A review of Political Correctness: A Sociocultural Black Hole, by Thomas Tsakalakis. Routledge, 164 pages. (October 2020)
How would a pacifist react to the display of war-time paraphernalia such as torpedoes turned into rusty vases or hand grenades filled with soap? He would most likely find it appalling, fascist, and everything you could expect in our male-chauvinist Trumpian times. At least if the origin was safely right-wing. But as soon as he enters The Walled off Hotel in Bethlehem on the Palestinian side next to the walls of the Jewish settlements, his emotional coat would probably come inside out. In the hotel, you’ll find a variety of Palestinian war-time paraphernalia such as upturned helmets as flowerpots and army bunk beds for sale, but this time the pacifist would show no sign of disapproval. Instead, he would pick up his camera visibly excited.
In Political Correctness: A Sociocultural Black Hole (Routledge, 2020), one of the problems of political correctness, Thomas Tsakalakis maintains, “is that its judgments of right and wrong are made from an angle, from a site of interest, from a position colored by partisan desires.” I am a pacifist because I oppose Nazi paraphernalia, they would insist, but surely (they might continue) you can’t support Jewish intruders, can you? A true pacifist, in contrast, would not discuss war-time paraphernalia based on whether he was in favor of Jewish settlements or not. He would discuss it based on his pacifism. He would talk about the issue from no “angle,” without any political interests at stake. Political correctness, then, would come out as a rather immature negation of anything cherished by crude right-wingers. While they would marvel at rusty sentimentalities from the Nazi regime while vehemently opposing similar objects from inside the Walled off Hotel, politically correct pacifists would do something approaching the opposite. And yet, at least from afar, they would do something very similar, where one culture of veneration merely is traded for another.
Before we continue, a few words about “political correctness.” Where does it come from? According to the anthropologist Jonathan Friedman, it emanated from the Soviet Union under Stalin, when “politicheskaya pravil’nost” (“political correctness”) was used with positive connotations within the communist party as an essential means for the control of citizens. Under Maoist rule in China, it had a similar meaning, but then changed and was used cynically about party orthodoxy. Based on these two observations, political correctness initially appears to have been a concept on the Left, whether it had a serious or ironic quality.
Personal biographies are often, and for good reason, left out in books and reviews. But for once, an exception makes sense, especially in a book dealing with minority rights. Tsakalakis makes no secret about belonging to a medical minority. He is suffering from a rare chronic inflammatory disease characterized by progressively impaired sensory functions in arms and legs. His personal situation becomes part of his investigation. He retells episodes from his life, where people who shared his medical condition “thought of their ailment as an ideal chance to suck on the government teat indefinitely.” This was never Tsakalakis’s own approach. Whatever he will achieve is not because of his condition, but despite of it: “I do not allow myself to be in any way … defined by my disease.” It is not, he insists, “part of my identity” but “a distressing state of affairs I was obliged to learn how to live with, or battle against.” In our multicultural day and age, where we are all supposed to embrace our collectivist “identity,” Tsakalakis’s claim for autonomy is unusual, and runs as an undercurrent throughout his book.
How, then, is political correctness defined by someone who declines the warm invitation from identity politics? First of all, citing Robert Hughes, Tsakalakis suggests that it is not really about “politics itself,” nor about ideas and opinions. Rather, it is about “political etiquette.” Political correctness is part of middle-class manners, i.e., what is fitting to express in a certain social circumstance in order not to lose your face.
When a discussion is no longer about ideas but about manners and etiquette, the losing end, as it seems, has no way out. Now, you haven’t merely lost a fair game. You have shown bad manners, and you are expected to be ashamed of it and humbly seek repentance. This is how disagreements are solved under political correctness. Where did all this anti-intellectualism come from? Tsakalakis quotes Friedman, who suggests political correctness “is rooted in the assumption that there exist certain self-evident moral truths about the world,” and those who question them will be “objects of ridicule.” Either you succumb to these apparent virtues, or you will be embarrassing. There are no longer different opinions, but only one glorious morality surrounded by darkness and disgrace. The politically correct praise tolerance, but do not seem to honor it.
