The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Words, Words, Words

“Words, words, words” – Hamlet (1)

Words are the building blocks of language which is one of the means by which we communicate with one another. To communicate is to share with other people what one thinks, knows, and feels. Language is not the only means of communication. Through the expressions on our faces, the way we move or stay still, and numerous other visual indicators, we often communicate our emotions, how we feel, without needing to put it into words. Conversely, communication is not the only end to which we can put the means of language. Language can be, and often is, used to obstruct communication in a sense, by concealing rather than revealing one’s thoughts, knowledge and feelings. Lying and deception are obvious examples of ways in which language can be used to conceal rather than communicate but they are not the only examples. Indeed, other examples can be given in which the use of language to conceal rather than to fully share our thoughts and feelings is morally praiseworthy rather than blameworthy as it is in the case of lying and deception.

Suppose, for example, that you run across a friend who is sporting a new outfit. The expression on her face speaks of pride in this new ensemble which you, however, feel must have been invented as an alternative to syrup of ipecac for the induction of regurgitation. You know that she is the type whose feelings are easily hurt and have no desire so to hurt her. You therefore try to conceal rather than convey your revulsion at her fashion failure with your words. This does not necessarily mean that you lie, but you choose your words very carefully so as to avoid causing unnecessary offense. This is called tact. It is both an art and a gift and like all blessings that have been bestowed upon the human race it has not been evenly distributed. It comes without effort to some people, others have to work hard at it, and there are yet others who seem to lack all capacity for it. Indeed, there are even those who reject tact as a euphemism for cant and claim to practice an undiluted candour, the absolute goodness of which they profess to believe in. This is, I think, mostly a North American phenomenon, perhaps a consequence of the early influence of Puritanism in the development of North American society. It is a foolish attitude for as long as imperfect men must live with one another in communities there will be a need to minimize social friction and hence a need for tact.

The minimization of social friction is something that is to our benefit both as individuals and collectively as communities and societies. To help us develop the skill of tactfulness and perhaps to compensate for some people’s lack of natural ability for tact societies have developed something called etiquette. This is a word we have borrowed from the French, in which language it originally referred to a card, (2) having evolved into its present meaning through the practice of printing the rules of courtly and military protocol on cards. It now refers to a rules of speech and behaviour, that are maintained through social pressure rather than the force of law for the purpose of minimizing social friction and preventing situations from escalating to the point where it becomes necessary to use the force of law to maintain the peace. We often use the word manners as a synonym for etiquette because the rules of etiquette pertain to the manner in which we act or speak. Someone who practices good etiquette is said to be polite or civil. These words are derived respectively from the Greek and Latin words for city-state which again points to the purpose of etiquette - to facilitate life in the community or society by minimizing social friction.

The rules of etiquette are not written in stone. They are a cultural tradition, produced and transmitted by the institutions of human societies, and like all such traditions evolve over time. They can, for the most part, however, like those ancient laws which were written in stone by the divine hand at Mt. Sinai, be summed up in the Golden Rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Politeness could be defined as the habitual practice of good etiquette. Politeness and tact must be distinguished from and contrasted with a fairly new phenomenon that also involves the use of social pressure to compel people to speak in certain ways and not in others. That phenomenon is called political correctness.

Politeness and political correctness are similar in that that both seek to discourage language that offends other people. In this similarity, however, there is a crucial difference. The language that etiquette forbids and politeness tries to avoid is language that can be reasonably be expected to give offense to any random member of a society and to the majority of its members. There might be some people who are not made uncomfortable by explicit and detailed discussion of the body’s excretory and reproductive functions during conversation around the dinner table but most people are and we can reasonably expect that any given person will be and so etiquette dictates that such discussion occur at another time and place. The language that political correctness forbids, however, is language that is considered to be offensive to a specific, identifiable group. Ordinarily the specific group is a minority within the larger society, usually a religious, racial or other ethnic minority group, although political correctness also forbids language that feminists consider to be offensive to the female sex, which is approximately half of the population.

Note the irony in this. Political correctness was created to serve the purposes of an ideological agenda. According to the ideology that underlies political correctness, in a just society all members of the society, would have equal social status, equal political and civil rights, equal legal protection and equal economic opportunity, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sex and religion. The same ideology indicts traditional Western societies for sinning against this concept of social justice by failing to treat race, ethnicity, sex, and religion as being matters of no public consequence. Yet, when we compare political correctness with the etiquette and politeness that were part of the traditional culture of Western societies, we find that the former attaches far more significance to such matters as race and sex than the latter. Political correctness tells us to avoid saying the sort of things that might offend X and traditional etiquette tells us to avoid saying the sort of things that might offend Y. X is X by virtue of membership in such-and-such a group, whereas Y could be any member of society.

