Taboos

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.

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Still Wondering

I posted this (slightly modified) piece two years ago — before the Age of The Trumpet and Alternative Facts — but it still seems pertinent. Perhaps more so! So I decided to repost it in the hope that its might be of interest to some of my readers who missed it the first time around.

As Hannah Arendt uses the term, “totalitarianism” is any form of government in which those in power seek to gain “total domination” of the minds and actions of the citizens by any means — violent or otherwise. In this sense, Huxley’s Brave New World is a totalitarian state in which a benign dictator, convinced that he is doing the right thing, makes sure his people think they are free while all the time he guarantees their continued mental captivity in a world of pleasure and endless diversions. If this sounds a bit familiar, it may well be, though in these United States it is not clear whether there is a single person or a group that is in complete control. But it is certainly the case that we are provided with endless diversions and a mind-boggling array of entertainment to keep us convinced we are free while all the time we are buying what the media are selling, electing inept officials who are cleverly marketed like toothpaste, and embracing the platitudes we hear repeatedly. Seriously, how many people in this “free” nation really use their minds?

In any event, I came across a passage or two in Arendt’s remarkable book about totalitarianism — which I have alluded to previously — that are well worth pondering. Bear in mind that she was writing in 1948 and was primarily interested in Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler and their totalitarian governments. Donald Trump was not a name on everyone’s lips. She was convinced that this period in history is when the “mob mentality” that later theorists latched upon came into the historical picture and “mass man” was born: Eric Hoffer’s “true Believer.” This was before political correctness, of course, when “man” was generic. The “elite” of whom she is speaking is the educated and cultured individuals in those countries who should have known better — but who did not. There are subtle differences in the mentality of the two groups, but Arendt was convinced that they were both easily led astray.

“This difference between the elite and the mob notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the elite was pleased whenever the underworld frightened respectable society into accepting it on an equal footing. The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it. They were not particularly outraged at the monstrous forgeries in historiography of which the totalitarian regimes are guilty and which announce themselves clearly enough in totalitarian propaganda. They had convinced themselves that traditional historiography was a forgery in any case, since it had excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind. Those who were rejected by their own time were usually forgotten by history, and the insult added to injury had troubled all sensitive consciences ever since faith in a hereafter where the last would be the first had disappeared. Injustices in the past as well as the present became intolerable when there was no longer any hope that the scales of justice eventually would be set right.”

And again,

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”

Those who might question the notion of a historical parallel here might do well to reflect on the fact that postmodernism has literally “taken over” our college campuses. And “New History” is all the rage.  The basic tenet of deconstructionism, which lies at the heart of postmodern thought, is that truth is a fiction — or, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty has said, truth is nothing more than “North Atlantic bourgeois liberalism.” His famous predecessor Jacques Derrida said, unblushingly, that truth is simply a “plurality of readings” of various “texts.” A great many of these intellectuals are convinced that history is a fiction that has for too long ignored the disenfranchised and are determined to right this wrong by rewriting the history books to stress the role of those who have been excluded by an elite white, male hegemony. And while the motive may be admirable, one must question the premise on which these folks operate, since this is coming from those whose job, traditionally, has been that of protectors and transmitters of civilized thought. Popular culture [and politicians have] simply latched on to the droppings of these intellectuals and reduced truth to subjectivity: truth is what you want to be the case; we do not discover it, we manufacture it. Say something often enough and loudly enough and it becomes true.

In the event that anyone should suggest that the rejection of objective truth is trivial, I present the following observation by Ms Arendt:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exist.”

Bearing in mind that totalitarianism need not be violent, this appears to be the direction we are headed. Or am I wrong in thinking that the signs of totalitarianism are increasingly clear and it appears that a small group of wealthy and powerful men — supported in their ivory towers by “elite” intellectuals who would never admit their allegiance to this group while they deny objective truth and busily rewrite history — are slowly but surely gaining control of the media and by attacking the public school system, ignoring such things as global warming, eliminating regulating agencies, approving numerous invasions of personal privacy, and picking and choosing stupid and malleable people to run for public office are increasingly able to make us think we are free when, in fact, we are simply doing their bidding? I wonder.

Karl Marx Redux

Karl Marx’s Capital is seldom read these days. This book by a dead, white European male has been tossed into the dustbins by the League of the Politically Correct and replaced by something more in fashion. Pity. What Marx had to say about capitalist exploitation still rings true even after more than a hundred years. This was driven home by an article I read recently about the current recession and the trend during that period to squeeze more work out of the labor force in the name of higher profits. Consider the following excerpt about the recent changes in the dynamics of the job market:

The drop comes after a string of steady gains in productivity, as employers slashed their payrolls during the 2007 recession but squeezed more output from thinner staffs. Some of those gains came from investment in technology and other efficiencies. Some of it came from asking workers – fearful of losing their jobs with the unemployment rate at 8.2 percent — to work harder and put in longer hours.

But employers have apparently wrung about as much work as they could from their existing employees. To increase output, they’ve had to hire back some of the people they laid off during the recession.

(Note here that there’s apparently a point of diminishing return in this dynamic. Employers are hiring back more workers not because they want to put people to work, but because productivity has dropped. This is not an ethical decision on the employers’ part; it is business as usual.)

