For so long we’ve been told to use nice words. To Speakright. There is nothing wrong with the concept of political correctness – in fact, it had been designed to halt humiliating terminology which is a result of intolerance, prejudice and hatred. The concept is noble, the abuse of political correctness is less than praiseworthy.
While the idea of political correctness is not to offend – in fact at the core – not to be abusive, it had become offensive in some instances. “They” – a clique decided that it is offensive, that it is not OK to be “blind” and that people should rather be “visually impaired”, that people are not “victims” because it seems to be shameful, they are “targets” and “survivors”. The New Terminology is not at the request of those affected who are accepting of themselves, but a self-righteous group of people who are not in touch with the dark side of their own prejudices and think that, by renaming the sad things that can happen to real people or renaming a person’s state of being, their own prejudices would go away.
But despite political correctness, discrimination against minorities and the powerless, still flourish globally. We are not more civilised – in fact, we are slipping into anarchy and we are living in a violent world. And by this I do not say that real offensive words intended to be harmful and verbally abusive, should not be removed from our vocabulary – it is only when it offends those affected, that we should take note and consult the affected and change compassionately and in solidarity. What struck me, is that people who are at ease with themselves, in touch with themselves and accepting of all people, use the politically incorrect terms to refer to themselves. This has a wholesome ring to it.
If terminology or words are meant to be verbally abusive with the intent to hurt or humiliate, it is wrong and it is bullying. But do we accomplish anything by changing words and not attitudes? Have we become that shallow in our thinking?
The abuse of political correctness is in essence dishonesty and it ignores the consultative process and very often those who are affected (like the visually impaired), and because we are not at ease with the New Terminology, it is often the object of jokes – clearly indicating that political correctness causes tension within ourselves. It is in fact magnifying differences, mocking diversity and camouflaging prejudices and injustices in the process. Using words is no art – it takes nothing but your tongue to do it. Caring and compassion takes effort and calls for introspection. Attitude is everything – accepting people, their cultures, their beliefs, their preferences and dislikes as they present themselves, is a challenge. Honesty requires you to take a look at the dark side of your soul, enter into debate, and it requires you to change, to become more by firstly accepting yourself and then show unconditional tolerance towards others. To let people be, by whatever name. And most of whole it calls for psychological wholeness.
This brings me to an important point. Once I asked a question on whether any researchers in our academic work trauma discussion group picked up a link between workplace bullying and political correctness.
Prof Ken Westhues, the head of the Sociology Department of the University of Waterloo, Canada, responded:
My paper, “Postmodernism, political correctness, and the attacks of September 11,” is published in several places on the web; here’s one: http://www.safs.ca/academicfreedom/westhues.html The same site includes quite a good paper by Heinz Klatt, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario, entitled “Political Correctness as an Academic Discipline.” Here’s the URL: http://www.safs.ca/academicfreedom/klatt.html
Probably the majority of the academic mobbings I’ve studied over the past ten years were carried out by professors and administrators who saw themselves as paragons of ethical superiority, determined to cleanse their workplaces of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., and having a zero-tolerance attitude toward sundry kinds of misbehaviour. This self-conception of righteousness enabled them to inflict severe cruelty on their targets, while believing they were doing good. Here is my review of two novels that present case-studies of this sort of thing, Philip Roth’s Human Stain and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel: http://www.safs.ca/september2001/darkerforces.html Roth’s book is now a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, but I haven’t yet seen it. An excellent non-fiction case study of a mobbing at probably the most politically correct university in Canada is David Finley’s account of the firing and public humiliation of swim coach Liam Donnelly: http://www.fraserinstitute.ca/admin/books/files/Sexharr(v8).pdf The case backfired, a nice example of what Brian Martin calls the boomerang effect, and Donnelly eventually got his job back, while the university president lost his.
I hasten to add, however, that there are plenty of casualties on both (or all) sides of the culture wars. I was horrified and embarrassed in September of 2002, taking part in a conference on academic freedom at Medaille College in Buffalo, New York, that brought together prominent right-wing proponents of free speech like David Horowitz, Steve Balch, and Alan Kors, to discover that just a few months before, at that very college, two more or less left-wing professors had been summarily fired for turpitude, when they had done absolutely nothing wrong. So I’ve been writing about the Medaille College mobbings ever since, and the American Association of University Professors has just published a scathing denunciation of the Medaille administration.
