Friday, August 1, 2014

What Orwell would actually say about "political correctness run amok"

If George Orwell taught us one thing, it's to be wary of "political correctness". That's one of the few aspects of his legacy that liberals and conservatives invariably agree upon, even if they disagree over who he was criticizing. (See: West, Krugman)

It seems to me, however, that we might have cause for suspicion when the two ruling ideologies of our age both try to vilify the same phrase to make it mean the exact opposite of what it actually says.

The point of calling something "politically correct," of course, is to declare that it is actually politically incorrect. Conservatives object if I use the word "actor" to refer to a woman, because I am incorrectly neutering a gendered noun for the sake of an incorrect feminist agenda. Liberals object if I refer to their agenda as "class warfare," because it is correctly understood as egalitarian benevolence towards all classes.

All of this makes sense if we understand the phrase "politically correct" as sarcasm. But does anyone ever call something "politically correct" in earnest? Does the phrase still have any literal meaning? Can we still argue that something is in fact politically correct? I'm not so sure. Consider today's Washington Post:
The Flaggers group was formed a few years ago after the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond removed Confederate flags from the Confederate memorial chapel on its grounds, and the city of Lexington banned the standards from city light poles. Group members are frustrated by what they see as political correctness run amok, and they frequently bring their banners to protest at sites where flags have been removed.
Note the phrasing. The author, Susan Svrluga, could also worry about "too much political correctness", or "over-the-top political correctness", or "political correctness on a rampage", and so on. But that's not the phrase, is it? We refer to "political correctness run amok" instead of "out-of-control political correctness" for the same reason that we refer to "out-of-control spending" instead of "spending run amok" - because these are canned phrases, and one is supposed to use them certain ways, but not others.

Another possible variation: "Group members maintain that is is politically incorrect to ban the Confederate flag." This phrasing is both literally true and extremely unlikely for the same reason that other versions were unlikely: one simply doesn't write it that way. No one alleges that something is politically incorrect by calling it politically incorrect. In fact, if Svrluga phrased it that way, the reader might conclude that the Flaggers support banning the Confederate flag. Bans are so politically incorrect! What a righteous defiance of groupthink and political convention, to ban the Confederate flag!

It is not surprising that canned phrases like "political correctness" should be so difficult to rationally parse - that is in fact precisely what Orwell says we should expect:
[Modern writing] consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else...By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself...You can shirk [scrupulous writing] by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
Calling something "politically incorrect" is a way of smuggling in the premise that one's idea is only opposed on the basis of popular orthodoxy, and that the very act of disagreement demonstrates a brave and admirable commitment to the truth. It suggests that political insight is more about resisting public opinion than considering to it; it fetishizes contrarianism and heterodoxy at the expense of sympathy and consensus. None of this needs to be explicitly argued for; simply splicing in the phrase does it all.

"In our time," Orwell writes, "political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." How better to do this today than to call something politically incorrect?