In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” George Orwell’s classic novel about a totalitarian and dystopian future, the ruling Party develops “Newspeak” as way to limit freedom of expression and thought. So, for example, “goodthink” refers to thoughts approved by the Party. That which is not “goodthink” is apt to be “crimethink.”
In the real world of today, we use a different but no less Orwellian vocabulary. On university campuses and in the mainstream media we now have a growing body of rules, both written and tacit, mandating that only “politically correct” views be expressed.
I maintain that “political correctness” has as much to do with what is correct — i.e. true — as “ethnic cleansing” has to do with personal hygiene.
What does it have to do with instead? Orthodoxy — a word that comes the Greek orthos, meaning right, and doxa, meaning opinions. Those enforcing what they deem “right opinions” (or orthodoxy or political correctness) have become the new Establishment. (Which, I suppose, makes those of us who oppose and resist them unorthodox and anti-Establishment.)
Actually, the new orthodoxy is not so very new. In The New York Times 26 years ago next month, journalist and author Richard Bernstein noted that the term had for some years been in use to communicate “a kind of ‘correct’ attitude toward the problems of the world. …The view that Western civilization is inherently unfair to minorities, women and homosexuals has been at the center of politically correct thinking on campuses.”
The news in his story was that political correctness was becoming “a sarcastic jibe used by those, conservatives and classical liberals alike, to describe what they see as a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia.”
“It’s a manifestation of what some are calling liberal fascism,” Roger Kimball, author of “Tenured Radicals,” a critique of the politicization of the humanities, told Mr. Bernstein. “Under the name of pluralism and freedom of speech, it is an attempt to enforce a narrow and ideologically motivated view of both the curriculum and what it means to be an educated person, a responsible citizen.”
What brings all this to mind, you ask? Last week, the American-born, UK-based novelist Lionel Shriver gave the keynote address at a chichi Australian literary festival. She declined to speak on the politically correct topic her hosts had assigned her: “Community and Belonging.” Instead, she sounded an alarm about political correctness and its kissing cousin, identity politics. Having undermined the humanities, they are now imperiling fiction writing as well, she told the assembled literati.
The “kind of fiction we are ‘allowed’ to write,” she said, “is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.”
She recalled the brouhaha that recently ensued at Bowdoin College in Maine after two students “threw a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend” complete with sombreros. Those who took part were denounced and/or punished by school administrators, the student government and the student newspaper — the campus version of Big Brother. The “party-favor hats,” were cited as proof of the thought crime of “cultural appropriation.”
“The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear,” Ms. Shriver said. “You’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats.” Yet that’s exactly what fiction writers do: “Step into other people’s shoes and try on their hats.”
Had such prohibitions been in force in the past, some of the greatest works of literature ever written wouldn’t have been. “This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature — prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.”
As to the spread of identity politics: “If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.”
And surely, attempts to understand and even participate in the lives and traditions of others, “either actively or imaginatively,” should be seen as positive and productive rather than “a form of theft.”
Ms. Shriver concluded: “We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats — including sombreros.” To drive home the point, she rebelliously donned a rather large one — to the shock if not awe of many in the audience.
Officials in charge of the event immediately disavowed her remarks and organized a “right of reply” session. Participants — some of whom had walked out during Ms. Shriver’s address — repaired to their hotel rooms to tweet, blog or write essays expressing their profound outrage.
“The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air and I was reminded of my ‘place’ in the world,” protested Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an Australian Muslim activist in a piece published in both Medium and The Guardian. She called Ms. Shriver’s address “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction” and “a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension.”
“Her smirks went straight through like a bullet,” fulminated New Republic contributing editor Suki Kim. Ms. Shriver also was accused of advocating “white supremacy, white arrogance, and white ignorance.”
All of which, if you think about it, makes her point.