Tag Archives: language

“Political correctness”: decoding a vicious, pernicious code word

I always cringe when I hear the phrase “political correctness” being used. It’s a deeply coded phrase, and what it encodes is a stubborn, neoconservative cultural politics, a politics of entitlement and disrespect. And yet that politics is so deeply coded that one encounters the phrase being used by people who should know better; and maybe they will learn to avoid the phrase, if they take the time to get caught up on its context and complexity. If I never see it being taken out and waved around in public discourse again, it will be too soon.

In the late 1980s and ’90s, North American academia – and the Humanities and social sciences sector more specifically – found itself in a war of words and policies not only among its own stakeholders, but also with policymakers, and with corporate news media – which, let’s remember, held far more cultural and discursive sway then, before the popularization of the Internet in the mid-’90s. This encounter became known as the “Culture Wars.” In his critical retrospective, Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars, U of Guelph Professor Emeritus Michael Keefer describes the Culture Wars as “a widespread perception of crisis in North American higher education, a perception stemming largely from the outcries over ‘political correctness’ in American and Canadian universities that began in the late 1980s” and continued until the mid-1990s (Keefer vi). Understood in retrospect as a “moral panic” created and fueled by neoconservative ideologues (e.g. Rush Limbaugh, George F. Will, Allan Bloom) to justify the defunding and privatizing of the Humanities and social sciences, the “PC furore” revolved around the coded buzzword “political correctness.”

“Political correctness” remains in use today, usually as a pejorative term that neoconservatives use to ridicule or criticize progressive or left-leaning events or persons, to conjure moral panic over freedom of speech, or to otherwise vilify criticism of inappropriate or untenable claims. Take this Maclean’s article from last year, for instance, which uses the phrase to dismiss the UN’s quite legitimate critique of Canada’s policy language of “visible minorities.”

One of the usual suspects

The phrase also gets an annual dusting-off during the holiday season in neoconservative news media reports of a purported “war on Christmas.” The phrase has nothing like the traction it had in the early 1990s – when you couldn’t swing a black and smoking Christmas tree without hitting some old white fart brandishing a new book denouncing the censorious menace of “PC” – but it has persisted, viciously and perniciously, in everyday speech, popular culture, and public discourse. “Political correctness” is still a card quickly played by conservative or otherwise privileged voices who complain of being “censored” – not just the usual rightwing media suspects, but also a curious and tenacious class of strident yet paranoid academics whose definitions of political correctness – as some kind of discursive “tyranny,” or liberal conspiracy, or “threat” to academic freedom – have helped establish the phrase as a rhetorical stick with which to beat progressive intellectuals. Or intellectuals generally, for that matter. I’m not linking to any such definitions or diatribes. Google “political correctness” if you want, and then take in the lunacy of even just the first page of results. But I will stoop to briefly administer some undeserved oxygen of publicity to a recent example in peer-reviewed scholarship – on account of its windy bombast, and its startling success in finding refereed publication some twenty years after this party more or less ended:

One of the abominations of our day, and there are many, is the beast of political correctness that has been turned loose on the world. Born of genuine humanitarian impulses, it now threatens to devour much of what is greatest in our literature and forever separate the children of our culture from what is essential to their humanity. (272)

Whoa, this opener makes PC sound like a Monsanto product. Actually, in this particular article, this chimerical “beast” threatens to suggest that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a racist text, instead of just a “beautifully written” one that “should still be read” (278) – as though analyzing the book’s racism somehow means we shouldn’t, or haven’t.

But – its purported “beastliness” and “tyranny” aside – what does the phrase actually mean, as a phrase so cherished and widespread in neoconservative usage? “For the sake of reporters and columnists who might want to come clean and openly mock the virtues that would otherwise remain hidden by the PC label,” Keefer directs our attention to Wayne Booth’s “list of synonyms for political correctness”:

(1) decency; (2) legality; (3) moral or ethical standards; (4) justice, fairness, equality of opportunity; (5) tact, courtesy, concern about hurting people’s feelings unnecessarily; (6) generosity; (7) kindness; (8) courage in defending the underdog; (9) anti-bigotry; (10) anti-racism; (11) anti-anti-Semitism; (12) anti-fascism; (13) anti-sexism; (14) refusal to kneel to mammon; (15) sympathetic support for the jobless, the homeless, the impoverished, or the abused; (16) preservation of an environment in which human life might survive; (17) openness to the possibility that certain popular right-wing dogmas just might be erroneous. (qtd. in Keefer 11)

