Monday, August 27, 2007

A Political Correctness FAQ

There's been a few debates that have come up in the feminist blogosphere lately that have come down to offense over the terminology that's being used and about knee-jerk reactions to that terminology. The two big offenders seem to be "politically correct" and, more, surprisingly, "sex-positive". Apparently, use of these terms in feminist discourse marks is a marker that one is anti-feminist or at least insufficiently respectful of the more easily-offended branches of feminism. (Although it should be pointed out that these easily-offended radfems are themselves merely setting up "strawsexpozzes" to knock down.)

I've been finding it useful to go back to the early literature to see what the debate was originally all about. This comes up in my discussion over on Trinity's blog in response to a very good post she made about sex-positivity.

On the topic of political correctness, I found a really great little essay in the 1984 sex-positive anthology Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality called "Politically Correct? Politically Incorrect?" by Muriel Dimen. The essay starts contains a Q/A about political correctness (what these days would be called a FAQ) that really gets to the root of the matter, without the accumulated baggage that later started piling up around the term. I think its a very useful read.

Question 1: How do you define politically correct?

Answer: Politically correct is an idea that emerges from the well-meaning attempt in social movements to bring the unsatisfactory present into line with the utopian future, in fact, to make the "revolution" happen. Although ideas about what is acceptable behavior develop in any political organization, left or right, the express phrase, politically correct, seems to be associated with the left. The phrase is charged, because the left, in its conception of itself, stands for freedom, yet finds itself in a contradictory situation: in order to realize its goal, it finds itself telling people how to behave and therefore interfering with their freedom.

Politically correct behavior, including invisible language and ideas as well as observable action, is that which adheres to a movement's morality and hastens its goals. The idea of politically correct grows naturally from moral judgments (which any political ideology or philosophy contains) that deem certain aspects of the present way of living bad. It is this moral evaluation that fuels visions of better ways of living and energizes attempts to realize them. In the light of the resulting politico-moral principles, certain behaviors and attitudes can come to seem not only "bad," because they are harmful to society or to people, but "wrong," because they hinder social transformation.

Question 2: What is politically correct?

Answer: I don't know: anything, including seeming opposites, can be correct in different groups, movements, or societies. The Talmud requires intercourse; the Shakers prohibited sexual activity; Marx, Engels and Freud celebrated (but did not practice) monogamy; Bohemianism advocates promiscuity and multiple sexualities, but disdains fidelity.

The ideology of political correctness emerges in all sorts of movements, applying to behavior, social institutions, and systems of thought and value. For example, various socialist and utopian movements have identified the nuclear family as a breeding ground for a socially destructive individualism, and propose communal living because it would promote a collectivist spirit. At various periods in Western history, then, social movements have instituted communes as a desirable first step in creating the good society they envisioned for the future. In the 1960s (which spilled into the 1970s), certain sectors of the left found the nuclear family and its bedrock, monogamous heterosexual marriage, to be both bad and wrong, i.e., politically incorrect, while communes and non-monogamy (for which no positive term ever developed) came to seem good and right, that is, "left," in other words, politically correct.

The appearance of political correctness in feminism creates a contradiction. One of feminism's tenets is an individualism (sometimes bourgeois, sometimes anarchistic) that proclaims self-determination for women, translating into "every woman for herself." However, feminism is also a mass movement based on collective struggles against the state in such areas as reproductive rights and the workplace. Such a political movement can be successful only if it is founded on shared moral and political principles. In some sense, it is this movement that constitutes the social context which makes feminism's individualistic principles possible. It is not feasible, however, for both these tendencies, one towards the individual, the other towards the social web, to be simultaneous guides to politically correct behavior.

Feminists have made judgments about political correctness particularly in the area of sexual behavior. This is because of the special cultural tension between sexuality and feminism: desire, of which sexuality is one very privileged instance, pushes and pulls at all people. Yet because it is in the domain of the subjective, desire tends to be associated with things female in the patriarchy of the twentieth-century nation-state where women, subjectivity, and sexuality share the same symbolic space. This shared symbolic space creates a second contradiction for feminists. On the one hand, since women have been traditionally defined as sex objects, feminism demands that society no longer focus on their erotic attributes, which, in turn, feminism downplays. In this way it becomes politically correct not to engage in any stereotypically feminine behavior, such as putting on make-up, wearing high heels, shaving legs and arms, or coming on to men. On the other hand, because women have been traditionally defined as being uninterested in sex, they have been deprived of pleasure and a sense of autonomous at-one-ness, both of which are necessary to self-esteem. Feminism therefore demands sexual freedom for women. In this way it becomes politically correct for women to be sexual explorers, visiting, if not settling down in, homosexuality or polysexuality; experimenting with cock-sucking or anal intercourse or tantric sex; trying out orgies or, perhaps, even celibacy. In consequence, these judgments about the correct path are as contradictory as the situation which gave rise to the feminist critique in the first place.

Question 3: Why do people want to say and do politically correct things?

Answer: Politically correct ideology and behavior are attractive, because they proceed from acute and visionary perceptions of political oppression. If people create visions of what is good, it seems sensible and self-respectful to try to live them out. Politically correct ideology and behavior attempt to escape the manifestly harmful, and to avoid things that damage, even if they feel good. In addition to these rational reasons, there are irrational forces which motivate political correctness, springing, for example, from the fear of separateness that makes conformity compelling. Conformism, present in any social group, can have an important role in making members of out-groups feel self-righteously stronger.

Question 4: What is good about politically correct ideology and behavior?

Answer: It is empowering; by psychological and ideological means, it creates the space for people to organize politically. It becomes a basis for organization and communication between people so that political structure may thrive. It also disrupts the identification with the aggressor, dispelling an individual and collective sense of victimization and providing a shared vision that guides behavior. Finally, it taps into a deeply rooted wish to belong to a collectivity in which what one desires to be is also moral to be.

Question 5: What is bad about politically correct ideology and behavior?

Answer: When the radical becomes correct, it becomes conservative. The politically correct comes to resemble what it tries to change. For it plays on the seductiveness of accustomed ways of living, the attractiveness of orthodoxy. Its social armoring can lead the person away from self-knowing authenticity and the group towards totalitarian control. It makes a misleadingly clean cut between personal experience and old, but still powerful, social practices, and draws a misleadingly neat circle around experience and a new set of supposedly completely acceptable practices.

The application of politically correct ideology and behavior to sexuality therefore founders on a double contradiction, the first in the relation between person and society, and the second in the relation between conscious and unconscious forces. The discovery/creation of sexual pleasure is very much an individual journey, even as your craft pushes off from received notions of gender, and is sped on or becalmed by concurrently developing notions of what is possible and permissible. No matter how carefully charted by conscious intentionality, the journey's course is determined finally by a complex mix of conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational currents that represent a swirling together of personal desire and cultural force.