Friday, October 08, 2010

Political Correctness Goes Invisible

Nietzsche said that when a political movement triumphs completely, it becomes invisible. Having power, he argues, allows you to shape the lens through which we understand the world and we see through the lens, we don't see the lens.

I was listening to the arguments offered in the case heard by the Supreme Court the other day in Snyder v. Phelps, the case in which the father of a dead soldier sued the Reverend Fred Phelps and his band of merry bigots for protesting his son's funeral. Phelps contends that because he cleared the protest with the authorities and obeyed their demands to the letter, that their actions were legal and their speech protected by the First Amendment. (And they're right). The father claims that because it was a private service, the protest and accompanying comments amount to "intentional infliction of emotional distress." He was harmed psychologically and this is equivalent to being harmed physically and for that, the perpetrator must be held to account. A jury in Baltimore held that the Westboro thugs were such jerks that they should pay Snyder $11 million dollars, but an appeals court unanimously overturned that ruling and the case is now being heard before the High Court.

what struck me the most about this discussion was the fact that the father's claim was being supported by groups across the political spectrum. This is, of course, for pragmatic political reasons -- no one wants to be associated with Phelps and even more so, no one wants to be seen as not supporting the troops who died in the line of battle. But at the same time, and this is what gets me, the central claim is the move that is at the heart of the universally disparaged political correctness movement -- speech is an act and hurtful speech inflicts real harm.

The argument against political correctness is always something akin to "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." Just suck it up. Life is offensive, deal with it. Everyone gets insulted. And this is the case especially when it is a minority whose place is being diminished and words are being used to entrench certain biased presuppositions into our worldview. But when it is a socially privileged group, a white soldier's family, suddenly the pain they feel from speech acts is considered without question to be authentic pain that needs to be stopped and retribution enacted. When political correctness benefits those in the in group, it's basic tenet is accepted without question. When it benefits those in the out group, it is ridiculed.