Thursday, May 18, 2006

How Did It Become Supposedly Immoral To Be Offensive?

I had a great time yesterday chatting about ethics with Mickey and Amelia on 98Rock. What was interesting to me (besides how short Mickey is), was the effects of so-called political correctness. This is a show on which T&A references are not usually Thomas and Aristotle. Putting an unknown philosopher on the air was a gamble on their part, but they seemed really into it and questions about language that I had been thinking about previously only seemed to be much more pressing when I saw what it was like for other people whose livelihoods depend on language.

During one of the breaks, Mickey asked me point blank how important I thought language was to a culture. (For a guy who plays up the "I ain't got no education" angle for his schtick, both he and Amelia are incredibly smart. They both have the ability to cut right to the point which is something I have to spend a lot of time training students to do in my logic classes and both make very sophisticated points once a question is on the table.) The question about language is one of the most interesting questions going and has really been the heart of virtually all philosophy for the last century, but especially the last 20 years.

What was funny was that right after we had an off-air conversation about zero-tolerance policies at radio stations about language (swearing and sexual references) Mickey twice came within a hair's breadth of letting the old s-word fly. (This is why blogs are better than radio -- shit, shit, shit, no FCC here) . The bogeyman of the conversation about the language police was, of course, political correctness.

Now, what interests me is that (1) the source of linguistic oppression here is not political correctness, the original PC, but it's two right-wing siblings, patriotic correctness and puritanical correctness, and (2) political correctness is one of the few places that contemporary technical geeks-only philosophy has actually oozed out of the ivory tower and influenced culture, but only when it was warped from it's real foundations.

The power of language is that it contains connotative elements beyond the denotative -- fancy philosopher-speak for words say more than what they point to. If I am referring to someone's gender, choosing the word "woman" rather than "girl" says, not only that the person is female, but a lot more. Words mean what they point to, but they are culturally loaded with more baggage as well. Language is a cultural product and it is pregnant with cultural presuppositions.

The idea that gave birth to PC was that if the culture had an imbalance of power and there were some in the culture who were considered inferior and oppressed by the structure of the society, then this would be reflected in the language. The language would then be a tool to keep those who are up, up, and those who are down, down. The words we used would unknowingly serve "the man" by further entrenching his power. Philosophers reached back to Nietzsche and developed an intricate discussion about political power and the roots and hidden meaning of language.

The idea that the hidden political power of words which comes from their roots was developed into a political movement to replace words with new ones that had no history of oppression. Blacks became African Americans. The disabled became challenged. The idea was to give new words that did not have the old connotations. This would make them linguistically neutral, or even empowering (yes, this is where we got that word, too) to the oppressed groups. the new language would be a step towards leveling the playing field.

Of course, this was naive. Of course, using "Native American" instead of "American Indian" did nothing to correct the wrongs of the past or help improve the state of life on the reservations. Of course, the new words could be used with a sarcastic tone and a roll of the eyes and be just as insulting in the mouths of bigots. Of course, not all uses of the old terms -- even the most insulting of slurs -- does not entrench oppression.

But what came out of it, what it became was something completely different. It left the philosophy department, went into other departments, into highbrow journals and magazines, into non-academic intellectual circles, and then into the culture more broadly and through the game of intellectual telephone it got turned into something completely different. It became the commandment, "IT IS IMMORAL TO BE OFFENSIVE." The philosophers who came up with the original view had no problem with offensiveness -- some of them were quite irreverent themselves (as many good philosophers are). This was not the point of the philosophy, but it became the meaning when it was turned into speech codes on college campuses and then into social mores in the broader culture.

There is no right not to be offended. Reality is an offensive place. Deal with it. At the same time, bullying is wrong and language can be used to bully. It can be used to oppress and these are wrong, but this does not mean that we need to tip-toe around anything that would offend someone. But that it what it has become.

And from there, it was a small step to 'all talk about body parts offends those with "traditional values"' and the ability of the religious right to start wielding the power to cut off speech that was not intended to bully, but speech that was intended to challenge social norms or political stances or policies. From there is was a small step to "Janet Jackson's nipple helps the terrorists and Majority Leader Daschle is Janet Jackson's nipple." The speech codes that the twisted version of political correctness ushered in were easily appropriated by those with a different agenda and PC became the twins, patriotic and puritanical correctness. One mistake led to another. The fact that Stephen Colbert's rather tame bit of social commentary could create such a tizzy is a mark of how far we have fallen.

But my hope is that the tide is turning. Maybe the change in the polls are signaling a turn back towards sanity. Back to a time when if Mickey accidentally did let the s-word slip, he wouldn't fear for fines and his ability to feed his family. Mickey and Amelia gave me the chance to be a smart guy who openly admitted to being liberal in a major market at drive-time in a spot where there are often large breasted women doing things more interesting to many listeners than talking about Aristotle. It was a wonderful time and I thank them very, very much.