Friday, August 14, 2015


It's John C Wright Gone Mad, I Tell You

NOTE: Conversation with some of my fan base has made me wonder if I over-edited the last couple of pieces. So if this is even more long, more incoherent, and more boring than usual, you know who to blame.

1: The Plot

Imagine an organization so secret that even its own members don’t know it exists. 

Imagine an organization so secret that none of its members (who don’t know they are members) know what its aims and objectives are. 

Imagine an organization so powerful that it counts presidents and prime ministers among its members. None of the presidents and prime ministers know that they are members, but they still do its will, although they don't know what its will is, obviously. 

Imagine an organization so powerful that it controls all the world’s scientists; to the extent that they cannot see, or pretend that they cannot see, errors in their work so simple and so obvious that they can be easily spotted by amateurs with no scientific training at all. 

Imagine that this is all going on in a world where all authority has been abdicated to something called the magisterium which alone can infallibly distinguish right from wrong in any specific case. And the imagine that the secret organization has infiltrated the magisterium itself — although obviously the magisterium doesn’t know this.

This is not a fictitious world. 

This is a literal description of the world we live in. 

Do you think it sounds like the plot of a novel by Philip K Dick?

Indeed it does. Only a Dick could possibly believe in it.

2: What is Political Correctness 

(1972) Orthodoxy 

Rather delightfully, the earliest reference to Political Correctness that I can discover on Google occurs in a 1972 Rolling Stone essay about Pete Seeger:

For on the lower levels of any committed political movement there are always doctrinaire sorts, eager for lengthy and nit-picking debate over the political "correctness" of every line of every song, of every public act, of every casual statement.

The quotation marks are lovely: it’s like reading an old SF novel in which the word computor is placed in italics, or a war story which still spells radar as R.A.D.A.R.

One might say that the latter definitions of the term are latently present in this article. When Seeger changed the line "it’s the song about the love between all of my brothers" to "it’s the song about the love between my brothers and my sisters" he was not only making the song politically "correct": he was also making it Politically Correct. (Another folksinger thought the change was "silly" and suggested that "the song about the love between all of my siblings" would be better;  but we are not told that he thought that anything had gone mad.) In 1972 the term is not yet particularly pejorative; nor confined specifically to the Left. Nit-picking arguments about doctrine are seen as something which affects "any committed political movement."

(1992) Inclusive Language

The most widely used definition of Political Correctness is "the use of inclusive language" or (since the term is only ever used pejoratively) "the unnecessary use of inclusive language". It's a definition that people default to, in my experience: most of you are going to read to the end of this very long essay and say "Well, that's all very well Andrew, but they totally did take the gollys off the marmalade." 

A book called The Politically Correct Handbook, first published in 1992, seems to have been instrumental in yoking together the two ideas that "P.C means the use of inclusive language" and "the use of inclusive language is ridiculous". According to Google NGram (above) it was around 1992 that the phrase first came into common usage. Nigel Rees published his Politically Correct Phrasebook ("what they say you can and cannot say in the 1990s") a year later.

The Handbook was only ever intended to be satirical, and expressions like follicly challenged, botanical companion and person of stupor were pure inventions. So too were the stories in the right-wing press about councils spending millions on pink bin-bags (because black bin-bags were racist) and the perennial fib (first attested six years earlier) about a nursery school teacher prohibiting the singing of Baa Baa Black Sheep in her classroom in case it offends people of colour.

Nigel Rees, who is sufficiently geeky to quote sources, does come up with actual examples of companies giving very grandiose names to very menial jobs ambulant stock replenishment operative for shelf stacker seems to be a real example. This doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with inclusive language and he acknowledges that bookies have been claiming to be turf accountants and rat catchers to be sanitation officers or pest controllers for decades. But he is part of a general ambiance which says that Political Correctness has something to do with vagueness, indirectness, or circumlocution. 

