlds created in the minds of imaginative storytellers.
How does political correctness affect what we read now?
Steve Vivian, a novelist and essayist, was born in Flint, Michigan and worked in that city’s auto factories to help pay for his education. He holds a Ph.D in English Studies with a concentration in cognitive linguistics. He has written about politics and literature and has worked to understand how the two currently interact. We’ve invited him to talk about the current state of literature in relation to politics and how political correctness influences what students read and what is being written.
BT - It would seem to make sense for us to first attempt to define, as precisely as possible, what political correctness is. Political correctness is one of those ideas that is frequently used as a utility phrase to describe everything from censorship to a pigeon-hole into which we can drop objections to a specific point of view about what should, or should not, be published or said. Others say that political correctness is nothing more than sensitivity. I am comfortable with a description that pegs political correctness as a construct; a systematic way of attempting to force, through pressure and/or censorship, writers and speakers to avoid specific ideas and theories that contradict or are unfavorable to a broad point of view. Do you agree with that definition? If not, how would you change or add to it?
SV - Yes, I agree with your description. As a practical matter, PC is a club used to intimidate, to browbeat, to punish. It’s used to bludgeon arguments and events that, somehow, don’t meet the exalted standards of the Establishment Left. We can take this observation just a bit further and see that PC is, like most Utopian politics, simultaneously a masturbatory fantasy and a brutal, bare-knuckle politics.
Before we turn to examples from literature and the arts generally, it’s useful to examine a blunt example of PC at work. The recent Duke “rape” case, in which a black stripper claimed to be raped by white members of the Duke lacrosse team, sheds a lot of light on PC. On the one hand, this incident was a gratifying fantasy for Establishment Leftists because it captured their obsession: the Holy Trinity of race/class/gender. An ad-hoc group of Duke humanities professors, predictably, demonstrated its “humanity” by publishing an incoherent manifesto (LINK) about the matter. The group, which dubbed itself the “Group of 88”, claimed that Duke was a disaster of: what else? Institutional racism and sexism. When the rape case collapsed and the DA had to withdraw charges, the self-righteous professors naturally refused to apologize and even claimed that they made no judgment of the accused. Let’s take a look at a direct quote from the manifesto:
“Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism, who see illuminated in this moment’s extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday. They know that it isn’t just Duke, it isn’t everybody, and it isn’t just individuals making this disaster.
But it is a disaster nonetheless. These students are shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman and to themselves.”
Note this phrase: “…whispering about what happened to this young woman and to themselves.” The Group eagerly assumed that the woman’s claims were true.
That the rape charges were dropped for lack of evidence is good news for the accused students, of course, but on the other hand, we can only imagine the abuse they suffered, not least because of the Group’s preening antics. That abuse illustrates the brutality of PC politics: the thrill of accusing others of sin; the venom of the attacks; the love of believing the absolute worst about the accused. And in the long run, it won’t matter for the PC clerics that zero evidence for the “rape” exists: the clerics had a golden opportunity to bask in their own self-praise and demonstrate that they, unlike the un-washed masses, are by some miracle free of any sexism, racism, etc., etc. The mere facts of the matter will be safely down the memory hole, and the exalted PC vision will be alive and well.
The Duke scandal throws into sharp relief all the liabilities of PC: Its knee-jerk morality, for example, and its apathy (and outright hostility) toward contrary evidence and logic. In that sense, PC has all the markings of a religion for people who aren’t religious in the typical sense. PC gives its followers a sense of superiority; it gives them a moral compass by which to praise themselves and to criticize others; and--crucially--it divides humans into the enlightened and the benighted, giving free license to the enlightened to find endless, gratifying fault in the benighted.
Now, in the case of literature, PC has reduced the study of literature to the study of grievance: literature is interrogated for evidence of oppression by race/class/gender (LINK). Despite all the tedious blather about “diversity” (LINK), contemporary literature criticism is directly opposed to literature’s diversity because any number of texts we can name will turn out to be examples of oppression by race/class/gender. No wonder so many students find literature classes to be stultifying experiences taught by self-serving prigs.
