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.