AXES TO GRIND
In one sense, of course, PC is just a form of good manners – or of giving strangers the benefit of the doubt as to whether or not they are human like yourself. I suppose all cultures display such doubts about strangers, but also most cultures seem to have some kind of prohibition against inhospitality towards strangers, so things in that regard appear to balance each other out. Good manners or (politeness) of this kind seems to throw a blanket endorsement over the rest of the human species – unless, of course, the past behaviour of actual individuals or groups compels you to withdraw that blanket endorsement and become more suspicious or hostile. This desire to give large swathes of people the benefit of the doubt regarding their humanity and treat them decently forms an integral part of Political-Correctness and that, of course, should not be forgotten.
But Political Correctness comes in all shapes and sizes. Melanie Klein spoke of the Good Mother and the Bad Mother – we see the pair quite often in fairy-tales in which the Mother is replaced by the wicked Step-Mother. They are, of course, two different aspects of the same mother, but very young children don’t always see it like that. The Good Mother is the loving kind mother who caters for your desires, while the Bad Mother who doesn’t is perceived as vindictive and cruel for denying you access to the objects of your desires - particularly to the breast. Likewise, there is often a good side and bad side to Political Correctness – and sometimes the two even fuse, becoming good and bad at one and the same time. On one side PC might be like the Lacanian version of Freud’s Ego-Ideal, and on the other Freud’s version of the Superego – which is perceived as vengeful and vindictive - or as placing impossible demands on the Ego. The Superego in this Freudian account becomes a kind respectable vector for unconscious sadistic and punishing impulses acting under the banner of moral standards and values.
When PC becomes too keen on censoring certain forms of activity under whatever pretext, perhaps we can justifiably say that the Ego-Ideal of Political Correctness has given way to its Superego. Whether or not this analysis is literally true, one thing is certain. PC is problematic in many ways – not because it holds up certain ethical norms which the Ego-Ideal freely accedes to, but because it goes far beyond that and imposes a kind of censorship on the way we may happen to think or express ourselves based on certain ‘political’ criteria.
I am very far from endorsing the kind of anti-PC outlook and behaviour which Donald Trump endorses. Let’s face it, Donald Trump is a gross boor who trades on the perception that he is not a member of the ‘effete elite’ of Democrats and liberals who oppose him and that somehow makes him an ‘authentic’ American. What’s so tragic about this whole situation is that for those who are justifiably against the ‘effete elite’ of Democrats and liberals, Trump is offered as the only alternative. Not only that, but Trump is so obviously anti-PC in both its Ego-Ideal and Superego forms that that is seen as some kind of bonus in many people’s eyes. Indeed, as Steve Bannon - of the far right Breitbart News - himself has acknowledged, Political Correctness - and the Identity-Politics associated with it - is one of the biggest assets that the far right can have – which is ironic considering that no-one is more into Identity-Politics than far right white nationalists – though perhaps we’re digressing a little bit here. Trump is only a symptom of political alienation in general, and the Democrats and liberals who oppose him, and their PC values, seem to me to be very much part of that overall problem.
Before I proceed, I would like to expand a little on what I mean by the Ego-Ideal as opposed to the Superego in this context. For Lacan, I believe, the Superego is an unconscious agency whose function is to repress desire (In the name of the Father?) whereas, the Ego-Ideal exerts a conscious pressure towards sublimation. The rest is only relevant here if you are a doctrinaire Freudian which I am not. The difference I want to stress in connection with Political Correctness is the difference between a free and flexible pressure towards treating others as human beings like yourself and respecting the dignity due to them as such, and a rigid and inflexible censoriousness, which we have come to associate with so much politically correct behaviour. I am using the two terms, Ego-Ideal and Superego purely as analogies here, without implying that these psychological agencies are actually involved in the phenomenon under discussion – although, of course, they may very well be.
What especially concerns me about PC is its censorious attitude towards the arts and writing in general which doesn’t appear to conform to a PC agenda. See for example, what has happened at Oxford University recently in connection with an engraved Rudyard Kipling poem called If, which, whatever you think of the poem as a poem, has absolutely nothing racist or imperialist about it. Nevertheless, it has still been defaced – and replaced by a more politically acceptable poem by Maya Angelou - because Kipling was reputedly an imperialist. The censoriousness of this repressive PC tendency stretches from the tradition of dead white heterosexual males to current works of art or the theatre which apparently do not meet up with the requirements of certain self-appointed guardians of Political Correctness. That such censorship invariably misses the point of the work in question, is obvious in connection with a poem recently published by a magazine whose editors have since stated that they now regret having published the poem because it failed to comply with certain standards of decency towards certain members of the public, despite the fact that irony saturated the poem from beginning to end and only an idiot could have taken the poem to be deliberately offensive. Like most people with exes to grind, the guardians of PC values aren’t exactly renowned for their critical nous - or their appreciation of nuance.