More plain-spoken versions of this definition appear as ripostes to a diatribe against political correctness that was published (unsurprisingly enough) on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website:

“Political Correctness” – Buzzword used to express the absurd notion that the majority is being dominated by the minorities. (foundationist)

Political correctness is formalised good manners. It has been a benefit to society. Before it became influential it was common to see overt racism, sexism, homophobia, jokes about the disabled and so on. Fortunately a culture of respect for diversity developed and with it a culture of disrespect for rudeness – political correctness. … The term ‘political correctness’ can be used as a verbal weapon by those who want to do extreme things, things which would attack equality and human rights. When others complain, the response ‘that’s just political correctness’ is supposed to be a conversation stopper, because political correctness is supposed to be wrong. Complaining about political correctness is as absurd as complaining about good manners. The response ‘that’s just political correctness’ usually translates as ‘that’s just being polite’. (Zara)

In other words, “political correctness” is a nasty way to describe talking nicely, as though talking nicely is nasty. This rhetorical duplicity, coupled with the privileged, dominant positions from which pronouncements on political correctness typically come, has made the phrase “political correctness” slippery, robust, and insidious. The phrase thus provides a present-day example of “political speech and writing” as “the defense of the indefensible,” as criticized by George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English language.” The phrase “political correctness” is a perfect example of a phrase whose cryptic complexity lets it smuggle into one’s speech or writing a formidable freight of covert (and perhaps, sometimes, unintended) meanings that can detract from or even derail the point of a statement in which it’s used, when it’s not being openly used to justify oppression.

Amidst the flame wars, troll rampages, and other hostilities that attend a digital mediascape much more populous and interactive than it was in the mid-1990s, it is a tragedy of English vocabulary and public discourse that one of the main progressive take-away points from the “political correctness” furore – that we be courteous, thoughtful, sensitive, inclusive, and above all respectful in our language – has been lost, body-snatched by a sneaky and vicious code word for the privileged, entitled, and bigoted to claim not only license but even moral high ground for their vituperative sound and fury.

Works cited

Booth, Wayne. “A politically correct letter to the newspaper.” Democratic Culture 3.1 (1994): 2.

Curtler, Hugh Mercer. “Political correctness and the attack on great literature.” Modern Age 51.3-4 (2009): 272-79.

Derry, Alex. “Political correctness gone mad?” Maclean’s 10 Aug. 2011

foundationist. Comment 2 re: “A challenge to the politically correct.” Richard Dawkins Foundation. 20 Apr. 2011

Keefer, Michael. Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars. Toronto: Anansi, 1996. Print.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Horizon Apr. 1946. Rpt. in Stanford U. Web.

Zara, Steve. Comment 4 re: “A challenge to the politically correct.” Richard Dawkins Foundation. 20 Apr. 2011

Shibboleths in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

Here’s the list of words I had to look up while reading Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road. It’s a post-apocalyptic fiction, and I think the abundance of obscure words like these (well, they’re obscure to me) represents an element of the novel’s style, a reflection on both the precarity of representation and the compulsion to preserve it for an uncertain posterity — through and after the imagined end of representation as such. Many of these words read as shibboleths — obscure, antiquated, out-of-use words — and their use in The Road mirrors their use in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, in which the protagonist tries to recall and preserve English words for a radically post-human future. The difference is that while Atwood’s protagonist explicitly reflects on his archiving and on the fate of representation, McCarthy’s differently focalized narrative simply includes them, unremarked, so that they are left to stand and signify what they will, or won’t, like the numerous other emptied relics that litter The Road‘s wasted landscape. The effect is to put the reader in the protagonist’s shoes, reading one stark monochromatic field after another, in search of meaning, signs of life.

bollard, n.
breakfront, n.
catamite, n.
chary, adj.
chert, n.
chifforobe, n.
claggy, adj.
clerestory, adj.
collet, n.
cognate, n.
crozzled, adj.
dentil, adj.
discalced, adj.
dolmen, adj.
duff, n.
entabled, adj.
fescue, n.
godspoke, adj.
hydroptic, adj.
intestate, adj.
isocline, n.
isthmus, n.
kerf, n.
krugerrand, n.
lampblack, n.
lave, v.
loess, n.
paling, n.
palisade, n.
pampooties, n. pl.
piedmont, n.
pipeclayed, adj.
quoits, n.
rachitic, adj.
salitter, n.
scarpbolt, n.
siwash, adj.
sleaving, n.
sloe, n.
slutlamp, n.
stanchion, n.
tang, n.
torsional, adj.
travois, n.
vermiculate, adj.
wimple, v.
woad, n.

