Political Correctness and the Assault on Individuality

Report Political Process

Political Correctness and the Assault on Individuality

March 30, 1993 15 min read Download Report
Acting Senior Vice President, Research
Kim R. Holmes, oversaw the think tank’s defense and foreign policy team for more than two decades.

(Archived document, may contain errors)


Political Correctness and the Assault On Individuality

By Ward Parks In the culture wars now raging on, around, and in relation to our university campuses, the lead- ing weapon in the arsenal of the new radical establishment is the ad hominem. attack. Critics of political correctness are routinely castigated f or the racism, sexism, and homophobia that allegedly impels them; thus reasoned arguments are demolished not through reasoned rebuttal but through im- putations of personal wickedness...Now. a peculiarity of-these accusations is that their moralism stands at odds with the relativism and even nihilism that academic radicals exhibit in other contexts. If all views and values are equal, what's wrong with racism in the first place? Yet radicals do indeed condemn racism, thus appealing to the moral sensibility o f the American public at large that contin- ues to believe that there is such a thing as right and wrong; yet at the same time they have been engaged in a programmatic undermining of traditional ethics and common sense. This strange Col- laboration betwee n nihilism and moral puritanism, between the assertion that nothing is really good and true and the assertion that there are evils so absolute as to justify the sacrifice of a world of lesser goods to the task of combatting them, has been the key to succes s for academic radicals. It has enabled them to seem virtuous while maintaining commitment to no identifiable virtue. Yet aca- demic radicals have a commitment nonetheless. They are committed to an ideology of power. The triumph of this ideology entails th e demolition of the individual as the seat of conscience and moral authority. Thus the strategy of ad hominein attack is consistent with the greater aim of political cor- rectness. The Strategy of Personal Attack. Ad hominem attack takes many forms, and it will not be my task today to enumerate these, nor even to concentrate on the worse cases. If it were, I'would be talk- ing about the politicization of hiring and firing, the ideological exploitation of sexual harassment charges, and the reliance on guilt i nducement and humiliation of scapegoats in sensitivity training sessions. But more subtle, and therefore more revealing, are the modes of personal attack that politi- cal correctors bring to bear on their most visible opponents. One such public figure is L ynne Cheney, whose most recent publication, "Telling the Truth," provided a moderate, balanced, and well-documented description of the state of political coerciveness that now holds sway in many aca- demic arenas. Yet defenders of the academic establishme n t have replied that Cheney herself has been politicizing the National Endowment for the Humanities and, through the NEH, U*g to politi- cize academe. This is an astonishing criticism, emanating as it does from the mouths of the very people who for years h a ve been proclaiming that all discourse is political and that the classroom ought therefore to be used by radical professors as a vehicle for social transformation. This was, indeed, the very kind of claim that Cheney had been quoting in "Telling the Truth . " And yet-and here we come to the second leading countercharge-Cheney herself, or so allege her critics, has not been telling the truth. But apart from the fact that these critics do not deal with Cheney's evidence, their recourse to the idea of "truth" i s itself surprising, since sophisticated academics of a poststructuralist stripe hold no truck with "truth" nor with any other such term that smacks of transcendence and disinterested- ness. In short, the radical orthodoxy seems suddenly to have decided th at politicization and prevari- cation are vices after all, and having thus reversed itself, has proceeded to indict Cheney ethically for what are really its own offenses.


Ward Parks is a Bradley Resident Scholar at Ile Heritage Foundation. He spoke atMe Heritage Foundation on January 29, 1993. ISSN 0272,1155. 01993 by The Heritage Foundation.

