The growing number of restrictions on our speech and thought are alarming. Increasingly, there are things we must not say or think lest we hurt the feelings of someone somewhere. And while the impulses that have taken us in this direction are well-meaning and even laudable, they threaten to constrict thought and speech to the point where we are struck dumb.

In reading the Australian sociologist John Carroll’s book on Guilt published in 1985 I came across a passage that would today get some folks riled up. He is speaking about the

“. . .pervasive influence that the Romantic movement has had on modern Western sensibilities [that] require us to look into the guilt that flows through the high sublimation of its literature. . . .The hostility to the constraints of society, the elevation of spontaneity of feeling and sensitivity, of passion over reason, of art over work, all suggest identification with female traits, and hostility to the signs of the patriarchal father — order, control, artifact.”

The suggestion that there are “female traits” would be dismissed by the outraged radical feminists among us as completely out of order. And this despite the fact that those traits are evident and important. In fact, if our culture were less masculine, less inclined to violence, to control and take, and more feminine, more compassionate and caring — more in tune with our “Mother Earth” — we would all be better off. The point here is that constraining speech and thought by insisting that certain words and phrases are out of order results in the dismissal of those ideas that might help us understand more clearly what is going on around us.

The list of taboo words and phrases grows as the Political Correctness Police on our college campuses strive to turn them from educational institutions into Care Clinics. The irony here should be obvious: the desire to purge our college campuses of nasty and hurtful thoughts is in every way an expression of the “female traits” of which Carroll speaks and that desire is heartily supported by the feminists on college campuses who also object to the notion that there ARE such things as “female traits.”

But the problem goes even deeper as we hear about comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld who will no longer visit college campuses because of the restrictions on his comedic thrusts — which, let’s face it, are very gentle to say the least. Have we, after all, lost our sense of humor? The notion that there are growing numbers of things we simply should not allow anyone to say (or think) places restrictions not only on comedians but also on others who would say things on campus that might hurt someone’s feelings. But, surely, we should point out that someone somewhere will be hurt by something that someone says at some time. Of all places, college campuses should allow the free expression of ideas and speech in spite of the fact that something someone says might hurt someone’s feelings. That’s just the way of the world. In protecting our students from hurtful words and thoughts we hamper their intellectual development.

As quoted recently in a publication by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, this point was made evident on the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts where 400 college professors signed a petition

“. . .to adopt the Chicago Principles. The petition states, ‘While there is an understandable desire to protect our students from speech they find offensive, doing so risks shutting down legitimate dialogue and failing to prepare our students to deal effectively with a diversity of opinions, including views they might vehemently disagree with.’ . . . Students have issued a counter-petition in which they argue that the unfettered free speech supported by the Chicago Principles harms minority students.”

The ACTA has taken a stand with the 400 faculty members. But the likelihood these days is that the college will side with the students in the end.

The problem, of course, has worked its way outside the walls of academe as political correctness is all the rage. José Cabranes was a recent recipient of the Merrill Award presented by the ACTA. He tells us we are faced with a choice between “academic freedom or civilizational decline.” Free speech and free thought must be encouraged at the very least to the point where it actively provokes violence toward others — not only on college campuses, but also at political rallies where the clear goal is to win over folks to a restricted world view in which only those who agree with those who seek power are allowed to speak. Somehow, we must find a balance.


13 thoughts on “Taboos

  1. Jerry Seinfeld SAID that he wasn’t allowed on campuses because of so-called censorship. The fact is, his stand-up isn’t very funny. Even the small bits featured in his hit show are often really stupid. The best thing I ever heard him say was the bit about astral aliens witnessing dog owners picking up their dog’s poop. But often I am thinking … are you really that ignorant about common facts?

    And radical feminists do NOT say that there are no “feminine traits”. This is as much of a myth as bra-burning. In fact, it is radical feminists who insist on biological differences between men & women. Which get them the slur of “TERF”.

