Like many other bloggers I’ve noted and given some thought to the debate on political correctness triggered by Anthony Browne’s pamphlet for the right-wing think-tank Civitas, ‘The Retreat of Reason’. I will get around to commenting on Browne’s actual work in due course but in the mean time I spotted this post from Robert Sharp which all but demands immediate comment by virtue of incorporating the statement below:
To repeat: The purpose of Political Correctness is a noble one. It seeks to refine our political debate. It identifies and eliminates discrimination in our everyday language. Inconvenient[l]y for Civitas and Anthony Browne, some of this prejudice exists within the traditions and social mores of British Civil Society, the homogenising behemoth that they exist to defend. They therefore see Political Correctness as a threat, and they go on the offensive. This is truly a tragic irony, as they succeed only in holding back a force of progress, one which seeks to weed out Britain’s prejudices, and recognise its historical mistakes. Only when that process is complete may we call ourselves ‘Great’ once more.
I wonder if Robert realises or appreciates just how sinister a concept he’s putting forward when he talks of the purpose of political correctness being to identify and eliminate ‘discrimination in our everyday language’ for there is far more to this particular idea than merely the removal from common parlance of certain words – such an idea strikes at the very concepts those words express.
It seems strange, in some respects, to have to resort to a source more reactionary even than Browne in order challenge Robert’s assertion of a ‘noble purpose’ for political correctness, yet here such a thing is entirely necessary and one must turn to Joseph de Maistre:
la pensée et la parole ne sont que deux magnifique synonymes
‘Thought and words are only two splendid synonyms’ argued Maistre in what was, at the time, a remarkable and original insight.
How do we think?
We think by using symbols, symbols which make up an articulated vocabulary – the most basic of which are words. One cannot think without recourse to symbols (words) and yet one cannot invest or create such symbols without being possessed of the ability to think. The use of words cannot have been ‘invented’ articifically any more than the ‘use’ of thoughts as the two are identical.
This concept has profound implications when applied to the question of political correctness and particularly when applied in the context of seeking to eliminate discrimination in everyday language for by eliminating discrimination in language we also, logically, eliminate the idea and concept of discrimination from thought. If we have no language to describe, define or express discrimination then we can have no such concept at all.
Some may see that as a good thing, if one eliminates the language of discrimination then one eliminates the concept of discrimination and in doing so one, logically, eliminates discrimination itself.
A noble purpose? Perhaps, but one that is deeply misguided and dangerous.
Were we to eradicate the very concept of discrimination we would lose, in the process, our capacity to understand that concept, and with it the capacity to understand that portion of history that relates to or relies upon an understanding of that concept and through that a part, if not most of our understanding of who we are and of how we came to be the people and the society we are today. It is not merely the case that the concept of discrimination disappears from everyday life, it disappears also from history; not only does discrimination cease to exist but it can never have existed as we would have no conception of what it it, what it may mean, or have meant, nor of how to understand it.
This is something that George Orwell understood all too well in his creation of ‘newspeak’ in the novel 1984. If someone – the State in Orwell’s novel – can control language and can eradicate words that are considered undesirable, then that someone can control the thoughts of a population, they can, quite literally, make certain ideas and concepts not just disappear but cease to exist, cease to have ever existed.
The underpinnings of political correctness, if taken to the level of Robert’s suggested ‘nobel purpose’, quite naturally lead on to the concept of thoughtcrime – what political correctness seeks to weed is not ‘Brtain’s prejudices’ but the very notion of prejudice itself; the ‘homogenising behemoth’ here is not the ‘traditions and social mores of British Civil Society’ but political correctness, which seeks to enforce on society a totalitarian uniformity of thought and concept entirely at odds with the concept of liberty, free expression or even of humanity.
There is little to choose between Robert’s ‘noble purpose’ for political correctness and the equally noble purpose expressed in Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ wherein Alex is ‘cured’ of his capacity for violence by means of aversion therapy. however, as Burgess goes on to demonstrate, stripping Alex of his capacity for violence strips him, equally, of his humanity to the extent that he becomes incapable of functioning effectively in the real world. Ultimately Alex’s personal ‘salvation’ cones not at the hands of the doctors who take away, forcibly, his violent urges but only after his capacity for violence is rekindled and he chooses, of his free will, to turn away from violence.
Violence, prejudice, discrimination – all are part of the human condition, facets of human nature without which we would cease to be human at all as surely as if were were to lose our capacity for compassion, our belief in liberty or our ability to think and communicate.
That which distinguishes the civilised man (or woman) from the barbarian is not that the civilised man lacks the capacity for violence or prejudice or discrimination but that they understand that capacity all too well but choose of their own voilition not to exercise it. That decision, that moral and ethical choice, can be made only if one is possessed of concepts of prejudice, discrimination and violence is, therefore, equally possessed and capable of using the symbols (words) needed to express that concept.
None of the above should be construed as necessarily supporting Browne’s thesis in his book, much of which appears, to me at least, to be little more than a poorly constructed and long-winded bout of quasi-ideological whinging by a reactionary old git.