I’ve found that in general, in North America, the AAUP and its Canadian counterpart (CAUT) have tended to support left-wing mobbing targets like those at Medaille, while organizations like NAS (National Association of Scholars) and FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) have tended to support right-wing mobbing targets. I’m glad to support organizations on both sides of the fence, in so far as they rescue professors who have been wrongly punished and smeared. The goal of the anti-mobbing and anti-bullying movement should be, in my view, that no worker at all be subjected to psychological terror, humiliation, and destruction, neither by the right nor by the left, but that we cultivate as best we can an ethic of live and let live, a culture of debate and dialogue. The mentality of looking for witches is the main thing we need to fight, so I believe.
For easy reference, Prof Westhues’ article is published below with references to websites where you will find more on the topic, should you want to read further:
Postmodernism, Political Correctness, and the attacks of 9/11
by Kenneth Westhues
Panel presentation at the Tenth Anniversary Meeting of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, University of Western Ontario, London, May 4, 2002.
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, I met my class of a hundred students in introductory sociology. I invited them to stand with me in a moment of silence for those who died. Then I ventured to comment on the attacks. Unsure of what to say, I nonetheless felt a duty, as many professors did, to try to help students make sense of the news.
Part of what I said was this: “Hey, students, there is a real world. It’s not all social construction. Yesterday, the World Trade Center’s twin towers were really there in New York. You could see them on the skyline. Today, they are gone, really gone. And some thousands of people who yesterday were alive and going about their business just as we are now-today they are dead, really dead, burned up or squashed. It’s not a matter of point of view. It’s a fact.”
Srange comments! Banal in any other time, not in ours. The key attribute of the cultural wave that has engulfed universities these past thirty years, the wave against which SAFS tries to be a seawall, is aversion to facts in favour of rightminded dreaming, the utopianism captured in John Lennon’s song, “Imagine all the people, living for today, … and the world will live as one.”
Imagining how things might or ought to be is an essential human ability. Affirming it is half of the secret of success of Western civilization, especially in its modern period. The other half is subjecting imagination to the discipline of how things are. Previous generations have brought us to present affluence not just by dreaming but by the hard, dialectical work of trying to reconcile dreams and realites-which is what reason, science, and industry are about.
In the postmodern movement of recent decades, imagination escaped the requisite discipline, as if empirical facts-natural, physical ones and social, historical ones-could be wished away. “Perspective,” so the TV ad for the Globe & Mail insists, “is everything”-as if, seen from the right angle, those planes did not really crash into the World Trade Center after all.
Orwell identified the postmodern, deconstructive, destructive cultural wave well before it washed over North America. O’Brien, the torturer in Nineteen Eighty-Four , lectures the man he is torturing: “You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. … But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth.” (p. 261)
We today honour Doreen Kimura for what the postmodern party has condemned her and other psychologists here at Western: for fidelity to the ethic of modernity in the face of sanctimonious dreaming about an absolutely egalitarian utopia, for insistence upon empirical realities-about individual differences, for instance, and collective differences by sex and race, in aptitude for various kinds of learning.
The September 11 attacks were a dramatic intrusion of the real world on postmodern goofiness. To assess their effect on the dominant cultural wave that SAFS has set itself against, it helps to recall what gave rise to the wave in the first place.
Modernity, in a way, fell victim to its own success. Science and industry enabled creation of a bubble of comfort in North America during the last third of the twentieth century, wherein intellectual and cultural elites (the so-called “new class”) have been unusually protected from objective realities.
1. Basic means of subsistence-food, clothing, shelter, things that preoccupied nearly all humans all of the time in past centuries-have been assured for this class, taken for granted for practical purposes. Supermarket shelves have been perennially well stocked. Not since the 1930s has physical privation been widespread.
2. Mortality has declined and longevity increased to the point that death need not, and does not, weigh upon human consciousness nearly as much as it used to.
3. On account of low death rates, effective contraception, legalized abortion, and the eagerness of people in premodern countries to immigrate to ours, the need to reproduce our species is but lightly felt in this new class, and the natural connection between sexual activity and parenthood is to a great extent broken.
