Per Contra

Summer 2007




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Politically Correct?

Steve Vivian - The Per Contra Interview with Bill Turner



BT - We have noted that the English language has been harmed by ideologies and political forces.  For instance, the word “war” can be used to describe a fight against radicals and terrorists, a community program to reduce obesity, a government attempt to prevent the importation of controlled substances, an effort to eradicate poverty and in many other ways.  Political correctness appeals to an authoritarian impulse to control language and ideas.  Do you think that at present, political correctness has a deleterious effect on the English language?  If so, what are the dangers associated with this effect?    


SV - PC certainly does harm language, first and foremost because so many intellectuals engage in a reflexive self-editing and even self-censorship. So, the fumbling for the “correct” word or “correct” phrase soon leads to something more serious than observing proper table manners: the prohibition of incorrect thought and interpretation. To take a literary example: what might Shakespeare’s sonnets teach us? The first thing we note, if we read them carefully, is that those sonnets written centuries ago are still hot to the touch. They burn. And what’s the cause of that burn? For starters, Shakespeare’s demonstration that love must be taken very, very seriously, or all kinds of pain can be suffered. Now, that’s a pretty obvious interpretation of many of the sonnets, especially those about the dark-haired lady, whoever she may be. But even that obvious interpretation might violate the principles of PC, which often argues for a “liberated”, “non-traditional” view of passion. From that PC position, we see the hangover of so-called “free love”, the idea that love should not be tainted by guilt, by patriarchy, by control, etc. But we see today the consequences of “free love”: single impoverished mothers with children whose father has abandoned them; the fathers, after all, have a “non-traditional” view of love that’s blissfully free of any notions of guilt and patriarchy.


From that example of merely interpreting a sonnet, we can generalize: PC has a standard set of terms, starting off with the race/class/gender holy trinity. Approaching literature from a different perspective that used to be called a “humanist” perspective, for instance, requires a different set of terms. We have to use different words to engage in a different perspective. And right at that point of using different words, the self-editing and self-censorship commences. Imagine a student today, perhaps even a young woman, finding value in chivalry in Chaucer or the medieval romances. A PC professor would be aghast at the student even using the very word “chivalry” except to interrogate it as a tool of patriarchy.


Now, let me stress this point: I’m not insisting that the young woman must find merit in Chaucer’s’ depictions of chivalry. I am insisting that she be free to do so if she can find the textual evidence to make the claim, just as a student should be free to find lessons about love in Shakespeare’s sonnets, even if those lessons offend PC sensibilities.


BT - It seems that the best stories are polished in their style, but the underlying emotions are raw and real.  Do you see political correctness as a method of forcing self-censorship?  Have you spoken with writers who feel pressure to edit potentially offensive works in the interest of seeing them published?  


SV - I’ve not spoken personally to such writers.  I don’t know many writers, I have to admit! But certainly those writers are out there, although we may never get to know them very well because their work might not even be published. I know of one writer whose novel was close to publication at a major publishing house. The novel’s protagonist, by the way, was Chinese, and it happens that the author of the novel has spent considerable time in China and knows it far better than most Americans. However, one member of the editorial staff at the publishing house found fault with the novel’s treatment of the protagonist and the depiction of Chinese culture. In short, it wasn’t a PC stereotype. The staff member knew, by any measure, far less about Chinese culture than the author. But that’s irrelevant. PC is all about attitude, not knowledge or competence. By the way, given the politics of publishing (especially in New York publishing), I refuse to identify the author, as the author might one day submit more work to major publishing houses, and I don’t want the author to suffer any PC fallout. This is not mere paranoia on my part; PC politics can be alarmingly vindictive.


Some authors go to extraordinary lengths to get published. For instance, Wanda Koolmatrie is an Aboriginal author living in Australia. Her novel My Own Sweet Time was published to huge acclaim in 1995. One reviewer, a certain Dorothy Hewett, "This is the lively, gutsy story of an urban Aboriginal girl making it in the tough city counterculture of the mid-'60s. This heartwarming comic odyssey cries out for a sequel. It could be the start of a new genre.” A new genre! Pretty heady stuff.


But there was a problem: Wanda Koolmatrie did not exist. She was fabricated by Leon Carmen, a white Australian living in Sydney. Mr. Carmen took his lumps, of course, but what’s most interesting here is the eruption of praise the My Own Sweet Time inspired. Critics fell all over each other to praise it. The critics were suckered by PC Identity Politics, and the critics deserve a good measure of ridicule as well. Now, just as a footnote, we can wonder: why would the critics be upset? After all, high-brow literary criticism tells us that identity is socially constructed and radically contingent--that is, unless, you’re Leon Carmen. 