    • I disagree with you about Jerry Seinfeld — who was a real draw on college campuses. But I stand corrected about the radical feminists. Perhaps those I have known are the exception. Thank you for enlightening me!

      • I really appreciate your comments. But I have reflected on my 41 years of college teaching and the number of feminists with whom I have worked — several for whom were close friends. One of them was a psychologist and during a conversation about Jung’s psychology I mentioned that he regards all humans as part man and part women. She vigorously rejected that verbiage but accepted the notion that we are a mix of Yin and Yang (which amounts to the same thing). She denied that there are “feminine traits” while at the same time insisting that we would all be better off if we were more caring and compassionate — traits she herself regards as feminine. I have noted other cases of this inconsistency and also this rejection of the notion that there are such things as “feminine traits.” I do suppose it depends on what company we keep — and what we read as well.

  2. Hugh, I feel sorry for comedians who make a living making us laugh at our own hypocrisies and biases. What is lost on too many is being critical of something does not mean being a jerk about it. Diplomatic candor is an art that we need to practice more of. Name-calling, labeling, shouting are not needed to practice this. We also need to keep things in context, as anyone can be made to look foolish if words are taken out of context. Plus, we need to be mindful of the times when something was said.

    People are looking for perfection in an imperfect world with imperfect people including them. And, we need to be mindful of someone who has spent a life living an issue or who does the right thing 19 times out of 20, is different than someone who is a jerk most of the time. That false equivalence does not wipe away all the good people do.


  3. Political correctness (someone described it as the conviction that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end) puts one in the category of using this particular argument: Jacob is a liar. Jacob is a jew. Therefore Jews are liars. It is very dangerous to make blanket statements about stuff and the politically correct do just that. What they should consider is the backlash when enough people recognize the foolishness of PC and it is reversed. Political correctness cannot change the nature of an Archie Bunker dude.

  4. Dr. Curtler,

    Once again, you have offered food for thought. I focus on but a single nugget.

    As a sociologist with slightly more than marginal training in anthropology and philosophy, I am always interested when people make claims of “inherent traits” in people. This is especially the case when these traits are attributed not to human beings, per se, but differentially according to categories of persons within the human species.

    I have spent much of my career examining the socially presumed, inherently distinct traits of different “races” (of which there is only one) and “sexes” (of which there are arguably more than two).

    I think Carroll has greatly oversimplified the matter in presuming that all feminists reject the notion of inherent distinctions between males and females. Here I elaborate by offering an abbreviated and simplified typology of the ways in which we understand the “inherent” traits of males and females. I conclude with a brief comment.

    CULTURAL TRADITIONALISM: Here the assumption is that men and women are inherently different, possibly as God intended. Men are physically strong, personally aggressive, economically competitive, and dominant rulers of the polity, social institutions, and the family. Women are the complement of this. They are submissive, gentle, nurturing, maternal, cooperative, and guardians of the hearth and kin when the husband is out of the home.

    Men and women who fail to reflect these essential categories have chosen to violate the laws of God and Nature. The question remains of why, if these categories are essential , how it is possible that men and women can possibly act otherwise. One answer is that we have free will and some choose to sin, but that begs the question completely.

    RADICAL FEMINISM: Once again, men and women are presumed to have different essential traits. Men are aggressive, domineering, warlike, uncommunicative, emotionally immature and needlessly competitive. Women, on the other hand, are collaborative, communicative, supportive, peaceful, maternal, and powerful leaders. The Goddess Mother has ordained it so.

    Once again, the question remains of how men could come to dominate women if women were so superior in the first place. Again, the answer is that sexism is the oldest form of institutional inequality and rests historically upon women’s inability to control their own reproduction, leaving them unable to control the means of production. If the malevolent power of men is so great as to repeat the cycle of male domination over women, one wonders what could possibly change it.

    Some, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, argued for an evolutionary view wherein modern civilization takes either a male or a female path. The former leads to destruction; the latter leads to peace. Her view is that the feminine characteristics in all human beings would become dominant and that sex distinctions, as we know them would disappear into history, replaced by respect for individualism and individually-define love, social equality, and peace.

