On Morality, Political Correctness and Social Class
It was in the early-mid 90s when I heard the expression “politically correct” for the first time on the campus of the university where I was doing my MA in French. I remember my stupefaction when, during a class in the English department, a young and charismatic professor interrupted the discussion in order to make some tangential remarks about people who had a problem with “political correctness.” I was still a recent immigrant who, in order to make sense of American reality, had to piece together many disparate pieces of information. Although the professor was not explicit, it was very clear from his tone and phrasing that the people he was referring to could only be moral degenerates—or, to put it in the politically correct terms he would have used, they were morally and ethically “challenged.” It was also clear from the students’ reaction that we were all expected to have exactly the same view on this topic as the professor. I remember the strong feeling of alienation I had when I realized that I was alone. That is, the only one to think differently among a group of adults who all seemed in perfect agreement with each other.
I had experienced a similar sensation a couple of years earlier, when, as a newly arrived political refugee, I had been befriended by the leaders of an evangelical church who had promised to help me and my then-husband. There, among the church goers, I kept meeting people who “had received Jesus in their hearts” and who, eyes aglow as if under a revelation, invited me to do the same. “It’s easy,” they kept saying, “you just have to receive Jesus in your heart. Just receive him.” But what does that mean, I wanted to scream in front of their opaque faces, what does that mean? Although my natural instinct had been to dismiss those people simply as empty-headed creatures who kept repeating a mantra, I kept thinking: maybe there is something I don’t understand, after all, they seem so sincere. For a whole year I tried to understand these church goers, until I realized that my instinct, had been, in fact, correct: they were empty-headed, and they only repeated a mantra.
And so, my classmates and my teacher looked at me with disapproving eyes when, in my very approximate English, I tried to explain that there was something deeply wrong with an intellectual who accepts that there is a “correct” way of interpreting the reality around you. I didn’t tell them that this “politically correct” way reminded me of the communist dictatorship I had escaped from because in previous classes the professor had made it clear that there was also something wrong with disapproving of communism. To be honest, at the time I just laughed the whole thing off; but what I did take from the experience of that and other classes in the English department was: 1. My interpretation of reality was always different than that of my classmates; 2. This difference (and difference, in general) was frowned upon; 3. The people doing the frowning were the same people who had a strange obsession with . . . difference, and never tired of extolling its virtues (an obsession to be discussed in another installment).
Although it was not the same context, I felt among my classmates and teachers the same feeling of alienation I had experienced among the evangelical Christians. The two groups of people were, categorically, dissimilar in terms of education, convictions, opinions or even IQ. But there was something that made them eerily similar, something that made me feel from a different species altogether. It was as if their entire existence and being were a negation of human nature, which they negated from opposite ideological convictions, but with equal zest (this too will be discussed in another installment). Again, I told myself: maybe there is something you don’t understand. After all, you come from a country that has never really known democracy, what do you know? These people were born in the greatest democracy that has ever existed, they must know what they are talking about. And so, I tried to understand. For thirty years I have been trying to understand America’s intellectuals, and, as in the case of the evangelicals, it turns out that my first assessment was correct: only a society that has been grounded from its inception in a denial of human nature could negate the obvious difference between men and women (This too shall be discussed in another installment.)
Not only was the instructor mentioned above never missing an opportunity to express his allegiance to political correctness, he often led discussions about “sexual harassment” (at the time this was a new concept) and the new regulations adopted by all the universities in the wake of the Anita Hill hearings. In stupefaction, I listened how my “progressive” classmates and teacher kept “brainstorming” about ways to control behavior and the relation between men and women in order to make it more “correct.” The biggest culprit on their list of complains was the “male gaze.” They, quite literally, were looking for ways to regulate the ”male gaze” that “objectified” women. Again, I felt as if I was among the church goers, captive to a sect that was attempting to transform human nature and the uncontrollable nature of life itself into some kind of predictable and impersonal, “morally correct” algorithm. I wanted to ask my female classmates: when a man fucks you, does his gaze objectify you? And, for that matter, when you fuck him, does your gaze objectify him? Are some gazes more objectifying than others, and, if so, why? But, of course, I kept my mouth shut.
Any female can tell when a male looks at her in a certain way, and during these classes, I could definitely feel the “male gaze” of my instructor on me. But since these sensations are subjective and one can never be sure, I told myself that maybe it was all in my head. Until one late afternoon when, as I was taking a nap, I was awakened by a phone call in my modest TA studio. The playful male voice on the other end didn’t identify itself and when I asked who it was, the answer was, “Guess!” Sleepy as I was, I muttered some name or other, and then the male voice invited me to keep guessing. Yes, it was the instructor who never missed an opportunity to unmask sexual harassment. Other people’s sexual harassment, that is.
