Political Correctness

First published in the Canadian Federation for the Humanities Bulletin 14.1 (Summer 1991).


Is something seriously wrong with the humanities departments of our universities? In 1987 Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind set out to tell us, in the lurid wording of its subtitle, “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.” Similar messages have been repeated with increasing vehemence in books like Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, as well as in a spate of journal and newspaper articles in the US, Britain, and more recently, Canada.

The problem, by most accounts, is that professorial exponents of something variously denounced as “multiculturalism,” “political correctness” and a “new McCarthyism” are on the rampage, uprooting the classics of Western literature from the curriculum, and silencing any murmur of dissent from their more sensible colleagues.

D'Souza refers to the new forms of criticism now dominant in humanities departments as a cancer which as it “metastasizes” induces “a kind of intellectual free fall” (The Atlantic Monthly, March 1991). Claude Rawson mutters darkly in the London Review of Books (April 25) about “professional misconduct,” and claims there has been a “hijacking of the classroom by militant proponents of special interest groups.” President Bush, in his May 4 speech at the University of Michigan, declares free speech to be “under assault” by the politically correct “throughout the United States.” And Maclean's, in much the same mode, informs us in its cover story of May 27 that “a new wave of repression” is sweeping through the universities.

Behind so much smoke there must be fire. But what kind of fire? The reader who detects a whiff of paranoia in these metaphors of disease and terrorism may be interested to know that D'Souza, under whose editorship the Dartmouth Review published overtly racist articles, subsequently served as a domestic policy advisor in the Reagan White House; that Rawson, even after the Thatcher government's elimination of one-sixth of the posts of university teachers of English in Britain, seems to feel that there are more such people around than is “necessary or healthy”; and that Bush, whose time in executive office has seen the greatest transfer of wealth from poor to rich in American history, incorporated his claims about a threat to free speech into an attack on the attempt of Lyndon Johnson's “Great Society” social programmes to provide for the destitute.

Is it possible, then, that we are being manipulated?

Consider the Maclean's story about “political correctness” in Canadian universities. Behind its windy headlines, the evidence that is offered of a “wave of repression” seems strangely thin. It amounts, in fact, to four distinct incidents.

One of these—the harassment of anthropologist Jeanne Cannizzo at the University of Toronto by activists who interpreted as racist an exhibit she had curated at the Royal Ontario Museum in 1990—is genuinely disturbing. A second case, however, that of psychologist Philippe Rushton at the University of Western Ontario, cuts in the opposite direction. The issue raised by Rushton's claims about race, sexuality and intelligence, and the subsequent calls for his dismissal, seems to me less one of free speech than of professional competence.

What remains of the “wave,” if we keep to actual incidents as opposed to anxious speculation, would scarcely fill a teacup. Maclean's is shocked that at a Vancouver Shakespeare conference “some feminists criticized the 16th century playwright for being sexist and racist.” And case number four is a matter of feminists at Acadia University who wrote to protest the reproduction in the university calendar of an Alex Colville painting which they believe dehumanizes women. Maclean's does not us whether their letter was rude or insensitive—nor in what sense Colville, who is also chancellor of the university, was “repressed” by it.

How then should we interpret the controversy that (in George Bush's words) the “notion of 'political correctness' has ignited”?

I see two basic reasons for this furore. The first is a matter of anxieties provoked by recent developments within the human sciences; the second is more crassly political.

Until recently, most university teachers of literature took for granted the autonomy and organic unity of the texts whose complicated but stable meanings they unfolded for their students. A knowledge of “background” material, though it might enhance one's appreciation of literature, was often thought unnecessary, as was any notion of taking the interpreter's own historical situation, or gender, or race, or social class into account. The result, all too often, was an unconscious remaking of literary classics in the image of their interpreters—a supposition that the universal values of literature happened to coincide with those of mid-20th century white, male, middle-class professors.

Feminism, deconstruction, cultural materialism, and new historicism (to name only the most prominent new modes of criticism) have changed all this. Although these very diverse currents are far from composing a single monolithic tendency, they do share a common insistence that texts and their interpreters are alike historically conditioned.

Meanings are thus inconstant and unstable, both because that is how language seems to work (as T. S. Eliot wrote a half-century ago, words “slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place”), and also because the conferring of meaning is an ongoing dialogue between texts produced in specific historical contexts and readers who have themselves been shaped by very different ones.

Modes of criticism which lay bare the social constraints and power structures that inform any act of literary creation or interpretation have an obvious potential as instruments of liberation. It is no accident that the widespread adoption of such styles of criticism has coincided with a new sensitivity to previously neglected aspects of literary classics, with an opening up of the curriculum to women, minority, and transcultural writers—and with a belated recognition on the part of universities of the need to remedy the gross underrepresentation of women and minorities in their faculties and student bodies.

These are all matters that deserve serious and sustained public debate. But the “political correctness” furore which has developed in the US has very little in common with reasoned debate: the claims of the New Right about current tendencies in the universities rest for the most part upon distortions no less gross and palpable than those of the Maclean's “political correctness” issue.

Dinesh D'Souza, for example, in claiming that Stanford University's revised liberal arts survey course substitutes Third World texts for European classics in a wholesale manner, does not both to mention that seven of the eight “tracks” available to students retain the traditional structure. Moreover, since the presence of a good number of European classics in the eighth track as well cannot be disguised, D'Souza objects to the manner in which these are taught, finding it an “indignity” to suggest that Shakespeare in The Tempest drew on contemporary reports of natives in the recently discovered “new world.” Has D'Souza perhaps not bothered to read this play?

George F. Will, the Newsweek columnist, has strong opinions about the same Shakespearean text. On April 22 of this year, he denounced the Modern Language Association of America as a bolt-hole for academic subversives who think The Tempest is “'really' about imperialism.” (The Tempest is of course about many things—but is imperialism really not one of these? Perhaps Mr Will has also not read the play.)

The reason for Will's outburst? The MLA, on behalf of the 29,000 college and university teachers who are its members, had opposed President Bush's nomination to the advisory council of the National Endowment for the Humanities of a junior scholar whose sole qualification for the post, apart from three modest scholarly articles, appeared to be her activities as a political ideologue. Describing the nomination of this person as “premature,” the MLA emphasized that it would not object to the appointment of a more distinguished scholar with similar right-wing views.

But this moderate stance did not appease George F. Will. In his April 22 column he described Lynne Cheney, the Chairman of the NEH (who had in the meantime delivered a televised attack upon the MLA), as “secretary of domestic defence”; in his view, “The foreign adversaries her husband, Dick, must keep at bay are less dangerous, in the long run, than the domestic forces with which she must deal.”

This story, it turns out, has a Canadian angle. For the current president of the MLA is none other than Professor Mario Valdès of the University of Toronto, the distinguished Hispanist and comparative literature specialist. It might well be alarming for Mr Will to think that his most fearsome domestic adversary is, as it happens, a foreign one as well. But as members of the Canadian academy could assure him, Professor Valdès is not just a first-rate scholar and teacher, but one who to the best of our knowledge has not once committed a terrorist outrage. Nor (unless in accepting the presidency of the MLA) has he ever invaded a neighbouring state.

Should we not perhaps be taking these frothy denunciations of “political correctness” with a large grain of salt?

Michael Keefer, University of Guelph
President-elect of the Association of Canadian University Teachers of English