Tag Archives: political correctness

Language Games: Politically Correct English and Rand Paul’s Race Fail

I have a problem with politically correct language.  I blame David Foster Wallace.  In his Harper’s essay on the politics of usage and grammar (which is even longer, way longer, than mine), which is reprinted in Consider the Lobster, Wallace decries what he calls Politically Correct English (PCE) for its ability to allow us to pretend that using nicer words equals a more just, less discriminatory society:

Usage is always political, of course, but it’s complexly political. With respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: On the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change. These two functions are different and have to be kept straight. Confusing them — in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language’s political symbolism … — enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE’s central fallacy — that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes — and of course it’s nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT’S delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage.

Political correctness is a kind of language game that can be played by anyone, even people who do not share the values and goals of the feminists, anti-racists, and social justice advocates that promote it. As PCE has entered common usage, it has become a mode of self-presentation, of making oneself more acceptable to the public regardless of the ideology that usage may conceal. If one can play that particular language game and play it well, it can stand in place of true egalitarian bona fides. Even more distressingly, there are those who assume that the ability to play the language game is essentially all there is to being Not-Racist/Sexist/Homophobic/insert prejudice here, that one does not need to support actual social change or engage in the process of self-examination that social justice truly requires if one can simply adopt the right vocabulary.

Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown demonstrated this adeptly in her questioning of Sarah Palin’s outrage over Rahm Emmanuel’s incendiary usage of the word “retard” to describe progressive activists. As Doyle demonstrates, this was a classic example of the kind of language-policing that stands in place of actual efforts to change the systems of disadvantage and discrimination that plague the people whose marginalization is symbolized in those Not-Nice Words:

But, you know: Emanuel used the word. She pointed out that it was a fucked-up word. It is a fucked-up word. So, according to one specific version of the game – the game played by people who have no investment in the actual process, the actual structure, the sort of game where people get their politics through soundbites and focus exclusively and obsessively on their own comfort and just basically believe that they are Nice People so they should take whatever the Nice Person stance is today, especially if it doesn’t require too much thought aside from shaking their heads about the bad word the bad man said, or maybe (maybe at most) not using that word any more themselves – according to this version of the game, Sarah Palin wins.

It strikes me that Rand Paul was trying to do something pretty similar last night on Rachel Maddow. For those of you who may not know, Rand Paul is the son of Republican Congressman, former Presidential candidate, and ideological Libertarian Ron Paul. He just won the Republican Senatorial Primary in Kentucky. Like a lot of true Libertarians (as opposed to Libertarians of Convenience–I’m looking at you National Republicans), Rand Paul has some pretty radical, far from the mainstream views. For example, he believes in a division between the public and private spheres that is far, far more extreme than what most mainstream Republicans endorse (and further from how they actually govern). In the wake of Paul’s primary victory, it was brought to light that in an interview with the Courier Journal Paul indicated that he would have opposed the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that forced privately owned businesses to desegregate. Then he went on Rachel Maddow to try to explain whatever it was he actually meant by that:

I couldn’t find a transcript and the video is too damn long for me to transcribe right now, but the gist of it is that Paul repeats, over and over and over again, that he thinks discrimination is terrible, awful, HORRIBLE even and that the desegregation of the public sphere was totes necessary, but he managed to avoid clarifying the statement actually in question until some point near the end. He ultimately confirms that he believes that requiring private businesses to desegregate represented an unwanted incursion of government into the private sphere. There is just so much fail here that I hardly know where to start, but let’s try to make a list:

1. Paul repeatedly accuses Maddow of taking the discussion into abstract, esoteric territory when what she is demanding is a straightforward answer on a specific, practical aspect of the Civil Rights Amendment. In fact, it is the language game of PCE that allows Paul to essentially keep this in esoteric territory, because for him, the issue of civil rights really is abstract, really does amount to little more than words, the ability and willingness to say the right stuff. When Maddow reminds him that desegregating private businesses like the Woolworth’s lunch counters was a very real event that affected real people, that real people were, in fact, beaten while staging sit-ins, he once again starts with the language games by saying “I don’t condone violence.” When Maddow presses him on the consequences of essentially allowing the entire private sector to re-segregate, he again retreats into the abstract. Because, again, this is an abstract concept for him. He has never had to, never will never have to, actually live the day to day consequences of what he is suggesting. Thus, the ability to use the language games of PCE to keep things abstract is ultimately a manifestation of a form privilege that never has to come in contact with the reality of what these abstract policy discussions might mean for in the lives of individual minorities.

2. Paul tries to reduce all of this to a simply division between the public and private spheres, when that division is, in fact, not simple. The public sector frequently intervenes in the private sector in order to protect the public interest. That’s how we get a police force and things like building safety and health regulations, fire codes, et freaking cetera. Now, I understand that as a Libertarian, Paul opposes some of these things as well, but it is illogical to act like we have not had a long tradition of public interventions for the public interest in this country. And preventing discrimination on the basis of race is pretty clearly a public interest concern.

3. Paul draws a false equivalence between forcing businesses to desegregate and forcing businesses to carry guns on their premises. Right. Because that’s totally the same: the government forcing me to allow you to bring your hobbies into my home or business versus me allowing you to bring your body onto my premises. I don’t know if I can point out the absurdity of this claim any better than The Daily Show, so I’ll just embed this clip:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Open Carrier Discrimination
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

4. Paul declares this entire criticism a red herring (I already have a post on ad hominem drawn up for tomorrow’s Logical Fallacy Friday, but perhaps I should cover this one next) because the Civil Rights Act is ancient history and doesn’t have anything to do with any legislation that Paul may or may not support as a U.S. Senator. False. This is a country where you can still be fired for being gay or trans, where you can–thanks a bunch Democratic majority–still be discharged from the military for being gay, where the recognition of gay unions still is very much at issue for both the public and private sector. We are really only just now beginning to have that debate, so to pretend that Rand Paul’s position on the implications of the Civil Rights Act for the private sector is just sort of an abstract thought problem is a very real problem.

Let me be clear, I think that Paul is a little far from the pack even for a conservative Republican here. I like to think that there is a reason why Mitch “Good ‘Ol Boy” McConnell backed his opponent, but it will be a pretty distressing state of affairs if statements like these do not translate into very tangible political consequences for Rand Paul’s election. But then again, one of the big problems with Politically Correct English is that it allows a lot of people to look good while concealing from pretty disturbing views.

Edit–Melissa McEwan analyzes Paul’s spurious interpretation of the First Amendment here.

Another Edit–Everyone seems to be talking about this today and saying great things that I feel I need to share here. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has the following to say.

Political philosophy can never be free of history. And there is no denying that similar states rights or libertarian arguments have been the arguments of choice for those who want to defend racial discrimination since avowed defenses of racial prejudice and subordination became publicly unacceptable outside some parts of the South in the early second half of the last century. That’s simply a fact. In principle, it doesn’t delegitimize libertarian political philosophy. But we don’t live in classrooms or treatises. We live in an actual world where history and experience can’t be separated from philosophy.