While some of the rules of etiquette may have been formulated at certain times and in certain places by civil authorities, etiquette as a whole is a tradition that has evolved over a long period of time and rather than an ideological agenda serves the good of the whole society. Political correctness, on the other hand, seeks to subvert that good. Etiquette minimizes social friction by teaching us to speak and act in ways that avoid giving unnecessary offense to other members of our society. The forms of speech it tells us to avoid are those that are the most likely to give offense to the most members of our society. Political correctness does not minimize social friction but rather creates and enhances it. Rather than teaching people to identify their own good with that of the whole of the society to which they belong it teaches people to reject the whole of society and to identify instead with whatever smaller group to which they belong that can claim a grievance against the whole society.

The demands of political correctness are often very silly, petty, and ridiculous. Feminists who take the men out of women by using the spelling “womyn”. People who fail to see the absurdity of calling a black man who lives in France an “African American”. The endless list of long, sterile, compound labels for every sort of infirmity imaginable. The instinctual response of anyone who possesses a modicum of common sense to these sorts of things is one of laughter and dismissal. Appropriate as this response may be, we should not allow the silliness of political correctness to cause us to fail to take its subversive agenda seriously.

Like etiquette, political correctness relies upon social pressure to enforce its rules. Whereas etiquette generally relies upon soft social pressure, however, political correctness customarily uses hard social pressure. If you refuse to obey the dictates of political correctness it can negatively affect your grades in school or even lead to a suspension or expulsion and cost you your job or your career. While the use of law to punish breaches of etiquette is virtually unthinkable, laws have been enacted against certain forms of politically incorrect expression by the European Union and most European national governments, by the United Kingdom, by Australia and New Zealand and by Canada at the federal and provincial levels.

Political correctness has led to attempts to bowdlerize Mark Twain, (3) to pull books from libraries and bookstores, (4) and to ban Dante (5), Dickens (6) and Shakespeare (7). This aspect of political correctness is a chilling reminder that the expression originally referred to the official Communist “party line” in Stalin’s Russia, so effectively parodied in the “Newspeak” and “thoughtcrime” of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. While mercifully the current political correctness, rotten and horrible as it is, is not carried out on the extreme scale of the Soviet Union under Stalin or of the fictional society of Orwell’s book, what the two political correctnesses have in common points to another difference between political correctness and old-fashioned politeness or etiquette. Etiquette teaches us to avoid unnecessary offense by the way in which we speak – our manner of speaking. Political correctness tells us what thoughts we are allowed and not allowed to express with our words.

The thought control by means of language control depicted in Orwell’s book is a good illustration of the way political correctness works. It forced people to compartmentalize their thoughts, placing what they knew to be true into one compartment and what they were allowed to think and say in another, and to completely disconnect the two compartments. Political correctness does the same. A newspaper in Sweden, that most politically correct of European countries, recently attributed the difference in height between men and women to discrimination. (8) To come to this ridiculous conclusion they would have had to have placed all that they knew about heredity and biology into one mental compartment and kept that compartment locked and sealed so that there was no risk that anything might get out and conflict with the politically correct assertion that all differences between the sexes, and especially in which males are seen to have the advantage, are caused by discrimination. The result is politically correct but factually nonsensical. Somewhere deep in the bowels of hell Trofim Lysenko is smiling. (9)

Contemporary political correctness is a plant that sprang up from the same root as Communism, the ideology of the ruling party of the Soviet Union, namely the philosophy of nineteenth century philosopher, economist, and sociologist Karl Marx. Marx was a revolutionary who condemned existing societies, particularly the industrial Germany of his own day, as being intrinsically unjust and demanded that they be violently torn down and replaced by what he considered to be a just society. Leninist Communism was orthodox Marxism in that it was materialistic and economically deterministic, regarding culture and religion as merely masks hiding the economic causes that it believed to be the true motivation of all human action. Political correctness, however, developed in Western academia among Marxists who were willing to rethink this premise and attach greater weight to cultural matters. For these neo-Marxists, culture was the battlefield where the revolution would be won or lost.

