Monday, September 5, 2016

Empathy and Irony; or, The Tyranny of the Minority

An assistant manager at work proudly drew my attention to the sign she'd just made for the salad bar, which she said was "politically correct."  That seemed a very odd quality for an informational sign in a university dining room, so I read it.  I couldn't see anything "politically correct" about it in any sense of the term that I'm familiar with, so I asked her what she meant.  She said that it was "polite."  I was probably a bit more peevish than I meant to be -- it's the beginning of the semester, things have been hectic, and the heat has been getting to me -- but I managed to figure out that she was using "polite" and "politically correct" as equivalent because, as she pointed out, that's how a lot of people use the term, so it's what it has come to mean.

I'm still a little baffled by her rationale, though it makes a kind of sense -- in the same way that many people believe that the US Supreme Court banned all prayer from public schools: not just officially mandated prayer but individual private voluntary prayer by the students.  That ruling did nothing of the kind, but decades of theocratic propaganda, and the evident difficulty most people seem to have grasping the issue involved, have won out over the facts.  In the US we should and do have the right to make our own religious choices; the government does not.

I don't object to politeness, kindness, and consideration for others.  They're good attitudes and practices, and not as universal as they ought to be.  Over the last few years I've seen a number of people claim that "political correctness" is really just politeness, and I have probably made that claim myself, but while it makes a good point, it's not true.

It's difficult, of course, to say just what "political correctness" is.  In practice the term is used to dismiss and derogate opinions that one happens to disapprove, often on the excuse that they are well-intentioned but Go Too Far.  In that sense the term originated on the left, to refer to ideological conformity, but quickly became doublespeak, as snark for those who are too conformist, and judge themselves and everyone else by sectarian Party criteria.  Such people do exist, and they should be opposed and criticized, but a buzzword like "PC" is isn't really a critique: it's a way of attacking someone else's position without actually showing what's wrong with it.  And those on the left who use the term seem to forget that by most Americans' standards, they are Politically Correct extremists too.

Which is why it struck me so funny when a friend claimed that she used "'PC' in the broader sense of offending mainstream sensibilities."  As it's generally used (including by her) "political correctness" is invoked in defense of "mainstream sensibilities," the background-radiation hum of racism, sexism, and general bigotry that only some liberal do-gooder or "Social Justice Warrior" would object to: C'mon, lighten up, it's just a joke, don't be so humorless, what's your problem, smile!  When "mainstream sensibilities" are offended -- when a professional football player refuses to stand for the National Anthem, say -- it's the offender, not the mainstream, who will be accused of political correctness, and no one tells the mainstream to lighten up.

I thought I'd read somewhere that Alexis de Toqueville used the actual term "political correctness" (in French, naturally) in one of his writings on America, but I haven't been able to track down a reference.  While looking I noticed that right-wing writers discussing the subject invoked the "tyranny of the majority," which they equated with Political Correctness As We Know It Today.  But again, as it's actually used and especially by the Right, Political Correctness has nothing to do with the tyranny of the majority: it means whiny minorities picking on sensible, well-meaning, inoffensive majorities.  Similarly, this blogger wrote:
What Political Correctness really means - wherever & in whatever form it appears - is this: that The State or similar authority (the Church, society, any dominant ideology, it doesn't matter which) has decided what you can or cannot think or say. It has decided this for you. Its definition is the one you must accept. Your opinion is wrong. Your opinion should not be heard. Your opinion is Incorrect.
Well, that's kind of true, but again, more in reverse.  First, the movements the writer is denouncing were not "dominant ideologies."  Feminism, Black Nationalism, and the like were insurgent movements resisting the "dominant ideologies" of the United States.  Within those movements there was a struggle to decide who'd get to decide the new "correctness," but I don't see that any of the competing definitions ever finally won out, and they are still being contested to this day.  The blogger draws on an essay on the history of the concept of PC by Ruth Perry, which spells that out explicitly, citing a poem Audre Lorde wrote against Toni Cade Bambara's declaration that she would raise her daughter to be "a correct little sister."  I must conclude that the blogger strategically misunderstood what Perry was writing about in the service of his own ideology, which he clearly would like to be dominant, and is indignant that feminists persist in being truly incorrect.

For my discussion today, though, I'm going to stick with a version of what might be called the mainstream understanding of Political Correctness, though I don't mean that in a good way.  When most people refer to PC, they seem to be thinking of, first, a strong concern with terminology -- a belief that using the "right" label is crucial to good politics, and using the "wrong" label a sign of bad politics.  (This is largely a straw man, of course, and bear in mind that those who deride "PC" speech are extremely doctrinaire about their own preferred labels.)  Second, they mean a strong intolerance of those with the "wrong" politics (though again, they overlook their own political intolerance).

