In response to a genuine need for greater sensitivity to the chronically disadvantaged in this country there came into being not long ago the serpent “political correctness.” This serpent, originating from the best of motives, has become so large that it threatens civilized discourse itself which was already weakened from constant abuse. We must now watch everything we say for fear we might offend someone somewhere at some point. And the ones who determine what constitutes “offensive” are the offended parties themselves. There is no court of appeal. And that’s the problem.
Some years back Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, wrote a scathing essay attacking Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a “racist” novel. Achebe charged that the novel was racist because of the author’s frequent use of the “N” word and his reference to the natives of Africa in less than glowing terms. Achebe’s essay has been anthologized widely and is now considered a classic of its type. I published a rejoinder in Conradiana, the journal dedicated to Conrad scholarship, which was not widely anthologized, incisive though it was! I insisted that Achebe didn’t know how to read a novel, that Conrad did not denigrate the native people — on the contrary — and I defended Heart of Darkness as one of the greatest novels of all time and one that we should continue to read — in spite of the “N” word.
The problem is not whether or not Conrad or Conrad’s novels were “racist,” whatever that might mean, but where we draw the line. Edith Wharton also uses the “N” word with reckless abandon. In fact, writers of her generation pretty much did so because that was the way people talked back then. Use of such words lends the novel verisimilitude, an important weapon in the writer’s arsenal. She also slurred Jews, as did Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, among others. Again, where do we draw the line?
The problem doesn’t stop with literary works as a blog in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni publication “Inside Academe” recently points out. The Chronicle of Higher Education fired a writer of fifteen years, Naomi Schaefer Riley by name, because she wrote a piece attacking Black Studies dissertations “for substituting political partisanship for objective research and analysis.” Her piece resulted in 6000 petitioners demanding that she be fired since she was clearly “racist.” Now whether or not she is a racist (again, whatever that means) she was never allowed to defend herself or presented with the evidence of her mistakes, whatever they might have been. Instead of a lively discussion of what dispassionate scholarship ought to be or what racism actually is, she was simply accused and fired. As the blog in “Inside Academe” notes in its final paragraph: “The Chronicle missed a chance to stand up for intellectual freedom and intellectual engagement. They kowtowed to their constituency — the academy — deciding that political correctness was more important than the search for truth and the defense of free speech.” This seems to me to be the central issue here.
Have we really come to the point where claims are disallowed if someone uses an offending word such as “savage,” contends that sloppy work is being accepted in our academies of learning, suggests that a woman was fired because she was incompetent, or an elderly man (such as myself) refused a job because he is unable to lift 200 pounds over his head — when these things may in fact be true and perhaps even important? If so then not only the academy but the wider culture itself has become impoverished and shrinks back on itself out of fear of intellectual engagement and the free exchange of ideas — no matter how disturbing. This is a huge price to pay not to offend someone, somewhere, sometime.