Symbols are the building blocks of which culture is composed and the medium by which it is transmitted. The foremost set of such symbols are, of course, words and language. Algerian born French philosopher Jacques Derrida understood the significance of this for the revolutionary cause he had taken up in his youth. He accused language, especially Western language, of being structurally unjust. Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss father of the structuralist school of linguistics, had observed that binary opposition, in which white is set against black, left against right, up against down, etc., was fundamental to the structure of Western languages. This binary opposition, according to Derrida, is a form of injustice because the pairs so formed are hierarchical, with one term being “privileged” over and against the other. Light, for example, is privileged over and against dark. He condemned the “metaphysics of presence” and “logocentrism” as being even deeper ways in which the structure of Western thought and language unfairly privileged one thing over another. The former is the idea that a text’s meaning should be accessible to its readers which, in his opinion, unfairly privileged the “presence” of meaning over its “absence.” (10) The latter is the idea, present in Western thought since Plato, that the written word is a symbol twice removed from what it ultimately signifies because it is a symbol that stands for the spoken word, itself a symbol. This, idea, he complained, unjustly privileged the spoken over the written word. (11)

Now if you are like me, your gut reaction when confronted with this sort of thing is to say that’s nice, slice that up, put it between two buttered slices of bread with some cheese, tomato, cucumber and lettuce and you’ve got the makings of a great bologna sandwich. Some people, however, found in Derrida’s theories, just the tool they were looking for to create what we now call political correctness.

By the time Derrida’s most important writings were published and he began to achieve notoriety outside of France, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, various Marxist groups based in academia had long been working to undermine what Antonio Gramsci called “cultural hegemony.” It is a basic natural function of culture to promote and maintain loyalty to the community and society and to normal, balanced, people this is a good thing which serves the good of the whole society. Revolutionaries disagree because they hate society, consider it to be intolerably unjust, and wish to replace it with something else, with them in charge, and anything which promotes loyalty to the society must therefore produce resistance to their designs. Therefore, Gramsci described this natural function of culture in terms of “hegemony”, meaning that the ruling class used it to maintain their power and to oppress others.

Neo-Marxists employed various strategies and tools to undermine “cultural hegemony” in the post-World War II period. One strategy was that which Rudi Dutschke called the “long march through the institutions.” What this basically meant was that Marxists would infiltrate the institutions that generate and transmit culture and use them to promote revolutionary ends. When one considers the number of university professors and other classroom teachers who teach their students that Western civilization is the hateful source of oppression and injustice, the number of which films, television shows, and other expressions of popular culture that teach youth to disrespect and rebel against their parents, churches, and tradition, and the number of clergymen who preach “liberation theology”, “social justice”, and everything under the sun except the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the commandments of God, the Bible, and the orthodox teachings of the Creeds, one has to acknowledge that this strategy has been a smashing success.

During this period of the “long march” neo-Marxists borrowed the theories and technical jargon of the new psychological and behavioural sciences to diagnose Western societies and civilization as being afflicted with various pathological conditions. This was most notably the technique of the “Frankfurt School” in developing its “Critical Theory” of Western civilization and culture. In 1950, for example, Harper & Row of New York released a book, the first of a “Studies in Prejudice” series sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, that diagnosed the ordinary, Christian, middle class, father as having, and through his actions reproducing in his children, a fascist personality disorder. (12) The authors of this book were four researchers at the University of California in Berkeley, one of whom was Theodor W. Adorno of the Frankfurt School. Max Horkheimer, who had been director of the Institute for Social Research before, during, and after its relocation from Frankfurt to Columbia University, contributed the preface. (13) The book’s equation of the personality of the typical, traditional, father with that of the fascist dictator became a familiar meme in pop culture where it can still be found today.

The neo-Marxists’ psychoanalytical diagnosis of Western societies and civilization was facilitated by a set of words that came into general use during this period, some of which were newly coined for this very purpose, others of which had been around for a few centuries but to which new meanings had been attached. These were words like racism(t) and sexism(t). In the dictionary, these words refer to hostile attitudes and behaviour towards other people because of such factors as their race and sex. There are, of course, people whose behaviour matches the dictionary definitions of these words in ways that most people would find morally objectionable. The Left, however, used these terms to describe pathologies that they claimed were inherent in the structure of Western societies, culture, and civilization. These structural pathologies, they claimed, could be seen in the unfair, by which they meant unequal, distribution of social, economic, and political power between races, sexes, and other groups the list of which keeps expanding.

There is an obvious parallel here between this diagnosis of Western societies and Derrida’s theories about the injustice of the structure of Western languages. This parallel leads, as it was intended to lead, to the neo-Marxist technique of altering language to remove its supposed “bias” as a means of combating what the Left considers to be social injustice. The result of this technique is such things as “gender-inclusive” or “gender-neutral” language. The neo-Marxists were in the position to effect such changes due to their infiltration of the institutions of culture in the “long march” and they achieved their greatest success in the institution where their take-over was most complete, i.e., academia.