So, then: is "Political Correctness" really just another word for politeness?  From either end, no.  Politeness doesn't equal Political Correctness: politeness is perfectly compatible with political oppression.  Members of dominant castes are taught (not always successfully, of course) to be polite and kind to their inferiors.  A genteel white supremacist would never think of using the N-word to a black person; a gentleman treats a lady with respect; a king doesn't rub his subjects' noses in their lower status -- though if those inferiors fail to observe their place, the velvet gloves come off.

Nor is Political Correctness about "feelings," though feelings are often invoked.  Debates over proper terminology were about trying to find language that would describe conditions better than the preferred propaganda terms that were in general use.  The feminist consciousness-raising groups of the Sixties, for example, used participants' feelings about being housewives as a starting point.  Their feelings were a symptom of what was wrong in their lives and in society, but the aim was to go from  there to a better intellectual understanding of women's situation and what might be done to change it.  Sometimes that aim was derailed as analysis of feelings and a sophistical focus on labels became ends in themselves, which was hardly surprising when feelings, as opposed to reason, were women's assigned sphere, but one of the goals of feminism was for women to break with the stereotypical expectations that had been assigned to them.  Not to put too much emphasis on this, but if feelings had been the core concern, the goal would have been Emotional rather than Political Correctness.

I recall fondly a conversation from the Seventies between an English literature professor of my parents' generation, who took for granted a New-Critical approach to his field, and a lesbian feminist of my generation.  The professor objected to literature which examined people's lives, he thought it didactic and boring.  That's as much an emotional reaction as a principled one, though he could adduce his New-Critical presuppositions to support his emotional reaction.  My lesbian friend replied that she found it really exciting when literature explored people's lives in an inventive, politically-informed way.  Which doesn't mean that fiction should be didactic, or that all such politically-informed fiction is equally good, but that such exploration is a valid artistic project.  And it should be remembered that, as Kate Millett showed in Sexual Politics, canonical art had its own politics, usually male-supremacist and often overtly misogynist, and critics not only didn't see those tendencies as blots on the work but endorsed them -- at least until feminist critics pointed them out, and they became something of an embarrassment to be disavowed.

As Joanna Russ wrote of "political criticism" at around the same time:
... in fact, it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on. Once fiction gets beyond the level of minimal technical competence, a reviewer must address these judgments of value. Generally readers don't notice the presence of familiar value judgments in stories, but do notice (and object to) unfamiliar ones as "Political" ... To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political [originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1979, 103; reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (Liverpool University Press, 2007), 165].
It also should be remembered that analysis and understanding do not necessarily make you feel better.  (See, for example, Joanna Russ's essay on man-hating, quoted in this post.) Oppressed groups were supposed to accept their place, and if they sometimes felt discontented, they were supposed to remind themselves that we all (even the rich and powerful) feel discontented sometimes, but that their lot was decreed by Nature, and Nothing Can Be Done About It.  When you realize that it is not Nature but human will and decisions that define your place, you may get angry, and there was a lot of anger in the social movements of the Sixties.  This, of course, was presented as a discredit to them: why couldn't they be calm and reasonable, like their rulers?  If they didn't simmer down, it might become necessary to sic the dogs on them, which would make the rulers feel really bad, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

There's a flip side to politeness' compatibility with oppression, however: those people who are most vocal in demanding politeness toward the oppressed are apt to become extremely impolite in dealing with those they disagree with.  Perhaps the tantrums directed at someone like Donald Trump are understandable, though not excusable if you want to see yourself as more rational than the Rethuglitards (and such terminology would, I'd have thought, be unacceptable to the very people who use it), but the same kind of vitriol and ragegasms are turned on different factions on the same side.  Anyone old enough to remember the Lesbian / feminist Sex Wars of the early 1980s, as I am, knows how vicious the feelings-oriented Therapy wing of feminism could be when dealing with feminists it placed beyond the pale.  This tendency turned up in the Sixties too, when lesbians were purged from second-wave feminist organizations and Betty Friedan claimed that lesbians were CIA agents trying to undermine the movement.  More recently, I've been struck by the hatred directed by some prominent trans activists at RuPaul for referring to himself as a "tranny."  Also by the fury directed by other GLBT people at the lesbian writer E. J. Graff for suggesting that "choosing" to be gay would not be a bad thing.  And also by trans people and their allies who throw tantrums over the use over the word "transgendered," even though it has been in common use by transgender writers, among others, without any pejorative intention or effect.  I've argued before that advocates of totalistic safe space have always been highly selective about whose feelings they respect and defer to.  The license to rage appears to be an expression of what F. G. Bailey calls "the moral mind" -- emotional displays (that is, tantrums) to show how deeply one feels about an issue and to establish which side one is on.  And what that means is that the tactics of the Right are considered appropriate by many on the Left, though both factions would deny their similarities.  Am I saying, then, that it's okay to trample on other people's feelings at whim?  I'm not, though remember, those who'd make that accusation are perfectly willing, even happy, to trample on the feelings of those who they don't believe merit consideration.  The trouble isn't "political correctness," but a disinclination to act according to one's own declared principles -- in this case, of respecting other people's feelings.