Fighting words for crapitalist democrazy

This whole notion of running a government like a business — a business is the least democratic institution — the government is supposed to look after the welfare of people.
Dionne Brand, in interview with Ashante Infantry

Do we need a plainer-speaking critical language to mobilize against fight the new feudalism?

1. “The New Dumb”

I recently read a series of shrewd, sharp blog postings by Tobias Van Veen, posts that try to make sense of — and resist — emerging social and political trends like “the rise of the New Dumb,” “cultural fascism,” and the corporate mobilization of proudly uninformed groups and movements to destroy democracy: “Moloch’s multitude,” he calls it. This last point is a common theme in these posts:

The supercorporate state is on the move, and it appears to be using the angry multitude to do its dirty work — which is nothing less than to undermine democratic governance itself. Is such an entity a new form of the State? Not really; it is more or less an agglomerate of competing and disorganised interests who are nonetheless aiming in a similar direction: the destruction of the democratic sphere. We are entering a feudal, warring period on an international scale.

These posts make for some dread and dire reading; check out their tags: cryptofascism, Weimarization. This last comes courtesy of Chris Hedges; Van Veen notes a recent interview Hedges gave CBC Radio’s The Current:

Hedges contends that we are now entering the “Weimarization” of the United States, ending his interview (somewhat to the shock of Tremonti [The Current‘s host]) with the contention that we stand at the bring of the complete downfall of the United States of America.

Hedges has sounded this kind of alarm before — on a global scale.

2. “Inverted Totalitarianism”

In March he posted an essay called “We Stand on the Cusp of one of Humanity’s Most Dangerous Moments”: it’s a terrifying and inspiring call to action, well worth reading. “We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” Hedges places the blame for our present precarity squarely on the increasingly unregulated rule and rampage of corporate capital and the fascist politics it has produced:

Our democratic system has been transformed into what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin labels inverted totalitarianism. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, a free press, parliamentary systems and constitutions while manipulating and corrupting internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. […] The free market’s assumption that nature and human beings are objects whose worth is determined by the market allows each to be exploited for profit until exhaustion or collapse. A society that no longer recognizes that nature and human life have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic value beyond monetary value, commits collective suicide. Such societies cannibalize themselves until they die. This is what we are undergoing.

I’ll let you read on to find out where the inspiring bits are in this impassioned yet deeply reasoned essay, one that at times resonates with the ominous tone of Old Testament prophecy.

I’ve quoted at length from Van Veen and Hedges because I’m struck by their forceful but different uses of language. Van Veen, a philosopher, makes learned and esoteric references, and works with some of the most complex philosophy going (the inescapable but infinitely productive Deleuze and Guattari, for example). But he also makes biblical allusions (like Moloch, which I guess is also a beat-poet allusion now), and, after the fashion of major continental theorists, coins his share of portmanteaus and neologisms. That is, mashed-up or made-up words. Like “cryptofascism” (which could be someone else’s, I don’t know). Or, more plainly, “supercorporate nonstate.” Or, plainer still, “the New Dumb”: a great phrase for the kind of politics Van Veen sees as common to Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, and to the alarmingly fast-growing Tea Party thing in the USA.

Hedges has done his homework too, but tends to use more consistently plain-speaking language. I’ve quoted his discussion of “inverted totalitarianism” because it’s a bit of an exception to the plain-speaking rule. But “totalitarian” has proven a useful enough ingredient in coinages minted by some of the New Dumb’s heaviest hitters: remember George W. Bush’s “tomatolitarian Islamofascism”? It would sound positively academicalistic, a neologism to rank alongside différance or biopolitics — if it weren’t just so much nonsensical bullshit racist propaganda.

Otherwise, Hedges tends to stick to plain-speaking language, using words like corrupt, thwart, and cannibalize to sketch our apocalyptic present and its abysmal future. (Not to mention his inclusive, collectivizing use of “we” and “our” — a tactic to involve the reader, to “invoke the You,” as Constance Rooke liked to say.)

