The (in)correctness of political correctness

by Ton Salman

I’ve just finished reading “The Golden House” by Salman Rushdie. I enjoyed it: it is amusing, irritating, timely, biting and a delight to read. Of course, I am biased; he has been one of my favorite novelists for years. And he is one of the authors that in audacious ways often addresses the clashes between cultures, religions, ideologies that characterize our current globalizing, fidgety and agitated world, in provocative, foolhardy and sometimes pestering bravado. His novels, in my view, are must-reads for anthropologists.

In “The Golden House” he demonstrates his skill again. The novel plays in the USA, during the Obama-years and the first shrieking of his successor. Rushdie expresses in unequivocal terms what he thinks about the incredible events, without the message getting the upper hand. But he also comes to speak about other current developments, in the realms of cultural encounters, clashes and allergies. First, by mocking a tendency, for instance at USA-universities to be hypersensitive about concepts and labels for human “categories”, and second about (public) lectures on, again, university campuses by lecturers or on subjects that might make specific student groups feel “uncomfortable” or “un-safe”. Although universities are the loci here, the topics are larger, and trigger critical thinking about how, as societies and also within our ranks of anthropologists, we could address such controversies.

Rushdie goes far in ridiculing exaggerated political correctness at these universities, and clearly suggests that extreme political correctness is the enemy of fruitful and open academic debate. I heard about a speech that was to be given by Maryam Namazie, a well-known human rights campaigner, being stopped to give her lecture at Warwick University (U.K.) because of her being an atheist. That would result in controversy and upset students. Students at Cardiff University protested against a lecture by eminent feminist Germaine Greer; apparently, she once wrote that a castrated man could still not feel like a woman, which was seen as offensive to transsexuals.  Rushdie writes about a scholar that was “excoriated by students with evangelical Christian family histories for asking them to read a graphic novel by a lesbian cartoonist” and a “colleague forced to cancel a production of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues because by defining women as persons with vaginas it discriminated against persons identifying as female who did not possess vaginas”(28). Obviously, Rushdie here draws a bead on political correctness gone wrong. He refers to examples like one I found on internet about the University of California, where professors cannot refer to America as “the land of opportunity”. They were instructed to steer clear of terms that might be considered “microaggressions,” including phrases that deny the existence of racism and sexism, such as “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” The university also insisted that asking a student where they are from sends the message that they are not a true American, and therefore questions about a person’s geographical background should be avoided. And Rushdie of course also talks about the current obsession with gender neutral pronouns: “Right now, you could be TG, TS, TV, CD. Whatever feels right to you. Transgender, transsexual, transvestite, cross-dresser (….)  There’s also ze. There’s also ey. There’s also hir, xe, hen, ve, ne, per, thon and mx (…) Thon is a mixture of that and one” (111). And “TERF. Trans exclusionary radical feminist (252).

He does a good job on demonstrating how such efforts end up in nonsense and narrowminded twaddle. And invites to think about oversensitivity and the key importance of free speech – at universities more than anywhere. This will lead to the practice of being confronted with opinions or wording that people find offensive. Or with (historical) readings that express ideas and prejudices today believed to be wrong. But that is what dispute is about. So, yes, I will defend the right of people to say and write things I disagree with or even find dreadful.

But at the same time, I am an anthropologist. And are not we the people that ought to stand up for diversity, tolerance, non-discrimination? And that should be aware of the fact that words are not innocent? And in that sense, should be defenders of political correctness, especially when it comes to politicians and protagonists in public debate? So, yes, I want all representatives of the state to speak and act politically correct. But I also want the freedom of speech for those who criticize, insult and scorn. I’ll continue to think about how to reconcile the two.

Ton Salman is Head of the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology.

3 Comments on “The (in)correctness of political correctness”

  1. Thanks, Ton, for introducing me to Rushdie. But to be honest, upon reading these examples by Rushdie – and presumably getting a taste of his writing style / style of argumentation – I shudder a bit in disgust. It makes me resist his ideas, and here’s why:

    It is, of course, privileged of someone to say that trigger warnings, safe spaces, etc., are just a case of triggeritis. I googled this word from the Dutch word ‘aanstelleritis’, and I am pleasantly surprised by the blatant irony of Rushdie being triggered by others’ request not to be triggered. Rushdie basically does not want to be triggered because of others not wanting to be triggered. But I think it’s safe to presume that Rushdie’s safety is neither compromised nor does he (re)experience trauma or something of that sort.

    I suspect this privilege is the pitfall of his argument. To treat others – those who come from less or differently privileged positions and live (and suffer) their particular lives – with a sensible sense of sensitivity may be seen as a hindrance, but it may also stimulate us to reconsider why we do and say the things we do and say. Quite anthropological!

    Also, when you’re defending political correctness, I think that ‘tolerance’ is a bad (politically incorrect, haha) choice of wording. Tolerance as idea – perhaps even as ideology – is deep-seated in Dutch (bourgeois) culture but quite problematic when you think about it. It described a form of acceptation but not an active engagement with different visions, convictions, practices… As you argue as well, it’s the latter we need so badly right now!

    I think we’re in a period of transformation and that we are searching for new ways to express ourselves and to engage with each other. That doesn’t sound like a bad direction to move towards. 🙂

  2. Nice piece, Ton! I also find it hard to position myself, although I must say that the current leap in political correctness we see on American universities clearly obscures debates on certain potentially sensitive topics. This must be especially painful to witness for the author of the Satanic Verses.

  3. Dear Georgette and Kostas,
    Thank you both for your comments! I of course agree with Kostas; the risk of inhibiting candid debates about things looms large if sensitivities translate into taboos or vetos to address the issues or hear the voices of persons you find offensive. Any liberal thinker (in the good sense of that word) would probably agree with that. We need open discussions, and not too much fear to aggravate someone, if democracy is to work. But also Georgette has a valid point: this unconcern or insouciance about the hypersensitivity of certain people or groups is a privilege for those that are “safe” to begin with. For people who are less wholeheartedly heard or acknowledged in our societies, things look different. And consideration for people with traumas, or experiences of discrimination, seems a very laudable principle. So, let us not be too unconcerned about others’ susceptibilities and soreness, and be careful with our words; words can hurt. The trick, as often, I guess, lies in the balance. Apart from that, I still use the word “tolerance” – even being aware that it (as in the Dutch tradition) often materializes as “indifference”. For some, under specific circumstances, an aloof position can work – people will not often be close friends with others who embody convictions or practices they vehemently disagree with. I am not sure that is a bad thing. That is where tolerance comes in, in its good and original meaning: the willingness to bear with people whose characteristics one does not like. Engaging with them: fine, maybe even the preferable attitude. But often it will not happen. In that case, tolerance will be what makes a peaceful society possible.

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