Consider the recent controversy known in some circles as the Bathroom Wars, over which public restrooms should be used by transgender people.  Laws have been passed in numerous places to require trans people to use the facilities appropriate to the sex they were assigned at birth, and support for such laws often took the form of ragegasms and threats to attack any trans person the frother 'caught' entering the 'wrong' bathroom.  Their pretended motive was to protect their wives and daughters from fantasized predation by men dressed as women, though I think the intensity of their rage combined with their total ignorance about transgender people was a clear sign that something else was going on, though I don't know exactly what.  I remember similar fury about the provision of "gender-neutral" restrooms, which seemed to be associated with the fantasy that any normal person who used the facility would be magically transformed into a Transgender.  I had some fun taunting some of my right-wing transphobe acquaintances by asking them why they didn't have separate sex-segregated bathrooms at home.  It's like the opponents of same-sex marriage who believe that when gay marriage is legal, everybody will have to be gay-married.

My point here is not to resolve these questions, but to point out that opposition to the Bathroom Laws generally took for granted that the feelings of trans people must be respected, even when they were just as batty as the anti-trans frothers.  I saw a couple of articles about trans people who claimed that, from an early age, they just knew that they were in the Wrong Bathroom.  Since sex-segregated bathrooms are a cultural convention, there can't really be any such thing.  In the US we're taught to respect this convention from an early age, but we also grow up in homes where everybody uses the same bathroom.  There are very good prudential reasons why trans people would want to use the public restroom assigned to the sex with which they identify, for their own safety, but claiming that bathrooms have a sex/gender buys into the assumptions of the bigots.

What intrigued me, as it has with issues like same-sex marriage, is that the feelings of the transphobes, which clearly ran very deep and strong, were not seen as worthy of respect; only the feelings of transpeople.  The feelings of a little girl who resists wearing a dress, or a little boy who wants to wear a dress, must be respected and indulged -- but not the feelings of a little girl who wants to be an anorectic Disney Princess, or a little boy who's All Boy and refuses to make his bed or help wash the dishes.  This is why the appeal to feelings is so misconceived, apart from its selectivity: What do you do when feelings clash?  When you adopt a position based on people's feelings, you can't just dismiss the feelings of other people who reject that position. You have to evaluate the problem by looking at evidence and reason, which of course no one wants to do.  I don't respect bigots' feelings, but then I oppose the whole apparatus of safe spaces and bogus respect mandated by the Culture of Therapy -- I don't respect the feelings of my fellow gay people either, and that includes my own.

I don't respect bigots' feelings, but I do sympathize with them.  I understand why many people find it upsetting to see two men holding hands, or two women getting married, just as I understand why a gay man raised in a homophobic society is repulsed by effeminate gay men, or by the thought (let alone the reality) of kissing another man.  (And yet -- I grew up in the same society, in an even more homophobic time: why don't I have those feelings?  You can't use Society as an Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for bigotry.)  But such feelings must not be given authority to decide policy and law.

Am I "politically correct" myself?  I hope so, if we're using the term in its earlier, non-snark sense: I think that it's a good thing to examine one's life according to one's principles, and to try to live by them.  But because I also believe in the value of critical thinking, I know that correctness is hard to determine and rarely if ever finally known.  I might conclude after thinking hard that my principles are flawed and must be changed.  Therefore it's important not to be dogmatic, to be open to debate, and to try to debate responsibly.  Feelings are relevant, but they don't have the final word.  And if we want to criticize the knee-jerk emotional reactions of the Right, we must be just as critical of the knee-jerk emotional reactions of liberals and the Left.