4. Notwithstanding U.S. military campaigns in faraway places, the prospect of us being conquered and subjugated by a foreign enemy has not loomed in a serious way since the defeat of the Axis powers, an event which only senior citizens today can remember.
5. City life isolates most members of the new class not just from the elements and seasons, but from primary and secondary industry, which is increasingly even offshore. People eat beef their whole lives without seeing a calf slaughtered, much less butchering one themselves.
6. Layers upon layers of bureaucracy in universities, professions, granting agencies, and government ministries insulate academic departments and disciplines from the publics that ultimately foot the higher-education bill.
These are the main material conditions, the main separations of today’s intelligentsia from facts of life, that have permitted many scholarly groups to lose touch: to apologize for what our civilization has achieved, to sneer at scientific and technological advance, to treat risk as inimical to life, to accord equal value to societies where the infant mortality rate exceeds the literacy rate as to our own, to condemn dissenters from androgynous fantasies, and otherwise to undermine the society that accords them privilege. On the liberal-arts side of our campuses, where “progressive” thinking has reached its apogee, life often seems surreal, as if what Kors and Silverglate call the shadow university has displaced the real thing.
Today’s intellectual elites are like the princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, who rose sleepless and bruised from a night’s repose on a bed piled with twenty duvets on top of twenty mattresses, beneath which there was a single dried pea. A peasant girl, having worked all day in field and kitchen, could sleep soundly on a board. So could a girl exhausted by the embraces of a boy she loved and hoped would father in her a child. Andersen’s princess, marvelously self-absorbed in her bubble of emancipation from earthy realities, instead wailed that this single pea had caused her injury: “I am black and blue all over my body. It’s horrible.” The prince, in a display of equal lunacy, married her.
In universities, as in law and the media, where postmodern lunacies have most completely washed good sense away, the attacks of September 11 have had on the whole a salutary effect. They have sobered intellectual discourse, compelled attention to natural and social realities that can be ignored only at peril to our lives and the lives of our children.
Before the attacks, Sunera Thobani’s denunciation of America would have been little challenged in the press, probably little noticed, it being an oft-heard refrain. Instead Thobani herself was denounced in the media, even in Parliament. Al Qaeda’s war on America and America’s war on it, along with the war between Islamic terrorist organizations and Israel, have provoked the most vigorous debate about our civilization-what it means, which of its elements deserve defense and which ones not-at least since the Vietnam War. For the first time in decades, questions of good and evil are seriously raised, albeit more by journalists than academics.
Our challenge is to keep this debate going, freely and reasonably, and see it through to a revitalized Western culture. That will not be easy.
If large-scale terrorist attacks continue, if the Western world is further threatened by foreign enemies, we are likely to slip into the siege mentality reflected in President Bush’s statement that if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists. In a state of siege, dissent tends to be suppressed and debate stifled, social criticism of any kind being seen as disloyalty.
On the other hand, if the United States and its allies successfully neutralize our foreign enemies, the lively, healthy questioning of recent months may peter out in favour of return to the bubble, what Galbraith has called the culture of contentment.
So far as I can tell, incursions on the work of professors faithful to the modern project have abated not just since last September but over the past half dozen years. By my review of the data, witch hunts in the name of combatting sexism and racism peaked about 1994. Administrators since then have become less responsive to postmodern fanaticism, thanks in part to the threat of adverse publicity by organizations like SAFS, NAS, and FIRE. Administrators have become more responsive to business elites, which have little use for postmodernism, though not much more for the liberal arts.
The recent brand of political correctness is not yet a spent force, but like the NDP, its main party instrument in Canada, it is on the wane. It has been to some extent a generational phenomenon, a hobbyhorse of intellectuals now in their fifties and sixties. With luck, the coming generation can pick up the pieces out of the ruins of our arts faculties, and start rebuilding.
As I look at this younger generation, undergraduates in particular, I see fewer hang-ups over sex and race, an encouragingly realistic attitude toward life, and much readiness to work and learn about the natural and social realities from which their earlier education has in some cases shielded them. Best of all, in my efforts to teach these undergrads, I have observed a quality that might yet save us: a sense of irony and humour about this magnificent life we share.
Kenneth Westhues is a professor of sciology at the University of Waterloo.
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