By Ayelet Na’eh | 24/03/2011
Politically correct language imparts correct speech with the weight of being the right thing to do. That is how a cluster of thought and emotion is created, a word-signifier knot that represents the concept together with the emotions that accompany it: This is good, this is the right way to speak and be. Everything is okay. We're okay, the situation is okay, the problem is under control. Ayelet Na'eh suggests moving away from the emotional principle with which we feel safe and to exhibit emotional independence in the face of political correctness
Political correctness is presented as an expression of consideration, a form of attentiveness that aims to help us to refrain from using expressions that are offensive to others. While this is a very good intention, one quite worthy in of itself, we need to see how it influences us, not only our ability to think, but even more so our ability to feel. Because political correctness is indeed the emotional principle with which we feel safe, it relieves us of the bothersome need to relocate emotionally and conceptually when facing new situations.
The politically correct discourse is dangerous because it is an illusion and a lie. Let's examine the category of skin color, for example, among the most turbulent issues of our time: In Western culture, we distinguish between “white” and “black” as skin colors, and cluster endless shades of skin color under these two headings (the pinkish-white of all types is classified as “white,” whereas all the darker shades of brown are categorized under “black”). This is a very active distinction in our culture: A huge collection of accompanying characteristics and features have been loaded onto the differences in skin color, mostly those that distinguish between high and low, and include a positive bias towards “white,” and a negative one towards “black.” Among all the many associations with skin color is the rejection of the identification of good with “white” and bad with “black,” for example in the rallying cry of “black is beautiful.”
And now that we have political correctness, everything is seemingly okay. Rights have been settled by law in an equitable manner and they may not be biased based on skin color. But this is only ostensibly so, because alongside the quasi-sterile arrangements are overt and concealed racist norms. In fact, the living conditions of people of color are indeed different from those whose skin is lighter, and in most cases for the worse. Their opportunities are fewer. If we correct only the signifier, the name, without correcting the situation, we are creating a correct veneer for a situation that is far from correct. The politically correct code is popularly thought of as false because it signifies a situation that is only ostensibly proper, egalitarian and considerate, but that is in reality none of these things. In reality, the positive motivation that underlies the project of political correctness neither adds nor subtracts. The signifier is a liar because it does not describe reality, and what it does describe, it does so with great disparity and always in the same direction: It always describes a situation that is better than the one that actually exists. Thus, the politically correct phrase always conceals an incorrect reality. Blacks continue to be discriminated against, no matter what name we give them.
Or another example: As long as a Jewish husband – called baal in Hebrew, literally “master” – can keep their wives “chained” to a marriage, as long as the key to freedom from a loveless marriage remains in the husband's hands and he remains the master of his wife's fate and freedom, then sadly, baal – “master” – rather than “partner” is exactly what he is.
Moreover, the lying signifier is usually accompanied by solid beliefs that are located on the “right” side. The place where we are right, as Yehuda Amichai's poem goes, is the place where nothing can grow. We do not expose ourselves to examination or criticism because we use the “right” words. When someone uses a politically correct word, he himself is perceived as being politically correct. When one says “African-American,” he is thought of as behaving appropriately on this point. Does that always mean he is not a bigot? It's unclear. Is there a correlation between the use of political correct words and proper thinking? Not at all. The greatest bigots can use the most politically correct words (and in many cases, they do). The euphemized word or phrase creates a cloud of calm around it, an illusion that the lines of injustice are clearly drawn between those who are considerate and those that discriminate, between the good guys and the bad guys. Politically correct language imparts correct speech with the weight of being the right thing to do. That is how a cluster of thought and emotion is created, a word-signifier knot that represents the concept together with the emotions that accompany it: This is good, this is the right way to speak and be. Everything is okay. We're okay, the situation is okay, the problem is under control.
Let's try to break this situation up into its different parts: The situation is not under control; it is more acute than ever, but it is concealed. Nothing is okay. There is a great deal of conscious and unconscious bigotry among us. The discriminatory or direct words and actions are not as self-evident and obvious as we think. Affirmative action or positive discrimination is discriminatory by its very existence. Rather than being simple, the situation becomes much more complex. Paradoxically, if someone is called a “nigger,” he has all the social justification in the world to be offended at being given that name and to protest against it. The word “nigger” signifies the discrimination and bigotry that exists to a large extent in society. If he is called an “African-American,” on the other hand, he loses the ability to protest the injustice as it is represented in language.
Thus, political correctness creates these melded clumps of opinion and emotion: the illusory signifier, to which the “right” and “proper” label – one that “does not require any further examination”– is soldered, along with a sense of conviction that one is on the right and just side of things. And this clump gets stuck in that place. That is how we turn ourselves into a sack of rocks rather than a human body that constantly renews itself. We ought to aspire to emotional invigoration rather than political correctness.
Let us recall the wonderful distinction Milan Kundera made in The Unbearable Lightness of Being between spontaneity and kitsch: There is an elusive difference between unbridled joy and “the positive feeling one is supposed to be experiencing” – dictated joy. The elusive difference is related to the freshness of the emotion. Similarly, there is a huge difference between emotion and emotional conviction. Conviction is the moment when we are safe, certain, hermetically sealed. The fresh emotion is open and contains movement. Emotional convictions are energy-saving mechanisms; they save us the need to have to open ourselves up to others each time anew and to actually feel. That enables us to rest more and become increasingly complacent. It is clear to us what we are supposed to feel simply because we have already had similar experiences. What are the chances that if we reexamine the situation carefully and honestly, we will discover that our emotions are different from what we expected? Perhaps we have changed? What is our inner weather? Political correctness dilutes this range.
In psychological therapy, we try to reinvigorate this freshness. That is the reason for the stock question “How did that make you feel?” that so many therapists ask. Very often – always in fact – our feelings are not self-evident. Surrendering to the question may produce answers that surprise those who give them, but that is exactly why it is important to move the rock and see what lies underneath it.
Our convictions cause us to view ourselves as creatures that are more limited and knowable that we really are. In the culture of political correctness, we stagnate. Our emotions become used, worn, stale, as if there are the emotions of someone else. New emotional situations, on the other hand, which can create a feeling of constant renewal – the otherness in situations that are seemingly similar – are the best of our emotional life. Through them, we feel excitement and joy again. They are the tools through which we can communicate and change.
The new eyes and living speech, that is the use of language without clichés, are the ideal. I can give no instruction on how to get there other than the experience of the paradox. We are always right and wrong to the same extent, right and wrong, well-meaning and completely missing the point. We have a deep understanding that we are similar and different; that the other is like me but different, that his life is like mine, but different, and this needs to be reexamined anew with each encounter. We need to relate to and consider the conditions of the life of the other differently each time. With a desire to approach this kind of clarity, there are no safe, predetermined zones. One cannot say: “We've been there, done that; this is a clearly defined and known bad area.” No. We must check and check again and again, and take into account that there will be repeated failures too.
In the politically correct discourse, good and bad are drawn as foretold boundaries, and all one has to do is to avoid stepping on the lines. This numbs our awareness of the fact that the boundary lines are constantly changing, that the injustices look different all the time. This is how the politically correct discourse conceals an incorrect reality. Perhaps, simply continuing on this path and making sure not to step on the lines is the road to hell, which many believe is the place that is too comfortable, too familiar and safe, the place where nothing really happens and where no change really occurs.