Attacking Motivation. The same tactic of substituting moral indictment of adversaries in place of reasoned rebuttal of claims has been evident in the response of t he academic establishment not just to individuals like Cheney but to groups like the National Association of Scholars. The major NAS statements, "Is the Curriculum Biased" and "The Wrong Way to Reduce Campus Tensions," are, whether or not one agrees with t hem, principled responses to current academic conditions, and a number of the articles in Academic Questions, the NAS journal, present important evidence bear- ing on the political correctness controversy. But again, defenders of the new academic establis h - ment do not respond to what NAS scholars actually say but to what allegedly motivates them. To Paul Bovd, the NAS pretense that "some abstraction called 'free speech' has been violated" and its hypocritical defense of professional "decorum" merely serve to "mask violence"; such commit- ments induce "NAS types to support racist professors in their 'decorous' because 'scientific' as- saults on nonwhite people." Bov6 is referring, presumably, to Nfichael Levin and Philippe Rushdon; yet apart from the com- p l exities of and differences between these two controversies, what is being brushed aside here is nothing less than the case for academic freedom. A scholar needs to be free to follow the logic of his argument wherever it leads because truth often violates a gainst the conventional wisdom of a particular time and community; the examples of Socrates, Galileo, Darwin, and many others can be adduced on this point. One marvels that this argument needs to be made at all; yet Bov6 either can- not or will not differ e ntiate between the defense of free inquiry and the defense of the unsavory con- clusions which free inquiry sometimes brings to birth. Thus he does not hesitate to label the NAS membership "NAS'ies," implying an affinity between the organization and the N a zi movement. The sweeping reductionism in charges like this make reasoned discussion impossible. When an ideologi- cal professor can proceed to the moral indictment of a whole class of opponents without feeling obliged to make even a gesture towards ackno w ledging what they actually say, the cause of intellec- tual totalitarianism is far advanced. The Contradictions of Decomtruction. Now the use of moral indictment in place of reasoned rebuttal makes a certain sense, as a rhetorical strategy anyway, in the c ontext of a politicized dis- course; but I feel it is noteworthy that this same device was much in evidence in literary studies ten or fifteen years ago when the ruling critical methods were not so overtly political but rather linguis- tic and philosophic a l. I became acquainted with this personally at the School of Criticism and The- ory in 198 1, when deconstruction was in its heyday. Those of us who resisted deconstruction were retrograde in a number of respects; "fascist," as I recall, was the epithet o f choice, though subse- quent disclosures about the early career of Paul de Man, the leading American deconstructionist, prompted his disciples thereafter to turn to other evils of ours. Now it struck me at the time that there is something innately peculia r about a deconstructive mor- alism. For moral indictment makes no sense without moral agency; yet Derrida and his followers have been relentlessly warring against the idea of agency for a quarter of a century. The attack on the author is a special case of this. The belief that a text should be read as an expression of the inten- tions of the author, say the deconstructionists, is based on the fallacy that the author is a plenitude of meaning from which the text derives and that, further, he is able to cont r ol the play of signification in his text. But to the deconstructionist, the act is radically dissociated from the actor, and the actor himself has no real integrity, since the very limitations and circumscriptions that define him project those exclusions t hrough which he can be deconstructed. This is to say that deconstruction holds no truck with the idea of identity. The human subject is himself a logocentric illusion. But if the individ- ual does not exist, and if he is not the cause of his own actions, what could possibly be the sense of indicting him morally?


Radical Relativism. Further, even if the idea of the human individual could somehow be recuper- ated as a moral agent, it's hard to see how deconstructionists could affirm any moral principle t hat could serve as a basis for moral judgment. For it is to deconstruction, more than to any other thread in the current web of political correctness, that the charge of "radical relativism" best applies. Deconstructive relativism is actually a kind of ra d ical negationalism whose logic runs like this. Any assertion defines itself through an act of exclusion, and that exclusion projects a supplement. That supplement is both the antithesis of the assertion and its co-condition. The idea of "man," for exam- p l e, defines itself by casting "woman" out from its nature, and in this way "man" becomes depen- dent on the "woman" who has been excluded. Left-Wing Moral Puritanism. Now while deconstructionists would never use a term like "ethi- cal imperative," it remai n s true that the ethical imperative governing their critical practice is that what is marginalized ought to be brought back into the center. That is how deconstruction proceeds: it identifies what a literary text, for example, has excluded, and then it sho w s how this excluded con- tent is actually central to the project of this literary text. Such an imperative is indifferent to the moral content of what is in that center and what is in the margins. Deconstructionists have tried to cast their theory in a fa v orable light by representing as marginalized what is also in their perception victimized; thus a politicized deconstructive reading would identify as marginalized contents that are in some way associated with women or minorities. But nothing in the logic o f deconstruction it- self would stand in the way of the very accurate perception that Klansmen and Nazi sympathizers are exceedingly marginalized in the typical literature department today and that a proper deconstruc- tive reading of the sociological "te x e' of such a department ought to mainstream them. My point is that deconstruction is innately amoral and cannot serve as the basis for moral judgment without seri- ous contradiction. Of course, no one here will be surprised to learn that political correct o rs contra- dict themselves. My question is, why did deconstruction arise in the same intellectual environment that gave birth to left-wing moral puritanism, and through what mechanism have the two been able to function so complicitously? My construction o f what has happened grows out of my belief that human nature has an inborn and irrepressible moral component; no matter how badly people are actually behaving, they cannot keep from orienting themselves, whether positively or negatively, towards some conce p tion of the good. Even criminals do this; street gangs, for example, have codes of loyalty and vengeance not un- like those of warlike tribal societies. The Assault on the Individual. It is precisely through controlling the moral function that our po- lit i cal correctors have attained their current position of ascendancy, both in the universities and in the nation at large; and we need to understand the mechanism that has been involvedL What deconstruction provided was a method for systematically embarrassi n g traditionalists whenever they tried to affirm and build judgments on the basis of ordinary and sane ethical principles. But this sup- pression of the normal operation of the ethical function created a vacuum which the morality of the radical Left could f ill. Deconstructive and poliiically leftist rhetorical and logical moves continue to operate in this mutually supportive relationship: deconstruction levels and keeps the space open, and political radicalism fills the space with its new idols. But the cha n ge cannot be described simply as the substitution of one set of moral principles or value terms for another. In the process the indi- vidual has been eradicated, at least in a certain sense. No longer is moral assertion conceived as an appeal to the indiv i dual conscience. Rather, morality has been collectivized, and the role of the indi- vidual is to offer his assent. The good individual is he who has accepted that good which the collec- tive has decreed, not he who has found good within his own heart. 11i s is ethics reconstituted within an ideology of centralization and power, since it demands that individuals surrender their own judgment of what is right and wrong and put determination of ends in the hands of those who define the ruling moral paradigms. N ow deconstruction is fundamentally