BT - Literature is absolutely rooted in its past, more so, I would suggest, than any other art form. Motion pictures altered the space in which an actor can work and gave screenwriters entire universes of special effects to use. Painting, sculpture and music have been altered by technological advances in materials and tools. A short story or poem is anchored to words and grammar that were used since writing became accessible to almost anyone. In many instances in the past, religious interests have fought to ban books that violated their senses of decency and morality. Some would argue that the practice is widespread to this day. On the other hand, I have also seen Mark Twain become something of a poster boy for a new “cultural revolution” that seeks to expunge writers from the literary canon for everything from racism to sexism. Do you see these trends? If so, what is the most egregious use of censorship with regard to literature both current and historic that is occurring today? How does that affect the growth and evolution of literature?
SV - You’re right to note that censorship of literature is practiced by both religious fundamentalists and PC fundamentalists. Literature – at least the best of it – is stubbornly individualistic, produced by writers who are devoted to producing an aesthetic experience that’s somehow unique: in characterization, perhaps, or in theme, or in quality and texture or prose. Your example of Mark Twain is on the money, as Huck Finn is still periodically the target for removal for classrooms and library bookshelves. What’s most remarkable about the story--its moving depiction of growing friendship between Huck and Jim--is passed over in silence, and the critics complain of the novel’s racial slurs. Of course, the term “African American” didn’t exist at the time Twain wrote the book, so he’s guilty of not using terms that didn’t exist.
I’m uncertain about how badly censorship harms literature’s growth and evolution. As I suggested earlier, many authors are stubborn enough to press forward and write as they please. In my view, the damage comes just as frequently from neglect as censorship. For example, it’s often easier for the PC crowd to simply ignore literature that displeases it: therefore, the incorrect literature never gets taught and students often never learn of its very existence. That’s hardly the case, of course, with Twain’s work, but Twain is famous enough--and valued by enough readers--to avoid such obscurity. That’s not the case for most authors.
Let me give you an example of this dynamic that’s not from literature, strictly speaking, but from non-fiction. Thomas Sowell’s work is a model of good writing: clear, based upon evidence, and not marred by dogmatism. It’s just the kind of work, for instance, that college undergraduates should read, as he invites us, in unpretentious language, to think a second time about PC dogma. Yet his work is very rarely taught on college campuses. Why? Certainly, one reason must be that he’s not PC. A second, closely related reason: he might inspire students to think for themselves, and this independence of thought is unacceptable to PC clerics.
And as far as finding non-PC novelists on the syllabi of prestigious English departments, this is very rare. Imagine finding Tom Wolfe in a literature class. It no doubt happens, but very rarely. And if we do find him (just as one example of a non-PC author) we can safely assume that the work will usually get a very grim working over.
In the long run, current literary criticism is simply reducing the number of people who enjoy reading literature. From time to time, the professoriate claim that their discipline is vital and growing, but this claim is merely self-delusion. A literature-loving student who blunders into a PC classroom will likely give up either on criticism, or literature, or both. What’s the pleasure of reading if by “reading” we simply mean subjecting literature to a self-regarding interrogation?
Defenders will say that this practices advances social justice. That’s bunk. Those most committed to social justice (and defining that term can be tricky, of course) are involved in work such as teaching poor kids how to read or solve algebra problems. Of course, there’s no professional prestige in that kind of work, so the faculty lounge leftists won’t dirty their hands. Rather than help teach a poor kid (or poor adult) how to use a computer, the faculty lounge leftist will return to fretting about the justification for empire in Shakespeare.
PC critics also claim that by “interrogating” the classic works of literature, they expose how these works help sustain the elite wealthy classes. This is another silly claim. For example: how does Hamlet help sustain Microsoft? How does it help vendors, such as Raytheon, earn contracts from the Pentagon? This is asinine on its face, but PC critics keep making the claim--always careful, of course, to cloud this claim in pseudo-profound jargon. If the claim were made more directly--or even better, if critics tried to support the claim with a coherent argument based upon specific examples--then claim would look like the silly conspiracy theory that it is. Literature is too complex, too nuanced, too diverse to support a specific ruling class.
That’s why, of course, that literature has always attracted enemies. In centuries past, the Christian church attacked literature; in our time, academic critics have interrogated literature to expose the sins of the author, the culture that produced the work, the readers who enjoyed the work, etc., etc. Moralists have always--and will continue to--seize upon literature because literature is produced by independent thinkers who respect their art to too much to produce work subservient to any (left or right) political orientation.