3. The Aristocrats

The simple, forceful language in these posts reminds me of an earlier essay, Phil Agre’s 2004 “What is conservatism and what is wrong with it?” It’s a stridently partisan essay, written specifically to intervene in the election that ultimately gave Dubya his second term: “Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century,” Agre writes. “In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it?” Agre’s answers to these are pointedly plain:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

The essay goes on to support these points in great detail. What I like here is his opening tactic of simply re-defining “conservatism,” by calling it out for what it is, now: “aristocratic rule.”

4. Counter-hegemony

So what other words need to be re-defined, to help not just scholars but the public (whatever that is, now) apprehend understand the present state of emergency? What these readings and reflections lead me to wonder is whether those of us working in progressive-to-radical criticism, commentary, research, scholarship, and/or praxis could gain firmer purchase get more traction in the public sphere (or whatever it has become) by deploying a plainer-speaking, common language of critique. This idea should not at all be misunderstood as some “revolt against theory,” as a caricature-communist purging of the “ivory towers,” or as some other kind of anti-intellectual rant. I’m thinking of something more in the line of bell hooks’ “Theory as liberatory practice”: a carefully crafted, deeply nuanced, and widely influential essay on “theory,” its complexities, and the urgent necessity of translating its insights and applications into tools for everyday people. An essay that gave us what Len Findlay calls (in an essay I’ll cite when I recall it) “the wonderfully plain-speaking portmanteau”: “white capitalist patriarchy” (hooks 71). Findlay himself is another public intellectual worth considering in this connection: a trenchant, eloquent defender of rhetorical sophistication and critical rigour, whose essays and extemporized remarks combine vast learning and reflective reasoning with radical politics — as well as scathing wit and a colourful salting of sailor talk. “A new goal for Englishes,” Findlay writes (in an essay I do recall: “Always Indigenize!”), “is an enhanced capacity for analytical and imaginative critique of the current (Amerocenric, neocolonial, capitalist) hegemony” (326).

So I’m certainly not claiming any originality here. There must be dozens or hundreds of attempts, from dissertations to diatribes, to renovate critical language in the service of progressive, equitable, and just social change. In addition to the interventions and reflections discussed above, John Foran has just published a “manifesto for radical social change” that advocates, among other things, for re-defining the field of “globalization studies” as “global crisis studies.” The crisis in question here is a crisis of communication, of understanding, catalyzed by the all-too-easy domination of the terms of public discourse by the slightest fraction of its richest members, passing off their own narrow, short-term, and selfish interests as those of everyone else. Hegemony. How to deploy counter-hegemony against a corporate mediascape in which such highly concentrated ownership purports to represent (while redefining in its own way) the public interest?

Well, maybe not by using terms like counter-hegemony.

The numbered neologisms from the aforementioned essays and blogs are just a few of the rhetorical crowbars we might use for prying open the doors of perception and kicking out the corporate thought police that have taken up squatting all too comfortably in our heads. For now I’ll wrap up these reflections with a few extra entries for the long-overdue next edition of the Devil’s Dictionary:

crapitalism: a better word for the world-shitstem that has elevated its “race to the bottom” to the status of a commandment. That would reduce any and every element of life to the abject status of a mere commodity. That has tried to convince us that recycling is an adequate solution to the bloated over-packaging of more stuff, that’s more cheaply made than ever before, by people who are paid less to make it than ever before. That is garbaging up the world, in the process.

democrazy: what passes for a “knowledge” of democracy among “the New Dumb.”

the new feudalism: a plainer word for globalization; though Negri and Hardt’s model of Empire also works well.

Wanted for this list:

a name for the now-ubiquitous brand of businessperson — your Ralph Klein, your Sarah Palin, your Rob Ford — who campaigns for a government position on an anti-government platform. (That more people aren’t inherently suspicious of such a platform speaks to the success of Empire’s PR machines.)

Print Works Cited

Findlay, Len. “Always Indigenize! The Radical Humanities in the Postcolonial Canadian University.” ARIEL 31.1-2 (2000): 307-26. Rpt. in Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism. Ed. Cynthia Sugars. Peterborough: Broadview, 2004. 367-82.

Foran, John. “From Critical Globalization Studies and Public Sociology to Global Crisis Studies and Global Justice Work: A Manifesto for Radical Social Change.” New Global Studies 4.2 (2010)

hooks, bell. “Theory as liberatory practice.” Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Infantry, Ashante. “The voice behind a novel full of sound” [interview with Dionne Brand]. Toronto Star 26 May 1996: F6.