I have been re-reading Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and was put in mind of the terrible constraint the P.C. movement has placed upon those who would teach the young and how so many of us are becoming word-impaired as a result of the claim that certain words must never be used because they might hurt someone’s feelings. To be sure, we must be careful about hurting one another, but when all are victims, as seems to be the case at present, none are victims. In any event, the constraint that has been placed on ordinary discourse seems to me to be a step in the direction of shrinking minds that are already tending toward empty. In that spirit, I reprint here a post I wrote several years ago about this movement and the threats it is to open discussion of important issues, not to say the reading of classical literature. [This post, among many others, is collected and collated in my non-selling book Alone In The Labyrinth which is available for a nominal fee from the publisher, Ellis Press or from Amazon. (wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)]

Philosophers are fond of making distinctions. For example, I am careful to point out the difference between “need” and “want” in explaining that many of the things we insist we need are simply things we want. Such distinctions can go a long way toward clarifying our thinking and helping us to see our way through a tangle of words, show the fly the way out of the milk bottle in Wittgenstein’s delightful image. Many years ago Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in which he made a distinction between “use” and “mention.” He noted the vast difference between using a word, say an offensive word, and simply mentioning that same word. Thus if I say “Judy is fat” I am using a word that many people find offensive, especially Judy. If I say “Fred said that Judy is fat” I am merely mentioning the offensive term and the difference is important and fundamental. But we have lost sight of this distinction, especially in academia where political correctness demands that we neither use nor mention offensive terms — words that might possibly be found offensive to someone else.

Some years ago I wrote an article for a professional journal in which I defended Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness against the libel of the novelist and critic Chinua Achebe who insisted that people avoid Conrad’s novella altogether because it and its author are both “racist.”  He made that claim on the grounds that in the novella Conrad plays fast and loose with the word “nigger,” which is almost certainly one of the most offensive terms in our language. My defense was based on the point that when a novelist like Conrad used the term he put it in the mouth of a seaman at the turn of the last century who would most assuredly use the term without giving it a second thought. The novel is not “racist” because Conrad is simply telling a story in which the term is used by his narrator. Conrad himself is simply mentioning that fact. Again, the distinction Russell made is key here. Conrad is not a racist, nor is his novella. His narrator may have been, but the charge cannot be laid at the feet of the novelist.

But, as I have said, this distinction is lost on those who would protect victims from words they might find offensive. And while I respect the motivation that has led us to this point — to protect sensitive people and avoid hurting their feelings — it is clear that the situation has become extreme and is now putting a cramp on communication at so many levels. In addition, of course, everyone now claims to be a victim. It is especially problematic in our colleges and universities where this sensitivity to others’ feelings has become excessive.  As a result, according to a recent (9/15/17) essay in The Atlantic, “the new political correctness is ruining education.” In addition to ignoring the distinction between use and mention and insisting that any and all uses (or mentions) of certain words must desist (or else!), officials and students themselves in a great many institutions of higher education also wave the red flag at what are called “trigger warnings.”

“For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism and domestic violence can choose to avoid those works which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.”

Now, clearly the motivation of those who call for this sort of avoidance cannot be called into question. But this concern is clearly out of control. Those who would teach are denied the opportunity to free young minds and open them up to the world around them which, unfortunately, is a source of a great deal of discomfort. Clearly, the use of  offensive language is different from the mention of those words that might possibly offend. We need to recall that distinction and move past this sort of censorship, remaining sensitive to others’ feelings, but not so concerned that we cannot say or write what needs to be said and written. However, the Atlantic article notes that concern over political correctness and trigger warnings has created a bleak atmosphere on college campuses across the nation.

“The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [concern over political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe places’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable. And more than [P.C.], this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness.”

And this despite the fact that making young adults “uncomfortable” is precisely what they need in order to become educated persons. As Jerry Seinfeld has noted in refusing to perform on college campuses because of the atmosphere of “vindictive protectiveness,” we need to keep our sense of humor. And we also need to keep our sense of balance before we fall off the edge of an increasingly small platform of politically correct terms that doesn’t allow us to say what needs to be said or read what needs to be read in order to provide students with the education they so desperately require in an increasingly confusing world.



13 thoughts on “P.C.

  1. Protecting students and everyone else from psychological harm ha ha and yet at the same time exposing them to a continuous outpouring of sex and violence— what sort of madness is this.
    This protective guise has infiltrated into the mad world of diet , and allergy is at an all time high. Some scientists now suspect that super hygienic surroundings weaken the immune system , so lets get back to fish and chips in newspaper. Is it not strange that we should ban such words as nigger from literature yet open the floodgates to four letter language , poor old D H Lawrence triggered it off with Lady C.