The line from 1972 to 1992 is fairly easy to draw. One of the things that the seekers after orthodoxy, particularly on the left, were concerned about was inclusivity, so inclusivity came to be the thing which political "correctness" mostly meant.

It is true that certain words and phrases that were in common use in, say, 1965, had dropped out of use by, say, 1985. When I was growing up spastic was in common use both as a medical term and as a term of low abuse. It's now almost totally taboo: the Spastics Society is known as Scope and sufferers from the condition are referred to as people with cerebral palsy. Of, course, this stuff doesn't happen logically or consistently: language change never does. I remember when hearing impaired children were referred to as deaf and dumb, where we would now say deaf and mute or a person who can’t hear or speak or most likely a sign language user. We mostly don’t have a problem with saying that something is a dumb idea, although we would think it pretty lame if someone used spastic as an insult.

If you want to call this sort of thing Political Correctness, I can't stop you. But Political Correctness includes both the idea that there are some things which we used to say that we don't say any more and the idea that the whole concept of inclusiveness is silly. If calling someone follicly challenged instead of bald and calling someone a person of colour rather than a n****r are both examples of Political Correctness, and if saying follicly challenged is ridiculous then it follows (in some peoples eyes) that Political Correctness is ridiculous and if you want to avoid sounding ridiculous you'd better carry on saying n****r.

It is astonishing how many articles still assure us that the BBC was guilty of Political Correctness (in a perjorative sense) when they decided, as late as 1980 to, er, stop showing black face minstrel shows.

(2000) Cultural Marxism

In or about 2000, an American academic named Bill Lind wrote an essay entitled On the Origins of Political Correctness. Lind’s essays comes after the use of Political Correctness in the 1992 sense is well established. Indeed his opening salvo specifically defines P.C as meaning inclusive language (and takes it for granted that inclusiveness is a Bad Thing):

For the first time in our history, Americans have to be fearful of what they say, of what they write, and of what they think. They have to be afraid of using the wrong word, a word denounced as offensive or insensitive, or racist, sexist, or homophobic.

The essay amounts to an informal (very informal) history of Marxism in the second half of the 20th century, some of which may, for all I know, be accurate and some of which is pretty obviously silly. It may very well be true that Marxist ideas had a lot of influence on universities in the 60s and 70s, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was down to the influence of Marcuse and his buddies in the Frankfurt School. It was certainly never true that "critical theory" or "deconstruction" involved changing the meanings of literary texts so that they meant whatever the reader wanted them to mean, as a glance at any text book would confirm.

Lind asserts that Political Correctness "is" Cultural Marxism, or else that the Cultural Marxists created Political Correctness, without indicating any process by which either thing could have come about. There really is a huge leap in the essay: Marxism and Political Correctness are both  Bad Things; there was an awful lot of Marxism about in the 60s and 70s; and suddenly, Political Correctness and Cultural Marxism are one and the same.

Political Correctness in the 1992 sense functions as a magic talisman ("the herb moly" as Mr Lewis would have said) for petty racists. If you don’t really see why you shouldn’t carry on insulting your Indian neighbors, you only have to mutter Political Correctness under your breath and corner shop becomes comically absurd and paki shop the normal, straight-forward thing to say.

Political Correctness in Lind's sense has similar properties. It doesn’t matter that Lind never explains how he gets from “there are lots of Marxist thinkers in American universities” to “The use of inclusive language and cultural Marxist are the same thing”; or what kind of mechanism would enable a group of Jewish intellectuals in Frankfurt to stop everyone from saying mong and make them start saying person with Down’s syndrome instead.

Most of the people who have been influenced by the essay have presumably never read it. If you already believe that inclusive language is silly, this essay gives you permission to think that it has been forced on us by commies as part of a plot to destroy America. Once you believe that, you aren't merely permitted to say paki shop: you are morally obliged to do so.