The new set of terms (racism, sexism, etc.) contributed to the development of political correctness in one other way. In addition to being used by neo-Marxists as psychoanalytical diagnoses of Western societies they are also used by progressives as terms of opprobrium against anyone who dissents from the Whig interpretation of history as applied to the social progress movements of the last two centuries and especially those of the post-World War II era. The “Whig interpretation of history” was a phrase coined by Cambridge University professor and historian, Sir Herbert Butterfield early in his career, to describe the tendency of historians to see events of the past as progress towards the present and to judge historical figures and movements positively if they worked to advance this progression and negatively if they worked to hinder or reverse it. (14) Butterfield, who disagreed with this way of interpreting history, had in mind the historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who saw liberal democracy as the inevitable outcome of historical progress. While most historians have formally repudiated acceptance of the Whig interpretation it survives in an updated form in the current progressive attitude towards the American Civil Rights movement, feminism, the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements, and the gay rights movement. The leading figures of such movements such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela are regarded almost as gods. To criticize them is to call down condemnation upon your own head as is to offer praise to anyone who was on the other side of history, as Trent Lott, then U. S. Senate Majority Leader, discovered when he offered congratulations to former Dixiecrat presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond, at the latter’s one-hundredth birthday celebration fourteen years ago.

Political correctness is ultimately a socially destructive force. It takes every category by which different groups within a society can be distinguished from each other, identifies one group within the category as being unfairly privileged and all other groups as being unfairly oppressed, and generates ill-feeling, ill-will, and resentment on the part of the “oppressed” groups towards the “privileged” and vice-versa and among all groups towards the larger society. This, of course, is exactly what the Marxists who invented it intended it to do. Liberals, who quite reasonably think that if racism and sexism are problems that the answer is to promote good relations and understanding between the sexes and between people of different races, naively assume that political correctness is an attempt to do this and this assumption on the part of the liberal West is one of the reasons political correctness has been able to wreak so much havoc.

Liberals of the older, eighteenth to early twentieth century, type of liberalism oppose political correctness because it infringes upon the freedom of thought and freedom of speech of the individual. At its best this libertarian position provides good arguments against the legal enforcement of political correctness in so-called “hate” legislation. At its worst it can lead to the promotion of behaviour and speech that is not merely politically incorrect but which is also downright rude and impolite. The liberal who takes his stand upon the autonomy of the individual will have a difficult time seeing the difference between politeness and political correctness. That is why the classical liberal position, valuable as its arguments are in the fight against legally enforced political correctness, is not the ground we need to stand upon in combating political correctness as a whole. That ground is to be found in the position of the conservative, the spokesman within liberal Western societies, for pre-liberal, pre-modern, traditions and institutions, including and especially, the classical and Christian concept of society as ordered for the good of the whole. For that, and not the autonomy of the individual, is the true target of the politically correct assault upon Western thought, tradition, and language.

(1) This is the Danish prince’s response to Polonius’ question “What do you read, my lord” in Act II, Scene 2.

(2) The word “ticket” comes from the same root.




(6) This link is to a news item from 1949. This predates the current use of the expression “political correctness” but the attempt by Joseph Goldstein to have Oliver Twist removed from the curriculum in New York schools because of its anti-Semitic content is clearly an early example of the phenomenon of political correctness.

(7) Various school divisions in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States have banned such plays as Othello, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, and The Taming of the Shrew for politically correct reasons.

(8) h/t March Richardson of Oz Conservative,

(9) Trofim Lysenko was the Stalin era, Soviet biologist who developed a treatment that strengthened grain so that it could withstand the harsh Siberian winter but who maintained that the treatment would be passed on genetically to the crop produced. He used his influence in the Soviet government to have disagreement with his theories outlawed and to have anyone who dared to point out that Gregor Mendel had debunked the idea of the biological inheritability of acquired traits back in the nineteenth century sent to the Gulag camps.

(10) Imagine what a text written by someone who took that idea seriously and attempted to write in such a way that the presence of meaning was not privileged over its absence would look like. You now have an idea of what Derrida’s writings are like.

(11) This was the subject of his best known work, Of Grammatology, first published in 1967.

(12) Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1950).

(13) Horkheimer also co-wrote a forward to the entire Studies in Prejudice series with Samuel H. Flowerman.

(14) Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1973, original edition by Bell Books, 1931).

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