  2. Hugh, currently, PBS Newshour is highlighting the top 100 books ever written in America. Two of them are must reads “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn,” which include that word. The word is important to share the context of bigotry and misconceptions. Some schools have stopped reading the two books, which is sad. I would prefer the teacher to use this as a huge learning opportunity, before, during and after. I would encourage the teacher to tell the kids “to be offended” and show empathy for those who hear it.

    We should not white wash history. Bad things happen. If we don’t understand that history, we are bound to repeat it. Anglo-Saxon settlers squatted on Native American land and when some protested, they were slaughtered and eventually moved or made to acquiesce. That happened. So did slavety and Jim Crow. Keith

  3. I had a conversation similar to this yesterday with a friend of mine, over Huck Finn. I don’t think Twain ever used the n-word himself in the author’s voice. It always was said by a character in the book; again, a distinction many overlook. But it’s important to understand at which characters are saying it and why — that’s the point of Twain’s use of it. It would be a different if Twain traipsed through his narrative using the word in the author’s voice.

    The attribution to a source is something important in journalism. Your example of “Fred said Judy is fat,” is a good illustration. It may or may not be true that Judy is fat. But it is true that Fred said she was (assuming someone heard him say it). We’d run into that with court cases, where we would write, “Joe Smith broke into the hardware store overnight and stole three hammers and a jackknife, court records said.” Joe Smith might or might not have broken into the hardware store. But it would be true that court records said he did. I’d field a lot of calls from defendants or their families who said we were already saying he was guilty before the case even when to trial (or pre-trial hearings). I would respond, “no, we’re not saying that. Law enforcement is saying that. Read the sentence again.”

    But that’s the problem, or at least part of it, you’re writing about: people either don’t read something completely, or they don’t stop to make the distinction, nor think about what the distinction implies.

  4. In a number of arenas over the years, I have participated in discussions about political correctness. It is an interesting topic.

    The original impulse toward being attentive to the hidden implications of one’s usage is a good one. It reflects the desire to be a decent person. Taken to extreme, it amounts to the policing of usage, which is anathema to thought, speech, and intellectual discourse.

    Two types of characters stand out in my mind as I consider this topic: (1) PC scolds, and (2) PC skeptics. The problem, and annoyance, with each is that they look at language use as an entirely political battlefield. Real issues get lost in a combat over words about those issues. Persons of each type are tiresome to be around — especially in committee meetings.

    As I have told many students over the years, it is a good impulse to try to be decent; it is an even better impulse to find out what being decent means. The latter requires study and thought. Intellectual perspiration. Read widely, think things through as best you can, and remember that no one is perfect; no one is beyond some meaningful criticism, either by the standards of their own time or ours.

    If you are unwilling to read what might be uncomfortable or even offensive to someone in some way, then you will be reading very little of value, including most religious texts.. Not reading, not exposing oneself to controversial thought, is the greater offense, by far. Use the controversies you encounter as a means to explore what it means to be a decent person.

    Most of the time, students seemed to accept this line of reasoning. In any event, they seemed to have plenty of other reasons not to read much. 🙂

    Again, an interesting comment. Thanks.

    Regards, Jerry Stark

    P.S. Looking forward to the arrival of my new copy of Labyrinth and Recalling Education.

    • Many thanks, Jerry. As always. I have blogged about P.C. before and have noted that it started with a good intention. But like many good intentions, it seems to lead to Hell. The road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions!

  5. This issue is up there with taking down statues and changing street names – if things were ‘bad’ in the good ol’ days, we can and should use the visible and verbal legacy to tell new generations why, instead of obliterating them – learning from history is a rare occurrence but we can only keep on trying!
    I sympathise with the non-selling books. My copy of yours is sitting on my bookshelf within my view and is taken down now and then for a thought-provoking read.
    I also have boxes of envelopes and hand-printed booklets sitting within view – though they are selling reasonably well online (when I make a point of telling people about them) I can’t say my blogging friends have been rushing to spend £5 on a copy … maybe as that feastday on 25 December draws nearer – and I remind them. (Don’t worry, I don’t think it’s your kinda thing, not suggesting you buy, I really am just sympathising!).

    • Thanks. We gave away more copies than we sold. And my blogging buddies I dedicated it to bought fewer than a half-dozen. Very disappointing, indeed. I do wish you luck with your endeavors!

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