an instrument for destabilization and decentering, so at this stage its usefulness becomes more lim- ited. Thus it is that, over the past few years, deconstructionists have yielded center stage to a new as- sortment of critics and critical methods. Perhaps the most important of these has been Michel Foucault, whose peculiar talent lay in the bleak gaze which he turned to social and institutional his- tory, a gaze in which all nuances and intimacies and reciprocities of human interchange were re- duced to power relations. This work was continued and extended in literary studies by a group called the new historicists, who are essentially soft Marxists uninterested in economics but address- ing themselves instead to a h i story of cultural production. At the same time, hard Marxists such as Fredric Jameson were reestablishing coherence amid the chaos that deco.ristruction had wrought. Marxist Theory. With Jameson and company a historical dialectic becomes the agent and mov e r, and human subjectivity and consciousness are seen as epiphenomenal, shaped rather than shaping, moving within limits always circumscribed by forces that they never fully grasp. Structures of will and intention unfold in spaces defined now by the politi c al unconscious. Conventional eth- ics, in such a view, is essentially trivial; what matters are history's grand designs, which individual actors, embroiled in their own petty dramas, can rarely discern. Marxist professors, however, seem to be miraculously free from the limitations that bedevil the rest of us with respect to the historical and political determination of our consciousness; and so they are the ones who will define for us what our roles should be in the new world order that is revealing itself , naturally, as described in their theories. Political Sins. Again, it is not the usual practice of Marxists, new historicists, and other fellow travellers to speak of ethics as such; yet movements of condemnation and proscription perform a crucial functio n within their work. The ethical operator within the essentially neo-Marxist program that is political correctness is the idea of oppression. By accentuating oppression, political correc- tors appeal to the moral sensibilities of the general public, since m ost of us would agree that genu- ine oppression is much to be deplored. But neo-Marxist oppression, as we have seen, is not located within the structure of intention and subjectivity, but within the political unconscious. We can, and routinely do, perpetr a te oppression without knowing it. Thus we stand in need of perpetual con- sciousness-raising, chastisement, and confession. This is the format of the contemporary sensitivity training session. The demand that young people apologize for sins that they are u naware of ever hav- ing committed profoundly undermines the confidence they might otherwise develop in the voice of their own conscience. Yet political correctors cannot permit individuals to learn to rely on their own inner sense of truth, since the dogm a s of political correctness are thoroughly counterintuitive. There- fore the sin of oppression, inaccessible to individual self-awareness yet the source of individual guilt, becomes the club with which they break the back of the human spirit. "Oppression" i s by nature a political sin, since it occurs between people in the context of power relations. A moral system that is oriented around "oppression" as its defining evil does not will the moral or spiritual upliftment of indiividuals as its final end; rathe r , individual transformation is in- strumental towards ulterior political purposes. Traditional ethics too registers concern for commu- nity well-being; thus it encodes such needful social virtues as respect for legitimate authority and sacrifice for other s . Yet the underlying goal of traditional ethical culture-and here I am attending particularly to the religious sphere that has been the source of our most enduring ethical systems- is higher self-knowledge and an approach to the divine. Salvation remains a n individual affair, whether one is a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. By the same token, the root "sins" in tradi- tional moral culture are flaws of character, not political infelicities. In the Christian Middle Ages, for example, the seven deadly s ins (pride, greed, envy, etc.) are aspects of that selfishness which block the outpouring of the grace of God into the heart of the individual man or woman. The dignity of individuals is inscribed in such a conception, for it is through individual sanctif ication that the highest good is made known in human life. Such a process demands too the cultivation of con-



