The culture of political correctness on college campuses has been taking a lot of flak recently, criticised and lampooned by voices as diverse as Fox News, Bill Maher, and “South Park,” besides being a contributing factor to Donald Trump’s popularity. Before the language about safe spaces and micro-aggressions, there was something darker, more insidious.
This is the origin story behind the mentality, and the heinous academic rhetoric about hegemony and cultural relativism, that first caused many colleges to lose touch with the real world—a world that, to many P.C academics, is just a socially constructed text.
Richard Dawkins, in an article in Nature entitled “Postmodernism Disrobed,” asked: “Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.”
Free Language While We Chain Your Body
In Paris during the mid-sixties, literary theory’s long tradition of studying the nature of literature and the methods for analyzing it was upended by hip and supposedly transgressive left-wing structuralist writers such as Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.
As structuralism and post-structuralism morphed into deconstruction and then post-modernism, the language became willfully and often crazily opaque as the writers, and their followers, sought to dazzle readers with quasi-scientific terminology and headache-inducing abstractions. Perhaps most succinctly, Moe from “The Simpsons” described post-modernism as “weird for the sake of being weird.”
The logic of post-modernists’ insistence that there are no certainties or realities, and their refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of value judgments, led to a free-floating relativism. The freedom of text or language came to compensate for the unfreedom of the system of the whole. Everything from history to quantum physics was now a “text,” subject to the infinite play of “signification.” The theories, that the world is essentially a socially constructed “text” about which almost anything can be argued, spread beyond departments of comparative literature into other faculties such as literature, film, cultural studies, anthropology, and even political science.
The academic hegemony of these writers (to use one of their favorite terms) began to wane toward the end of the nineties. Their hyper-abstract intellectual ramblings remain for posterity, and campus culture seems to be in thrall to a new wave of relativists. Here is a countdown of the top-five most ridiculous passages from their works:
5. Gilles Deleuze, ‘Fifteenth Series of Singularities’
“In the first place, singularities events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organised into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable’, endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed…In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.”
4. Judith Butler, ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’
“When Aretha Franklin sings, ‘You make me feel like a natural woman,’ she seems at first to suggest that some natural potential of her biological sex is actualised by her participation in the cultural position of ‘woman’ as object of heterosexual recognition. Something in her ‘sex’ is thus expressed by her ‘gender’ which is then fully known and consecrated within the heterosexual scene. There is no breakage, no discontinuity between ‘sex’ as biological facticity and essence, or between gender and sexuality. Although Aretha appears to be all too glad to have her naturalness confirmed, she also seems fully and paradoxically mindful that that confirmation is never guaranteed, that the effect of naturalness is only achieved as a consequence of that moment of heterosexual recognition. After all, Aretha sings, ‘You make me feel like a natural woman,’ suggesting that this is a kind of metaphorical substitution, an act of imposture, a kind of sublime and momentary participation in an ontological illusion produced by the mundane operation of heterosexual drag.”
3. Félix Guattari
“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.”
2. Michael Moon, ‘Sexual disorientation in Henry James, Kenneth Anger and David Lynch’
“There is a striking detail in the opening lines of The Pupil, by Henry James. Mrs Moreen, is ‘the large, affable lady who sat there drawing a pair of soiled suede gloves through a fat, jewelled hand.’
I want to consider a little further the possible significance of ‘soiled’ suede as a figure for relations in The Pupil. Like those of ‘velvet,’ the erotic and class associations of ‘suede’ have shifted and mutated considerably over the past century and more…English-language guides to proper dress from mid-century forward inform the reader that the newly fashionable fabric ‘suede’ is ‘undressed kid.’ …If my translations of the phrase ‘drawing a pair of soiled suede gloves through a fat, jewelled hand’ into ‘handling dirty undressed-kid gloves’ and possibly, into other permutations of that phrase ‘handling a dirty undressed kid,’ seem far-fetched, it is only because the erotic wish encrypted, mimed but unspoken, in the text of The Pupil is precisely the kind of meaning that requires just such high-intensity translation or decoding.”
1. Jacques Lacan
Lacan sought to give his deconstruction some methodical rigor with the following equation:
—————— = s ( the statement ), with S = ( -1 ), produces: s = √ -1
“Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image: that is why it is equivalent to the √ -1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).”
So Why Should We Care about These Crazy People?
“What does it matter,” Barbara Ehrenreich once asked, “if some French guy wants to think of his penis as the square root of minus one?”
Much of this postmodernist, relativist theory, and political correctness flourished during the nineties, a time described by Charles Krauthammer as “a holiday from history.” With 9/11 and its aftermath, reality suddenly resumed being real, because events, and clear threats, made reality too urgent to be reduced to relative abstractions.
Political correctness has re-emerged over the last decade with a different tone. As Neil Howe has written, “Critics presume a certain level of emotional fragility among young people that the last P.C. movement did not—exacerbated, some say, by a more consumer-oriented mindset at colleges that leads administrators and professors to bend over backwards to cater to students.” The new strain of political correctness differs from its nineties precursor, in that it is more focused on minimizing the potential for offense, and enhancing emotional security.
Even liberal blogs find contentious the emerging premise that the mere act of having a conversation on certain subjects should be off-limits. This notion, of course, suffocates free expression. At Wesleyan University, a student newspaper lost funding due to its decision to run an article criticizing the #BlackLivesMatter protests. Faculty members and administrators resigned or were urged to resign for criticizing or allowing criticisms of the prevailing politically correct assumptions.
The “safe-space” mentality of enhancing and protecting emotional security now runs to absurd extremes. Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee, for example, urged students to steer clear of any Halloween costumes with the potential to offend. A professor at Harvard Law School recalled an instance where a student had asked a colleague “not to use the word ‘violate’ – as in ‘does this conduct violate the law’ – because the term might trigger distress.”
Reading lists at some colleges now include warnings printed beside certain titles: “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf (trigger: suicidal tendencies), or “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (trigger: suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence). In an interview for New York Magazine, comedian Chris Rock recently said about college gigs, “You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”
The first wave of political correctness managed bizarre feats of linguistic inflation and over-interpretation. It also laid the blueprint for the insidious cultural relativism of contemporary college P.C. If political and cultural commentators across the spectrum continue to lambast and lampoon the excesses of this second wave of political correctness, it may go some way towards helping it recede into history.
That cross-spectrum consensus—from “South Park” to Fox News to Bill Maher to conservative talk radio to Chris Rock—is another form of diversity we all should champion.