I’m not a Marxist, though I think his notion of “alienation” is spot on. Further, he looked into the teeth of the capitalist beast and saw how it nurtured human greed and avarice. So let’s think about some of the things Marx had to say. He was convinced that the inherent nature of capitalism necessitated the exploitation of the workers in the name of increased profits. In the world of capitalism, the value of the products workers make is being determined independently of the amount of time they spend on the job. In Marx’s view, the opposite should be the case, as the value of the product should directly reflect the amount of labor time spent on its making. The separation here between labor and value results from the fact that the worker must sell his labor to the capitalist: his labor becomes a commodity. The ideal Marx had in mind was the intimate connection between a worker in his shop making, say, a chair, and the value he is able to realize in the market place. Once he goes to work for a factory owner his connection with the product of his labor is severed. Again, it is the intimate connections that Marx focused his attention upon. Capitalism, in his view, separated workers from their products and prices from real value. Those contradictions, he was convinced, would bring about the demise of capitalism as workers would experience increasing frustration and eventually rise up in revolt.

Well, he was certainly wrong about that. The closest thing we have to a revolt today is the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which barely causes a ripple in the capitalist fabric. And the chains that Marx saw binding the workers have been replaced by credit card debt. Capitalism has prospered as the unions (among other things) have made the lives of workers tolerable and they can now afford important things like iPods, televisions (charged on the credit card) and new cars (leased, of course). The contradictions within capitalism no longer bother most people and the moral message of Capital has been silenced by complacency. Though its numbers are shrinking, the “middle class” which has sprung up after Marx’s death is relatively content and the revolution that Marx foresaw no longer seems possible, much less likely. The “workers” seem content to take what is given them while the 1% continue to prosper and grow fat on the fruit of the labor of the other 99%. That is, the essential framework that Marx analyzed is still in place. The difference is that, for the most part, the workers no longer care that they are being exploited because they have been pacified with a smattering of goods that makes their lives tolerable in a culture that is designed to mollify their discontent.

Gender Equity

Edith Wharton was an early champion of gender equity, though I am not sure she gets the credit she deserves. One of the numerous targets she has in her sights is the infamous “double standard,” which applauds men for sexual prowess while at the same time condemning women for the exact same thing. In Age of Innocence, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, she tells us that “All the elderly ladies whom [the hero] knew regarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily unscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-minded man as powerless in her clutches. The only thing was to persuade him, as early as possible, to marry a nice girl, and then trust her to look after him.” In this particular novel, the tale winds in a compelling way around the theme of a woman who “loved imprudently” — Wharton’s compelling way. But the double standard is only one of the problems the women in Wharton’s day had, living as they did vapid lives in a man’s world. And Wharton is eager to point them out. She led a movement in its earliest stages of development. The movement has grown and now has a great many zealous followers.

There’s no question that the feminist movement has good grounds for their fervor and enthusiasms as women were silenced far too long. And they have drawn attention to a great many unacceptable, and even unethical, practices in our culture. Many of these practices still remain even after sustained attacks, however, as does the double standard. Martina Navratilova noted when Magic Johnson bragged about his “thousand infidelities” that a woman would have been tarred and feathered for making such a claim publicly. Further, there aren’t many women among the 1% of those who control the wealth in this country. However, painfully slow as it has been, there has also been some progress.

But with the progress there has also been the seemingly inevitable exaggeration as the notion of “equity” has been identified in the minds of many with “sameness,” and important differences are slighted over or shunted aside; certainly disallowed. This has occurred on many fronts, of course, and not just in the camp of women’s rights. The claim that women (in this case) have the same rights as men — or ought to — is based on a moral grounds, involving moral and civil rights. There can be no question that this argument is well founded. But when the notion of “equity” expands to include “sameness,” we are venturing into the realm of the absurd. There are important social, intellectual, physical, biological, and cultural differences among all human beings, not only between men and women. All of these differences should be duly noted while at the same time we acknowledge the rights of all. We should celebrate differences, not brush them aside in the name of “equity.”  Wharton certainly knew this.

There are many intriguing differences between males and females and it is one of the sad consequences of the feminist movement, and so-called “political correctness,” that we have become afraid to mention them for fear of the wrath of the Commissar of Culture. Noting differences between the sexes is dismissed as “stereotyping” and noting differences in general suggests that nasty word “discrimination,” which we forget was once a good thing. We have become oversensitive to the legitimate grievances of those who have been chronically disadvantaged. And in our concern that someone’s feeling might get hurt we become tongue-tied and intellectually impotent. It is wrong to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it is also wrong to hamstring those who have important things to say.

Fortunately, Wharton was not caught up in the gender equity frenzy, though she was wide awake to the plight of women. She most certainly was not tongue-tied nor intellectually impotent. Her main objective was to draw attention to the follies and injustices of her age. In doing so she was able to discriminate between pretense and honesty, the way the world was and the way she knew it should be.  She was aware of the slights that were being perpetrated daily against women in her culture and saw the reality that was buried beneath social protocols and propriety. And she was unafraid to speak about them. Most importantly, she didn’t have to look over her shoulder to see if she was being watched by the Commissar of Culture. That made it possible for her to speak her mind most eloquently.