In the mid-1990s, I taught a course on “political correctness” a couple of times. Depending on one’s ontological and political views, one might say that the course studied a non-existent phenomenon. On the other hand, many issues associated with “political correctness,” such as speech codes, the literary “canon,” and affirmative action, were worth studying. Hence the course.
The teaching led to a few publications, which attempt to articulate a nuanced position on freedom of speech in particular: warning against those who cavalierly dismiss the vital importance to our civilization of free speech (Fish), while recognizing that it is naive to hope that free speech alone will solve problems associated with racist or sexist speech (Loury). Finally, I was struck by the fact that the “politically correct” and their conservative opponents had some underlying affinities (Bloom).
“Stanley Fish’s case for speech regulation: A critique,” Canadian Journal of Higher Education 31, no.2 (2001): 167-82.
Over time, I have come to see just how widespread is one of Fish’s errors. He argues that, because we can identify good things that result from freedom of speech, such freedom is a mere means to other ends. Analogously, utilitarians such as Richard Layard argue that all rights are mere means to the end of happiness, one of the more dangerous arguments circulating in policy circles today.
“On Political Correctness: Comment on Loury ,” Rationality and Society 8, no. 3, August 1996, pp. 353- 57.
(Excerpt) “Freedom is one of our civilization’s oldest values. Self-restraint is another: ‘Keep watch over the door of my lips’ (Psalm 141). This restraint is a virtue grounded in the awareness that words have power and that we are responsible for each one we utter. A key question for assessing the ‘PC debates’ is thus whether most opponents of PC are resisting a self-censorship grounded in cowardly acquiescence or a self-restraint grounded in prudence and responsibility. When one hears a professor complain that ‘I have to measure my words carefully’ (Corelli 1992, 42), it is not hard to detect some nostalgia for a golden age when power relations in the classroom were such that professors rarely found themselves called to account for their words. Now that these idyllic conditions no longer hold, it is natural that those who were once unaccountable should resent the change. At the same time, no-one is so foolish as to claim a sacred right to irresponsibility. Thus, they will naturally batten on the most absurd cases of speech control they can find, and invoke the ghosts of McCarthy, Stalin, and any other spectres likely to invest their struggle with a veneer of historical grandeur.”
“Was Bloom PC?,” Canadian Review of American Studies, 26, no. 2, Spring 1996, 1-26.
“In what appears similar,” said Allan Bloom, “one should look for the differences; and in the different, the similar.” Just so. Bloom certainly seemed diametrically opposed to the so-called political correctness movement. But was he?
The “Accepted Manuscript” (my final submitted version), is available here.