(2005) All pervasive conspiracy against common sense

Somewhere around 2004, someone called Laura Midgely started an organisation called The Campaign Against Political Correctness, ostensibly to prevent anyone bestowing equal rights on homosexual goldfish. This was about the time that the World Wide Web started to be widely used. There are numerous websites dating from about the same time with names like Political Correctness: The Awful Truth and Political Correctness Watch.

Where Lind may only have intended to say that inclusive language has been imposed on us by Cultural Marxists, people like the Midgelys see a conspiracy behind anything vaguely left-wing, progressive or even modern. Health and safety law; any form of affirmative action or positive discrimination; the idea that adults shouldn't hit children and latterly the theory of man-made climate changed are all designated Politically Correct and blamed on Cultural Marxism. So is more outre stuff like putting modesty screens in swimming pools; removing unintentional innuendos from children's books; lowering the pass-marks for A levels and prohibiting the hunting of wild mammals with dogs. The Awful Truth website lists 25 areas where Political Correctness has replaced British Politics and Common Sense, including Phone Masts, Immigration and Speed Cameras. None of them have any obvious connection to inclusiveness or indeed nit-picking left-wing orthodoxy. The writer goes so far as to "define" Political Correctness as "Doing the reverse of what common sense would suggest" "Doing exactly the opposite of what you preach" and "Doing ridiculous things just for a political reason".  If it is annoying me this morning, it's Politically Correct.

A gardener calls any plant that he doesn’t want in his garden a weed. There is no point in analyzing the plant in question to try to establish what the essence of weediness is. A plant might be a weed if you found it in your vegetable patch; the same plant might be exactly what you were trying to cultivate in your wild-flower display. We use different words — execution, slaughter, murder — for different kinds of killing, depending on whether or not we approve of them. Saying that a murdering murderer who murders a murderer is just as much a murderer as the murderer he is murdering doesn’t actually tell us very much, except that the speaker doesn’t approve of capital punishment.

It is tempting to say that Political Correctness is simply a term that the Right use for things they don't approve of, signifying nothing more than "left-wing nonsense." God knows, the Left have plenty of pejorative terms of their own. But post-2000, calling something Politically Correct doesn't just mean "I don't like it": it means "I don't like it, and it is part of a plot." 

Not everyone who thinks that wind farms, phone masts and speed cameras are Political Correctness Gone Mad has heard of Bill Lind or the Frankfurt Group; but they probably do have some sense that there is something out there called The Political Correctness Brigade.

Most of us feel from time to time that some bureaucrat or jobsworth is deliberately trying to spoil our day; but if you can persuade yourself that the residents-only parking scheme or the rule that says you can only take out a library book if you have a library card is part of a communist conspiracy, then it's literally true. 

If the 1992 version of Political Correctness was a talisman that allowed you to think of yourself as "charmingly un-PC" rather than "racist"; the 2005 version is a magic ring that turns everyday irritation into a skirmish in the culture war. 

3: The Cult

The Hugo Nominated John C Wright doesn't believe in Man Made Climate Change. He uses words like lie, hoax and fraud to describe the idea.

But why, ask some of us naive souls, if it is a lie, a hoax and a fraud — and if anyone can easily see, without any special scientific training, that it's not happening — why does every scientist on the planet think that it is?

Easy, says the Hugo-nominated Wright. Because Political Correctness.

The Hugo-nominated Wright's version of Political Correctness goes way beyond that of Lind, or even of the Midgelys. I suspect that he is cleverer than Bill Lind and much cleverer than the it's Political Correctness gone mad I tell you websites. I think that he can see that Lind provides no convincing link between "there were Marxist intellectuals in some colleges in the 60s" and "you can't even call a queer a sodomite nowadays." I think he can also see that the connection between "you're not allowed to hit your children, at any rate not with sticks" and "we'd like to erect a wind-farm near your pretty village" is far from obvious.

So he offers us a magnificent new version of Political Correctness which explains everything. If Laura Midgely's version is like a magic ring, Hugo-nominee Wright's is the One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. Let him loose with it for five minutes and the Rhine will flood, Valhalla will burn, and the fat lady will sing.