    LIBERAL FEMINISM: Liberal feminists point to the relatively few and generally minor natural differences between males and females discerned by scientific research . and focus on striking differences in access to and allocation of power between males and females. Mary Wollstonecraft (Vindication of the Rights of Women) and Harriet Taylor (“Enfranchisement of Women”; contributions to On Liberty, by J.S. Mill) argued that differences in education and opportunity accounted for the important differences in achievement between males and females. – “I speak of the improvement and emancipation of the whole sex,” Wollstonecraft declared. “Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated. …”

    Like liberal feminists, who followed in their wake, Wollstonecraft and Taylor argued most strenuously that we would only reveal the natural differences between men and women if and when we established a society that eliminated all differences in educational, economic, political and professional opportunities between men and women.

    SOCIALIST FEMINISM: Socialist feminists focus on the social control of both the means of reproduction and the means of production. They argue that freedom and equality for women is made impossible by both sexism and capitalism. Karl Marx, Eleanor Marx Aveling and Rosa Luxemburg, among others, promoted this view, as do more modern theorist, such as Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex) and Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex), each in their own way.

    In Socialist Feminism, here is little, if any, focus on inherent differences between men and women and more focus on the common humanity of males and females as citizens, workers, and family members struggling together within the inequalities of modern societies. Ideologies that protect or promote economic , social, or gender inequality are viewed as ruling ideas of the wealthy and the powerful that serve to oppress and divide the masses of citizens.

    CONCLUSION: Having strained the reader’s patience thus far, it will suffice to say that both Cultural Traditionalism and Cultural Feminism share the notion that there or inherent differences between males and females. Some have gone so far as to say the Cultural Feminism is Cultural Traditionalism with a change of sign, with males and females, respectively, switching “signs” from positive to negative or from negative to positive.

    Both assume there are inherent differences between males and females that fall along fairly stereotypical lines and which are not well supported by scientific research.I have often seen Cultural Feminists rise to the bait of Cultural Traditionalists, even though they share some fundamental assumptions about the difference between males and females.Based upon personal experiences, I suggest one not go around pointing this out.

    As for Liberal Feminism and Socialist Feminism, each focuses on institutional rather than inherent inequalities and each is quick to point to the lack of scientific merit in the ideas of those arguing for inherent distinctions between men and women, including both CUltural Traditionalists and Cultural Feminists.

    Liberal Feminists focus primarily on increasing education and opportunity for individuals. Socialist feminists focus on the intersections of class and gender. They point out, quite logically, that it is possible to have a highly unequal society in class terms while having a highly egalitarian society with respect to gender. Thus, the strategy is to attack both at once. (Trotsky might have referred to this as a Triple Revolution: Class, State, and Gender, but that is another matter.) More recently, these theorists have taken the concept of “intersectionality” to include race and sexuality , as well as class and gender.

    THE POINT: The complaint that it is “taboo” to speak of differences between men and women overlooks a good deal of worthwhile discussion on that very subject.

    Once again, I thank you for a stimulating post and apologize for this lengthy response. I would have made it shorter, had I but had the time.

    Regards and respects to all,

    Jerry Stark

    • Never apologize since your discussions are always welcome and helpful. This one especially. I am not as up to date as you are on the types of feminism — nor is Carroll apparently. But I have heard women who call themselves “feminists” argue both sides of the question: (1) women and men are not different in important ways and (2) because women and men differ in so many ways we cannot expect that they be treated the same. Perhaps these women were not bona fide feminists! (Or I misremember. That happens every now and again).

      • You may rest assured that I am disinclined to assess who is or is not a bona fide feminist. Indeed not! I choose to live out my years in relative peace.

        Rather, I will try to maintain focus on bona fide arguments. It seems hoth the safer and the more substantive course, by far.


        Jerry Stark

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