by Ralph Seliger
DONALD TRUMP’S demagogic populist candidacy has included bombastic attacks on “Political Correctness” (PC). This concept has had resonance for at least twenty-five years, mostly as a convenient punching bag for Republican politicians and right-leaning commentators — their easy substitute for actually confronting issues. But is “Political Correctness” just a rightwing slur, or does this term encapsulate a real problem in our political discourse?
A recent issue of The Austrian, a glossy newsletter published by the libertarian Mises Institute, which promotes the small-government philosophy associated with the early to mid-20th century economist Ludwig von Mises (a Jew originally from Galicia), features an article titled “PC Is Control, Not Etiquette.” I disagree — mostly.
On one level, using PC terminology in reference to women, the disabled, and ethnic or sexual minorities is truly about politeness and consideration for the feelings of others. It also elevates our shared awareness of how common stereotypes or hateful assumptions have become embedded in everyday language, as in such hurtful expressions as “Jewing someone down” or “Indian giving.” But zeal for this virtuous purpose has given rise to a new orthodoxy.
Sounding very contemporary, President George Herbert Walker Bush touched upon this subject rather thoughtfully in his commencement address at the University of Michigan on June 4, 1991:
Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses. The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.
What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship. Disputants treat sheer force — getting their foes punished or expelled, for instance — as a substitute for the power of ideas….
PC expression is not just a question of terminology, but also of the cause being promoted or denigrated. The left traditionally champions people who are regarded as downtrodden and battling against powerful social and political forces. Hence, the Palestinians are obviously the PC cause of choice in their conflict with Israel, and for some very good reasons, given the Palestinians’ underdog status and the ongoing violence and oppression that disproportionately affect them. One can argue about whether their leaders have been adequate partners for peace, or if other conflicts and oppressions in the world are not much worse, but that’s not relevant to my purpose here.
Still, some leftwing Jews, even as they support Palestinian rights, complain of being subject to a demeaning litmus test regarding Israel and Zionism, risking ostracism or expulsion if they don’t come up with the “correct” response. This was the problem experienced by the Jewish Renewal rabbi, activist and writer Michael Lerner, who was barred from addressing an anti-war rally in San Francisco in February, 2003 because of his support for a two-state peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I dined with Lerner when we both attended an SF Bay Area conference entitled “Facing a Challenge Within,” about anti-Semitism on the Left, during the summer of 2004. There I learned of activists for gay rights and other progressive causes feeling constrained against expressing support for Israel’s existence, or even in criticizing Palestinian violence against unarmed civilians.
POLITICAL CORRECTNESS at its worst rejects complexity and cuts off discussion. I got a further sense of this in reporting for the Forward in 2012 on a panel in New York at the New School, in which Norman Finkelstein was the moderate for supporting a two-state solution. Fellow panelist Anna Baltzer — the “national organizer” (i.e., the number two staffer) at the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation — called J Street “racist” for advocating an end to the occupation primarily because it’s in the best interest of Israel and Jews; she insisted that Jews must subordinate their efforts and concerns to Palestinian leadership, since Palestinians are the oppressed party in that conflict.
I stepped on a PC landmine myself, in a painful episode with Tikkun magazine, for which I had written seven articles in print and online along with ninety-one blog posts over the course of several years. A post of mine was suddenly withdrawn, and I was publicly chastised for citing evidence that tended to support George Zimmerman’s claim to have shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense. I noted the wound on the back of Zimmerman’s head; not for a moment did I defend Zimmerman for profiling and stalking the youth in the first place.
In a repost, I tried to placate the editors of Tikkun by acknowledging that my original post:
seemed to miss the painful impact this case has had on the African-American community, with the verdict compounding the sense of injustice and outrage felt by people already suffering the yoke of racial profiling and a criminal justice system all too often biased against them. It also may have appeared to place the victim, Trayvon Martin, on a similar moral plane as the killer, George Zimmerman, because it depicted both as acting in the wrong. I still believe that both made fatal missteps, but it’s clearly Zimmerman who initiated the confrontation, and in the end he walks away free while the young Martin is dead.
Later in that repost, I laid myself bare, recounting an incident at the entryway to my Manhattan apartment building, when I briefly hesitated to allow a black teenager whom I didn’t recognize in with me. I felt bad about that and attributed my caution to having been mugged some time before by three black youths whom I should not have allowed in. Sadly, my honesty only exposed me to attack, completely disparaging any legitimate concern for personal safety in crime-ridden New York during the 1980s and early ‘90s.
Moreover, my suggestion that Trayvon Martin’s behavior apparently contributed to his death went beyond what Tikkun could tolerate in its PC vision of race relations. (Jewish Currents editor Lawrence Bush wrote a piece with a similar view to mine at the time: “O My America: Seventy Yards from Safety.”) My repost was only permitted when sandwiched between an “Editor’s Note” advising readers of a problem with my writing, and a long rebuttal by an editorial intern. I was also privately told that I’d be placed on probation as a blogger, with my posts now being subject to advance editorial review.
When I protested my treatment to the other bloggers, I was banned from blogging by Michael Lerner, my one-time dinner companion and Tikkun’s editor-in-chief, who suggested that I seek “treatment” for my “problem” with African-American young people. These postings and the animated discussion that followed are accessible here.
NEVERTHELESS, the mother of all PC banning may have been that of “The Vagina Monologues” from a production at Mount Holyoke College on the grounds that it excludes women who don’t have vaginas (that is, transwomen who have not had sexual reassignment surgery). This censorship of a well-known play at an institution of higher learning may even be criticized on PC grounds as insulting to women (“cis-women” as the new nomenclature labels people who were born as biological females). According to this online summary, the play is in part about how women feel about their vaginas, but it’s also much more profound than that, seeking to:
break down the barriers of secrecy and shame surrounding both the use of the word ‘vagina’… and the violence perpetrated against those who have one. Drawing upon both personal experiences and those of women whom she interviewed as source material, the author creates a wide-reaching, multi-faceted portrait of both the positive and negative aspects of being a woman in contemporary society….
There’s justice in acknowledging transsexuality as a valid human phenomenon, but there’s something wrong about transsexuals and their PC supporters seeming to dismiss the physical reality of biological women, whose countless millennia of unique experiences and struggles richly deserve recognition. Feminists challenge male dominance. Reacting to this incident, a feminist-minded friend came to this conclusion: “How very much like men to shtup themselves into women’s spaces” — like insisting on using women’s restrooms or attending women-only retreats. Her contention was that in asserting (and inserting) themselves in these ways, their overbearing “maleness” is coming through even as trans-females.
Rather than shutting down the production, wouldn’t it have been more edifying to conduct post-performance discussions with the audience, exploring how the play does or does not validate the lives of women — whether cis or trans?
THANKS in no small measure to Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, acceptance of trans-ness as a gender identity has grown enormously in our society. For example, mainstream media now routinely refer to transgendered people with their new gender-appropriate names and pronouns of choice. This comes on top of the sudden political acceptance of same-sex marriage, and this country’s election and reelection of its first African-American president. Of course, none of this is bad — but it’s a lot to absorb for your average white, heterosexual Joe and Jill, who are nursing their own grievances and insecurities emanating from our harsh and inequitable economic environment. All of this surely adds fuel to anti-PC sloganeering as a rightwing rallying cry.
Is it permissible to ask how far society should go in accommodating transsexual identities, which just a decade ago was usually categorized as “gender dysphoria,” a psychological condition? I’m wary, of course, of pathologizing people’s identities — as was done routinely to homosexuals right up until the 1980s. Still, even though we don’t want to discriminate against or unfairly stigmatize anybody, is it incumbent upon a free, liberal-minded society to fully accommodate each and every individual’s feelings about themselves?
There are no easy answers. But the problem with political correctness is that it often inhibits the asking of questions.
Ralph Seliger is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, and currently blogs for Ameinu, The Third Narrative, and Partners for Progressive Israel.