Political Correctness is now a cult although — it is also, at the same time, merely a shared world-view. It is no-longer defined by the use of inclusive language — or even the wish to destroy western civilization. It's now about lying. The Hugo-nominated writer is a little obscure here: it isn't quite clear whether he thinks that members of the cult lie in order to further some larger aim; or whether the cult is based on a series of claims which are themselves lies; or if lying is an end in itself. When he says:

everyone outside the cult (who cares to look) knows political correctness is a lie. It is a lie about… everything

then this sounds as if he thinks that Political Correctness has some underlying belief system or philosophical claim, but that that claim isn't true. When he says:

When a member of the cult enters the legal profession, he lies. When he enters the sciences, he lies. When he enters the journalistic professions, he lies. If he becomes a teacher, he lies. He lies and lies and lies. This is because his worldview, his philosophy of life on a primary, fundamental, and emotional level rejects the truth as unfair…

it sounds much more as if he believes that Political Correctness treats lying as an end in itself. My overall impression is that he thinks that Political Correctness lies because lying is what it does and what it is for.

Showing the truth is the one and central thing Political Correctness abhors. The reason why the philosophy of Political Correctness was invented was to smother the truth. That is how these people live. It is what they are.

It's all a very long way from wondering whether post-person isn't a bit of a silly term; and thinking that maybe the world won't end if I carry on saying that my path has crazy-paving or even thinking that the bit where the Major says the n-word to Basil Fawlty is probably quite harmless in context.

I can see how you might possibly think that all the scientists in the world are wrong. There was a time when all the most intelligent people honestly thought the sun went round the earth. I can see how you might possibly think that all the scientists in the world were interpreting facts wrongly because of their beliefs. Beliefs can act as a filter on what we see and how we understand it. But the Hugo-nominated Wright thinks that scientists (and everyone else) are saying something which is wrong, and something which they know is wrong, because they belong to a cult that believes that you should say wrong things, because...I give it up.

It doesn't even work on its own terms. Even if you think that "Because every scientist in the world belongs to a cult that believes in lying" is a good answer to the question "If climate change is not happening, why does every scientist in the world thinks that it is?" you still have to answer the question "Why does every scientist in the world belong to this particular cult?"

And how is it that the lying cult only compels scientists to lie with respect to climate change? They find ways of extending the lives of people with cancer and AIDS; they design computers that would have seemed like science fiction twenty five years ago; they send rockets to Pluto and land probes on comets; they perform heart surgery on desperately ill Hugo-nominees. Why does their need to lie about everything only kick in when they start looking at temperature graphs?

And this doesn't only apply to scientists. It applies to me. (And you, I imagine.) I am not actively plotting to overthrow western civilization, but I'm very much a believer in inclusiveness. There are certain words I won't say or write, regardless of context. (The other day I said to a customer  "We have that copy of  Benjamin Zephaniah’s Chants of a Homesick N-Word that you were waiting for.") If Hugo-nominee John C Wright is right, this was a lie. I don't really think that inclusive language is a good thing. I don't really think that the N-word is too offensive for a white person ever to say. I decided to lie because I belong to a cult that tells me to lie because lying is what it tells people to do. And presumably, I'm lying about that as well.

....Oh, the candidate's a dodger, yes a well-known dodger, oh the candidate’s a dodger, yes, and I’m a dodger too...

The Pope believes in man made climate change. I wonder how the more-Catholic-than-thou Wright deals with that?

If you can twist your head into this mindset — the mindset in which nearly everyone in the whole wide world is a lying liar who belongs to the lying liars club — then you can probably achieve a sort of zen clarity: a state of mind where you are right about everything and everyone else is wrong about everything and you never need to think about anything ever again. The kind of mental gymnastics that would achieve that kind of serenity might be very well be worth the effort.

No comments: