John Holbo recently proposed a definition of “political correctness” in relation to the right’s purported “tribalism,” which Holbo and many of his colleagues or comrades view as a special problem in contemporary politics. Before moving to invert the standard criticism of leftwing speech codes, portraying the right’s supposedly unfounded accusations as evidence of the right’s worse excesses of the same type, Holbo observes several recent stories in connection with the traditional conservative criticism, referring to Cliven Bundy, Brendan Eich, Donald Sterling, Paula Deen, and “that Duck Dynasty guy.” Grouping and dismissing these individuals together is probably itself left-politically correct, but in any event they have been accused of different types or sub-types of liberal wrong, meaning that they have received different types of defense to the varying extents that they or their actions have received any defense at all. Eich made a contribution to a political campaign. Sterling and Deen were caught saying intolerably ugly and very incorrect things (of two different sub-sub-types). Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynastic, offered a politically very incorrect – and inane – historical observation. Bundy is different because he, unlike the others, and however feebly and incoherently, has set out to challenge the law itself on the basis of its guiding and underlying assumptions.
One may strongly disagree with the wisdom or morality of Bundy’s theory applied as public policy, but to pretend not to understand its categorical independence from theories of race is to declare oneself a “cretin” of a different type: an individual who has never once considered human nature in relation to goods obtained without effort.
Such characterizations [racist, gigantic racist, hatemonger, etc.] remain opinions about the man, not reasonable interpretations of his words. These opinions are asserted as though factual determinations because the characterizations are assumed to be factual on the basis of an also stereotypical or counter-stereotypical presumption that Cliven Bundy, given the kind of person he is or is thought to be, must have really meant to say something more and other than what he actually said, that he meant something beyond his words – that, in a manner typical of certain racists or in a manner typical of, to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’ phrase, “people like Cliven Bundy,” he was trying to conceal his true opinions under a false ultra-libertarian, quasi-philosophical diversion, that he was, as we say, “dog-whistling” to his fellow racists.
…an actual difference, potentially a principled or reasonably arguable one, between people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and people like Cliven Bundy. Perhaps what Coates or people like Coates most dislike is the notion that anything could be compared to slavery or chattel slavery or, as he terms it, “American enslavement.” This point of view will command immediate respect, but the questions remain as to the nature of Bundy’s specific violation of what people like Ta-Nehisi Coates consider a pre-eminently important taboo. As a pre-eminent taboo, accusations regarding its violation are, we jointly presume – we defines ourselves as the ones who so presume – to be handled seriously.
The Brendan Eich affair is simpler, since it originated in a single political act rather than in political speech, but it is similar to the Bundy matter in that Eich is now routinely referred to as a bigot on the basis of facts not in evidence. The only backing for the charge is an ideological construction based on his support for Proposition 8 and his refusal to recant in his opposition to marriage equality. The “correct” opinion for those who hope to be considered allies of the marriage equality movement, in other words the correct (right, good) opinion for all correct (righteous, good) people, will be to equate opposition to marriage equality, and especially to equate active support for Proposition 8, with bigotry. To suggest the possibility of an anti-SSM position grounded in anything other than purely irrational (or incorrect) homophobia – a possibility examined at this blog previously – most recently here (see comment also) – verges on branding oneself as also a bigot or fellow traveler at best – to identify oneself as suspiciously, culpably, and dangerously susceptible to bigoted ideas. The existence of an anti-SSM splinter within the gay rights movement is also to be ignored within correct, righteous, good circles, even if the criticisms of leading marriage equality activists, like Andrew Sullivan against Eich’s “hounding,” will be harder to discount.
The others with whom Holbo begins – Sterling, Deen, and Robertson – have in common their comparative remoteness from politics, although Robertson did volunteer a somewhat Bundyesque observation with political intent, and although there are both distinctions and differences between Sterling’s rather bizarrely degraded, quasi-eroticized race-consciousness and Deen’s rather more banal, deep-fried racialisms. Many have noted the troubling fact that Sterling’s legally adjudged racially discriminatory practices as a landlord inspired so much less controversy than his strange demands on his almost 60 years younger “girlfriend” or “mistress.” In sum, in 2014 the state of our mores is such that many speech acts and admissions that would have scandalized our parents and have been all but inconceivable to their parents are normal fare in art, conversation, and politics, but that use of racial epithets, expression of racialized preferences, or invocation of banned historical interpretations leads to an uproar.
Because sports and entertainment serve no purpose intrinsically, a symbolic violation of our mores, our correct beliefs, is the only violation they can produce. Sterling, Deen, and Robertson gave symbolic offense, and we demanded real punishments, just as we directly pay real money for play and art, and have been satisfied or left unsatisfied to varying degrees. The problematic point for a discussion of political correctness remains the fact that in each instance we are acting or being asked to act within civil society to punish people simply for saying the wrong, the unforgivably insulting or offensive, thing. It is certain that the Bill of Rights does not protect bigots and ignorant fellow travelers from being correctly as well as incorrectly identified and socially rejected on that basis. Neither Sterling’, nor Deen’s, nor Robertson’s, nor Eich’s, nor Bundy’s legal rights have been violated (as far as I am aware, and certainly not by criticism), and, under a policy of absolute freedom of speech, any voiced judgment of their blameworthiness would also be protected. Yet we or most of us have instead chosen to treat their words as “actionable,” or even urgently actionable, as something like fighting words. It is a very human response and possibly a for us, at this time, in this culture, a necessary response, but it is not an ideally liberal response, which would not admit of or be interested in the harmfulness of any speech act as speech act at all, or, to paraphrase (and perhaps to overextend) the philosopher, would hold that deeds only should be made the grounds for punishment, and words always be allowed to pass free.
Wholly repugnant to the general freedom are such devices as enthralling men’s minds with prejudices, forcing their judgment, or employing any of the weapons of quasi-religious sedition; indeed, such seditions only spring up, when law enters the domain of speculative thought, and opinions are put on trial and condemned on the same footing as crimes, while those who defend and follow them are sacrificed, not to public safety, but to their opponents’ hatred and cruelty. … If deeds only could be made the grounds of criminal charges, and words were always allowed to pass free, such seditions would be divested of every semblance of justification, and would be separated from mere controversies by a hard and fast line.
Spinoza, Baruch (2009-03-10). Theologico-Political Treatise. Classic Philosophy: three books by Spinoza in a single file, improved 8/13/2010 (Kindle Locations 5448-5453). B&R Samizdat Express. Kindle Edition.
To “wonder” about different types of slavery is not to claim possession of an answer, even if it may reveal culpable non-possession of the correct one.
During periods in which Black Nationalist or Separatist and other sometimes racialized or ethno-nationalized radicalisms had a firmer purchase on mainstream political discourse than they do now, versions of Bundy’s statement – of his actual statement, not the interpretation superimposed on and substituted for the words he spoke – were somewhat commonplace on both sides of the conventional political spectrum, and, when offered by one’s actual or potential coalition partners on the left, would be tolerated or even celebrated, precisely for giving the lie to the liberal-democratic promise. Much polemic from the further-left retains this impetus, as when we are informed that white supremacism remains fundamental to contemporary American political culture. Under this view, the actions of the paternalistic or patriarchal liberal and capitalist state and the results of its policy – in “the ghetto,” in prisons, at war, in menial labor with little or no hope of advancement, and so on – are depicted as little better and in some ways worse than enslavement, or as the equivalent or near-equivalent of enslavement, and certainly as unconscionable oppression, if under a different name. If “American enslavement” is to be understood as “the destruction of the black body for profit,” capitalism, according to the Marxian critique, was to be understood as the destruction of the worker’s body for profit.
The Marxian critique is not heard much today, except occasionally as echoed in discussion of labor conditions in “developing” countries, or at the margins of popular culture where the same approximate sentiments can be communicated indirectly or non-verbally. We take it is prima facie unreasonable, at least for some people in some contexts or with certain accents or skin color, to “wonder” whether current conditions for some somehow representative individuals were or are in fact as bad, worse, or nearly as bad as conditions under legal slavery were for other somehow representative individuals, or to “wonder” whether it might not be better to be a slave on the way to freedom or with a powerful desire for freedom, than to be a nominally free man or woman on the way to enslavement or in conditions of comprehensive curtailment of meaningful freedom – “nothing to do,” in Bundy’s words.
Cliven Bundy’s speech-crime was in the admission of possible uncertainty as to the question he impolitely, or impolitically, posed. We seem not to hold such musings to be self-evidently interesting on their own terms. We seem to hold them, or excessive interest in them, to be self-evidently worthy of condemnation: They provide us with an opportunity to express the nature of our true faith, the more enthusiastically the better.
To wonder whether the approach to political discourse typified by the case of Cliven Bundy is a problem within an already liberal-democratic culture may itself be taken as also incorrect and possibly as especially incorrect, as, following the above logic, anti-social and inhuman: The most incorrect thought, if not the worst thought, will be that the thought of the correct thought is incorrect: That our anti-tribalists always become anti-tribal tribalistically; that our champions of free inquiry conspire to shut down inquiry; that a movement for freedom restricts freedom; that our leading anti-bigots may be anti-bigot bigots and traitors to their own cause. On this question as on the others, one is required to treat the opposite opinion as necessarily true, on pain of expulsion from good society, and to overlook or minimize unwelcome evidence. The argument that this type of hypocrisy, in addition to being undesirable in itself or in relation to a search for truth, may be politically highly counterproductive to a movement for liberation, will be dismissed as “concern trolling,” or as diversion from the real issue – the real issue being the issue that it is politically correct to consider real. That this reality is different and distinct from a reality before intellectual correction also helps to explain why there can be a class of “people like Cliven Bundy” who, oddly enough, may not include Cliven Bundy himself, but may include many people not at all like Cliven Bundy.
No, Sterling paid the danegeld, and that protected him, for a time,
Dean was induced to make some remarks, that were outside the scope of a nuisance suit, interestingly she was as fervent a supporter of Obama as any member of the Sirius cybernetic corporation, Robertson,
had an unpolitic but not unremarkable expression, acceptable for some religions and enterprises but not others, Your category error re Bundy, is already wellknown, but one can add another to the mix,
Nicholas Wade formerly of the New York Times,