One important theme in the book relates to how modernity is undermined by political correctness. In the 1980s, when political correctness was slowly brewing in parts of academia, Isaac Asimov claimed democracy was under attack. A “cult of ignorance” was spreading according to which democracy was interpreted as saying “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This blatant relativism collides with one of the pillars of democracy—selection by merit or “meritocracy.” An elitism based on superior knowledge is by no means in conflict with the ideals of democracy. On the contrary in fact. Democracy is undermined by sectarianism, whether you call it minority selection, identity politics, or political correctness.
Another question is: whatever happened to the upper-class bourgeoisie and their pretentious self-perception? While it may have vanished, Tsakalakis suggests, their arrogance never did. Like a flea, it merely leaped over to another host animal. “Minorities,” he says, “have acquired a prerogative that used to be peculiar to the bourgeoisie: unmitigated egoism and the pleasure of self-satisfaction.” Like the ruling classes not long ago, current minorities “noisily proclaim their personalities,” “practice self-celebration, and recognize no defect in themselves.” If modernity peaked a few decades ago, we are now sliding back in time again—this time, however, with another group on top.
In 1932, a photographer took a picture of 11 construction workers sitting on a beam some 300 meters above the streets of Manhattan. “Lunch atop a skyscraper” became an image of modernity, progress, and joint efforts. Above all, perhaps, of satisfaction in a collective enterprise. The men’s achievements can be compared to today’s foundation of group identity, where happiness over united accomplishments has been replaced by shared tears over supposed mistreatment. Citing Pascal Bruckner’s The Tyranny of Guilt, the insider Tsakalakis claims we are now “transforming ourselves into lobbies of professional sufferers, competing with others for market share and the martyr’s crown.” But cities cannot be built on a subjective, perhaps even fictitious feeling of injustice. And “feeling of belonging,” Bruckner maintains, “cannot be founded on a theatricalized misfortune, it has to be founded on a shared collective experience,” such as erecting the Empire State Building, one floor a day.
This “theatricalized misfortune” also appears to have an impact on the legal system. According to modern(ist) jurisdiction, we are all innocent until proven guilty. Our politically correct hunt for perpetrators such as #metoo, however, is almost putting this emblematic principle on its head. “Everything,” Tsakalakis maintains, “is rape until proven otherwise.” This idea flies in the face of civility and courtesy against the accused. But not only that. The fact that rape, along with pedophilia and Nazism are seen as supreme vices does not mean we should use these labels carelessly. If we do, we are merely banalizing sexual abuse and extreme right-wing sympathies.
But there is more to it. When this politically correct self-pity appears to undermine not only modernist jurisdiction but also the pillars of great accomplishments, it is no surprise that other areas will also come under fire, such as art. Why is art a problem? Because gallery visitors may be offended. The way out, then, is not to ask them to turn their attention to something they find less offensive, but to display nothing but innocent and unprovocative art. A gallery, then, is no longer a building where art is being showcased, but a place where the mental equilibrium of the fragile visitor is taken care of. In an ideal world of political correctness, Tsakalakis claims, “works of art are or ought to be therapeutic.” It is anybody’s guess whatever happened to the old Left and their famous dictum “art for art’s sake.”
My only concern with Tsakalakis’s book has to do with his streaks of cynicism. As someone who with such erudite force takes political correctness to task, and along with it all its concomitant allies such as postmodernity, identity politics, and multiculturalism, a cynical approach seems somewhat out of place. If anything, it is associated with that lazy postmodern, politically correct attitude where all those admirable modernist projects, hopes, and aspirations are being ridiculed and mocked.
A note of disagreement, however, does not alter the fact that Thomas Tsakalakis has written an original, insightful, and at times moving book where he also battles against the crippling benefits of his own medical minority status. Anyone on the lookout for novel, critical ideas about the hollowness of political correctness are well advised to study his book.
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