BT - Which ideologies have most employed political correctness to advance their points of view in literature and why do you believe they have been successful?


SV - PC is, for the most part, a tool of collectivist ideologies. Despite the empty genuflections toward diversity, PC is hostile toward the individual, or rather, a certain type of individual, one we might call “libertarian” or even “conservative”. I must immediately add that PC’s logic here is very crude. In the meat-grinder of progressive literary criticism, individuality is ground out and what’s left is politically correct stereotypes (LINK).


Certainly, we can see a very clear connection between PC literary criticism and the Soviet Union’s socialist realism. Just like PC’s phony praise of “diversity”, socialist realism had no interest in realism. It was simply a Soviet policy that directed writers (and artists, generally) to toe the party line. Of course, Stalin had all kinds of tools at his disposal to enforce that party line: the gulag, the show trial, the bullet in the skull. It’s impossible to calculate how much artistic talent was destroyed by socialist realism; we do know that thousands were liquated for violating its principles. Of course, some careerists prospered under it by producing lousy work that praised Papa Joe.


Obviously, today in the West we have nothing remotely close to socialist realism. Nor am I claiming that present today PC is nearly as bloodthirsty. It’s not. However, today’s PC does have a prominent authoritarian streak, one that works hard to enforce the party line. Writers aren’t shot in the head for violating PC literary criticism; instead, their novel will be rejected, their portfolio of creative work will be dismissed, or their tenure will be denied. And in many college classrooms, their essay will be torn apart.


Another link between socialist realism and PC is the hostility toward Western culture. It’s a commonplace in PC (and Marxism, naturally) that Western culture is exploitive; that it marginalizes minorities; that it oppresses the poor and women , etc. Now, from one perspective, we can say there’s some truth in that position. But let’s push matters further:  we could make the same claim of any and all cultures throughout history. The real question is this: among the available economic and political systems that exist now (and have existed in the past), which systems have been better for minorities? Which systems have been better for women? Which systems have offered better opportunities to the impoverished? Despite its deeply imperfect score card, there’s only one answer: Western culture and the modern day democratic governments it’s produced. Why? Because Western culture is strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, and it’s therefore more hospitable to reason and the freedom to think for oneself. Is it perfect? Obviously not. It’s simply better than other systems because it grants us more freedoms. And ultimately, it’s those freedoms that really offend the PC critics. PC critics believe themselves to be more enlightened than the unwashed masses, and therefore they are, according to their own view, perfectly qualified to scold, to dictate, to lecture, to shun and to shame. And much to the irritation of the politically correct, real individuals don’t simply roll over and submit to the greater wisdom of the clerics.


You asked about how successful PC criticism has been in advancing its ideology. The short answer: very successful. Look at today’s prestige English departments: they are proudly and rigidly politically correct. All the current clichés are there: multi-culturalism is big of course, as well as the familiar race/class/gender approaches. Marxism is still big, as is a caricatured version of Freud.


The best measure of PC success is illustrated by Fredric Jameson (LINK), the most influential critic in literary studies. Nobody else really comes to close to his prestige today. He’s currently at Duke, and he’s had a long and very successful career. He hit the critical zenith in the 1990’s with books such as Signatures of the Visible, Late Marxism, and Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Space considerations (and mercy for Per Contra’s readers) prevent me from discussing any of these works in detail, so I’ll restrict myself to a couple points. First, note the oh-so-trendy titles of the books in question. They are so trendy as to verge on self-parody. They promise Big Ideas.


However, what’s far more important than trendy titles is the substance of Jameson’s work. And when we read Jameson’s work, we see all the weaknesses of politically correct criticism. Even by the standards of PC, Jameson’s work is astonishingly narrow. It’s really hard to read Jameson’s work with a straight face. Some quick examples: what do the movies Jaws and The Godfather have in common? They’re both studies in dehumanizing corporate culture.  What else? And Franz Kafka? His work, too, is dehumanizing corporate culture too. As Jameson himself writes: Kafka is important because in his work “an old fashioned-juridical and bureaucratic paranoia enters the empty workweek of the corporate age and makes something at least happen!”


Capitalism is obviously a worthy subject of critique; that point isn’t in dispute. The important point is that, for Jameson, capitalism’s withering effects on humanity are always the most important subject matter of literature. Obviously, such a crude approach to reading sheds little light upon a text…instead, it sheds light on Jameson’s own obsessions. We see the same patterns in PC criticism generally; I use Jameson to illustrate this tendency because he’s such a well-established, highly praised critic.


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