science, since conscience is the arbiter within the arena of the individual human soul. By contrast, a politicized conception of sin demands a locus of judgment in the political sphere, where the free ex- ercise of conscience is liable to be stifled amid the charges and countercharges that get bandied about when power is at stake. Race-Class-Gender. Oppression as unconscious political sin req u ires a sociological model that can assign guilt to large classes of people without providing these people with a way of knowing what in personal terms they are guilty of. It is here that the race-class-gender trinity becomes a use- ful tool in the neo-Mar x ist project of tearing pan traditional community and reconstituting it on ideological foundations. American -society has come-to believe that no-person should be discrimi- nated against on basis of race and gender; at the same time, race and gender are si t es of intense so- cial conflict. By magnifying and inflating these conflicts, radicals can contribute to the atomizing of our society. Racial conflict promotes tribal loyalty at the expense of law and so weakens the na- tional covenant; conflict between t h e sexes slices the tissue of human intimacy and asserts the prior- ity of the political over the natural. Once society has been atomized and the traditional bonds that tied people together have been sufficiently weakened, then the assault on the individua l is particu- larly devastating, since the individual person is without effective support. When he is now accused of a racism and sexism that resides in a socio-political analysis of the world at large to which his per- sonal behavior is irrelevant, he is b eing pressured to give up the right to assess the world and him- self in terms of the moral content that he himself finds there. What political correctors want of individuals, in other words, is ideological and moral surrender. Race, class, and gender pro v ide the major instruments in the assault; but other Unds of group- ing provide natural sites of resistance to political correctness and so have been the targets of unre- lenting denunciation. My emphasis on the individual in this talk should not be taken a s a denial of the human need to form associations; to the contrary, individuals fulfill themselves in large part through the ties that bind them. Left to their own devices, people naturally affiliate with groups of different types. Race, class, and gender are indeed variables relevant to group formation; but they are not the only such variables. Three other group principles are family (or more generally, kinship), nation, and religion. A sociological analysis concerned with group identity ought to attend t o all of these categories; but it is race, class, and gender that the academic Left harps on. For family and reli- gion constitute themselves on grounds that are not originally political at all, whereas the particular nation in which we live-the United Sta t es-is founded on universal principles that the radical Left is trying to undermine. This antipathy is not nbw; socialists and revolutionaries have been waging war on family, nation, and religion for more than a hundred years, and the sad condition of thes e in- stitutions is in part reflective of the battering they have had to take. Resisting Totalitarians. The hostility towards family and religion is particularly interesting; for while these two institutions are oriented towards opposite ends of the human e xperience, in tradi- tional societies they have'consistently been friendly to each other. For family is constituted through ties of blood and engages that aspect of our humanity which is most incarnated in the world of mate- riality. Sexual relations betw e en man and woman and the nursing which a mother gives to her infant are probably the most intimate of shared human experiences in the physical sense. On the other hand, communion with God, or whatever other names are given to states of spiritual exaltatio n in the various religious traditions, satisfies that urge in the human spirit to rise above the materiality of its form and circumstances and to attain to that which is supreme. The alliance between family and religion poses a formidable obstacle to ideol o gues who wish not merely to govern the state but to possess the human soul. I am speaking, of course, of totalitarians, for that is what our political cor- rectors are. Deconstruction, Marxism, and feminism are all relentlessly anti-transcendental, and th us strike at what is central to religious experience; at the same time, the politically correct alliance is


waging open war against the traditional he terosexual family. We have seen this phenomenon before. Communist governments throughout this century have engaged in the same basic campaign. An Ideology Against Humanity. Political correctness has enjoyed its success because it has managed to convince t h e public that it speaks on behalf of virtue. My purpose has been to analyze the mechanism by which conscience has been snared and the power of the moral function coopted for radical purposes. In truth, there is nothing virtuous about political correctness . It is an ideology of power, or a kind of failed religion; it appeals to human aspiration, but turns the force of idealism destructively against human ordinariness, instead of learning to discover the wisdom and greatness that is to be found-in simple-thi n gs. The human-spirit-cannot permanently be kept captive to creeds of this type. There is a dignity within humanity that always reasserts itself, whatever depravity men may descend to for spans of time. We should not forget this. Truth retains its power, a n d the human conscience its inextinguishable spark. Political ideologues who think that they can rewrite reality and the human character doom themselves not only to eventual defeat, but to ignominy as well. I am reminded, in closing, of J.R.R. Tolkien's gr e at saga, The Lord of the Rings, where the power of Sauron is overthrown not by mighty warriors but by simple hobbits who have no pretensions about themselves and prefer a smoke and a good meal to glory and dominion. Now is a time for a heroism of ordinari ness, for small acts rightly performed even though they seem in the short run to be unavailing. I am sure that in the end these efibrts will not be in vain.




Kim Holmes

Acting Senior Vice President, Research