In my own work for the theatre, for example, I have come under attack from certain feminists for apparent attitudes towards women which they as women thought were offensive - without them, of course, looking at the context of what was said, or appreciating the role of irony in what I had written. They remind me of a certain Jewish friend with whom I went to see The Merchant of Venice and who thought the play was anti-Semitic because certain characters within it were anti-Semitic and expressed anti-Semitic sentiments. Drama - especially Shakespearean drama - doesn’t always work in the way my friend thought. In that play in particular, the contrast between what is stated in the dialogue and what actually happens reveals a layer of irony which can be easily missed. I myself have written about this in a blog called Shylock The Extremist. (Blog Archive, Jan, 2017)
Mark Twain has, I believe, been banned in American schools, because of the frequent use the N-word in his novels – as if Mark Twain had written Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn according to the principle that the narrator of a novel should be above what he or she is narrating and the characters within the body of the novel itself. The principle, of course, is fallacious and has been exploded on many occasions. Blood Meridian, a brilliant novel by Cormac McCarthy, also uses the N-word rather a lot, but how else is a narrator going to get close to what he or she is narrating and draw the reader into the world of the people being described in the novel without using their language - or indeed 'coming down to their level'? Immediacy is a very definite virtue in a novel and you cannot reproduce it by prissily skirting round certain ‘taboo’ words in either the narrative or the dialogue. If people feel children’s sensibilities need to be protected from, or mollicoddled in the face of, such immediacy in literature, then one may justifiably ask what those children are destined to grow up into.
Another nonsensical PC issue is related to the question of “cultural appropriation”. It was as if writers should only deal with those cultures in which they were brought up. It was also as if all human cultures did not have universal features which allowed them to be shared by people from numerous other cultures as well. Nothing human is alien to humans in general – if they are open enough to experience the world from ‘alien’ perspectives and integrate them into their own world-view. The furore over “cultural appropriation” seems to be specifically designed confine people to their particular cultural ghettos and stop them seeing others from a wider human perspective – which is surely the aim of PC from the point of view of the Ego-Ideal, if not from that of the Superego. The concept of "cultural appropriation" seems to me to follow logically on from Identity Politics, which has always had a strongly reactionary potential. We can see it in the way the "antisemitism" card has been played against Jeremy Corbyn in the last few months in the UK.
I have been rereading Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites recently - which must be one of the most unPC works of literature ever written - and had this to say about it afterwards.
“Funeral Rites contains, I believe, Genet’s most radical treatment of the theme of evil. In his other books he confines his treatment to the criminal underclass, but in F.R. he takes it to an entirely new level, by exploring it in relation to Nazism and the German occupation of France. The book is dedicated to a French Resistance fighter called Jean Decarnin, who is Genet’s lover and who is killed by the Nazis, but it is almost as if Genet himself feels compromised by the fact that his lover stood for all that was good and noble, while his (anti)heroes – Eric, the German Soldier, and his lover Riton of the pro-German French militia - embodied everything that was evil and ignoble – which Genet clearly finds much more sexually and aesthetically compelling. It reminds me of what Blake said about Milton, namely that Milton was a true poet because he was of the Devil’s party in Paradise Lost. Likewise, Genet is a true poet because he is on the side of evil and that is what energises his writing. (The same is true, of course, in the work of William Burroughs.) Indeed, one of Genet’s ‘complaints’ about the French Resistance fighters is precisely that their virtues and nobility are merely conventional. I wonder if this work could be published now without meeting up with a lot of politically-correct resistance. But to explore the dark underside of human nature without moralising is, I believe, one of the functions of art. Without it, it’s like counting using only even numbers and refusing to include the odd.”
Later, I go on to add.
“So how do we go beyond evil - the evil of Nazism just to take one example? For Nietzsche, it is simply a question of going beyond Christianity and the categories of Good and Evil which he identifies with Christianity. But is it really as simple as that? Genet’s answer is much more radical – in that he perceives evil as a universal phenomenon rooted in human nature, not just in Christianity, which simply places it in the domain of the Devil. Genet’s radicality in relation to evil is that it should be absorbed, not simply banished to the margins where Satan abides, and that absorption of evil is a function of the imagination – and art.
For Genet, it almost seems as if the sadomasochism at the heart of genuine evil – like that of the Nazis – should be recognised as part of everyone’s make-up, and not just that of ‘evil people’. For example, as I have learnt quite recently, sadism is a definite impulse in very young children. Masochism, of course, is a kind of sadism directed at oneself through the agency of another person and is probably a later development produced by guilt and a desire to be punished - as opposed to a desire to punish. From that point of view, Riton is a fascinating character in the novel. Everyone, I suspect, harbours within him or herself a Riton whose love for Eric, the German soldier had such a strong element of masochism in it that, while he is being screwed by Eric, he could long “for an increase in pain so to be lost in it.” He could also see himself in the guise of France being buggered by Germany – as if that were another layer of his own masochistic feelings for Eric. These things have to be faced. To react to such things in a fit of politically correct moral indignation seems to me to be completely inappropriate, while to put oneself in Riton’s situation and make that imaginative leap into being Riton himself, however much you might otherwise disapprove of his pro-Nazi behaviour, is a much more appropriate reaction. That’s why I think Genet is such a superb artist. He has taken this particular bull by the horns and turned it into genuinely great art."
Political Correctness seems to want a sanitised, indeed an anaesthetised world, especially in its repressive (Superego) form. It wants a Utopia in which no one is ever offended by what other people might say. As a result, it has become part and parcel of a new Inquisition designed to prevent us from freely expressing ourselves. One of the victims of PC, of course, is class-consciousness and the awareness of the much more real fault-line of class in our society. We would prefer, instead, to talk about how this or that painting might ‘objectify’ women and therefore promote rape. (Where is Camille Paglia when you need her?) Is there an agenda behind these forms of Political Correctness, an agenda promoted by the ruling-class to draw attention away from itself and get us talking about our precious identities instead? One is given to wonder. Certainly, PC is a good diversion, but please don’t tell me that’s where the struggle is finally at.