The instructor said that he’d called because I appeared to be unhappy in class and wanted to know if everything was OK. Again, I gave him the benefit of the doubt: after all, I was unhappy in class, and this could have been truly the reason for his call. But later, I thought better of it: what American professor goes through the trouble of looking up a student’s phone number and calls her at home to see if she is OK, when he could simply ask her to come to his office? And if a professor did call, wouldn’t the conversation start with, “Hello, this is Prof. X, I am calling because…” rather than teasingly ask the student to guess who he was?
My dear American friend, it is my experience that the more preoccupied one is with controlling other people’s behavior, the more likely one is to be himself the kind of person who commits the very transgressions one is trying to control. In fact, I am sure you have noticed that the Republicans obsessed with “family values” are the very ones who turn out to be serial adulterers or wife beaters. It is exactly the same thing with Democrats obsessed with “political correctness.” The only difference is that the types of values they defend are different. But the obsession and the desire to control human nature—in the latter case, usually through language—are exactly the same. The reason why it’s the people likely to commit transgressions that are the most zealous in their puritan fervor is simple: any society obsessed with morality and “correctness” is a society that encourages hypocrisy and opportunism.
And now, let’s look at “political correctness” through a different angle, let’s look at it through the angle of a society that is as politically incorrect as one can imagine: the society in which I was born, Romania. There is a text by the Romanian writer, Mircea Cartarescu, in which he does a brutal critique of Romanian society and of the extremely rude way Romanians relate to each other. He juxtaposes this rudeness to what he calls the “social hypocrisy” (the words “social hypocrisy” are here descriptive, rather than negative) of Western societies (although he doesn’t say it, it is clear he has in mind Anglo-Saxon societies in particular), a “social hypocrisy” also known as “politeness.” Cartarescu is absolutely right in has assessment of Romanian society, which suffers of exactly the opposite problem American society has. The reason I mention his critique is because it can help us frame “political correctness” in a way Americans never do, a frame that has less to do with ethics or morality, and more with social class: after all, politeness represents a codified behavior that was developed by the upper classes. In this frame, “political correctness” is simply an indirect way of speaking, a way specific to people in Western, and particularly, English-speaking societies, a way meant to avoid conflict through reassuring social smiles and indirect, polite speech. Instead of saying “blind,” you say “visually deficient”; “crippled” becomes “disabled,” “stupid” becomes “neurologically different,” and so on. This indirectness of speech is a characteristic of a specific social class, an educated, middle-upper class. In other words: political correctness could only have appeared—and it has appeared—as a norm created by an economically and culturally privileged class.
The American linguist John McWhorter too has noticed a difference in speech between two categories of people in the States. He claims that African Americans use a much more direct type of speech than whites (which means that they are less likely to be adepts of political correctness), and he is right. Where I disagree is in the framing of this difference in terms of racial difference. If African Americans are more inclined to use direct speech this is because, aside from the fact that many tend to belong, statistically, to the low middle class, they are, historically, the descendants of people who worked the land and functioned within an oral culture. People from an agrarian, oral culture are, by their nature, adepts of directness. It is always the urban, upper classes that use indirect, polite language. The bourgeoisie, the aristocracy. In a society like Romania, where until the time I was born, the peasants made three quarters of the country’s population, people cannot stand “politically correct” speech, which for them smacks of hypocrisy, aside from the fact that it reminds them of the codified speech imposed during communism. This is the main reason why Eastern Europeans, no matter their political orientation, are extremely critical of political correctness. Even a Marxist like Slavoj Zizek has always criticized it. To come back to direct versus indirect speech in the States, I am sure that if one did a survey among white Americans, one would discover big differences between Anglo-Saxon whites (adepts of indirect speech) and Eastern European/Russian whites (adepts of direct speech).
The fact that indirect speech is a characteristic of the upper classes is brilliantly proved in Stela Giurgeanu’s essay, “Linguistic Paranoia” (Dilema Veche, nr. 913, 7-13 Oct. 2021). In this essay, the author finds another example of a national obsession with morally “correct” language—surprisingly, in the French tradition. She discusses Molière’s play, “Les précieuses ridicules” (1626) which had given rise to the “préciosité,” a 17-century movement, or rather, a fad in which the aristocrats engaged in the renaming of things they considered too vulgar for their refined sensibility. For example, the armchair was redefined as “the comfort of a conversation,” and the mirror as “the counselor of gracious women.”
And so, my dear social justice warrior, when you fight language so valiantly from the safe space of the armchair of an elite university, imagining that you are a revolutionary, a heir to Che Guevara, no less, you are, in fact, nothing more than the most traditional petit-bourgeois.
 I recently read an article about a poll in which the respondents were asked how concerned they were about “political correctness.” They were divided by age, race and education, and, somewhat surprisingly, black people were the least bothered by it. I am convinced that this is because they read the syntagm “political correctness” as a code for speech that rejects racism. The problem is that when language is codified, everyone has his own understanding of what these codes really mean. But most people would agree that, in general, black people have a more direct way of speaking (more colloquial, if you will, less concerned about causing offense).