Political Correctness: Friend or Foe?

I noticed recently both Stephanie and Dorothy W posting wonderful pieces on books as friends, but today I wanted to return to the notion of ethical criticism with a view to considering books that become the enemy. Ethical criticism (as proposed by Wayne Booth) suggests that we can assess the literary company we keep in terms of the ethical stances taken by books. Because books affect us so deeply, it becomes culturally urgent to explore the beliefs that quietly influence the narrative, as they can sometimes provide a disquieting backdrop to the surface action. For instance, Martha Nussbaum recounts how Booth was motivated to create a new form of ethical criticism following the reaction of his young, black teaching colleague, Paul Moses, to Huckleberry Finn. Moses refused to teach the book because ‘Its assumptions about the proper relations of liberated slaves toward whites and its distorted portrayals of blacks seemed to him “just bad education”.’ Initially, Booth found it hard to comprehend his colleague’s position, but eventually he realised that not only is he right to take this stance, but that it is imperative we assess all literature for its ethical implications.

I feel profoundly conflicted about this approach: on the one hand I warmly embrace any form of ideological thinking that encourages respect, understanding and tolerance in our increasingly aggressive and fractured world. On the other hand, I see students arriving at my university every year for whom political correctness is the only approach to literature they have been taught and who in consequence produce the most unthinking and trite analysis of the works they are given. Perhaps it’s unfair to call the students to my aid here. Let’s return instead to Huckleberry Finn. When I read the book, I was naturally aware of a highly complex portrayal of race relations, but I didn’t feel it was my place, as a white, middle-class, educated woman living in the 21st century, brought up in a predominantly white community, to tackle a reading based upon it; it would have seemed to me presumptuous. I don’t mind if other white women feel they have the necessary insight; it was just that I personally wasn’t ready to go there. Now, does that mean that my reading is inevitably incomplete and flawed? Would it only become a valid reading if I were to take on board the dimension of race embedded in the text, and thus turn the reading into something I didn’t feel was in the real sense ‘mine’?

This is in no way to suggest that ethical reading isn’t a necessary component of modern critical analysis. All stories take place within a moral universe constructed by their author, and it’s always interesting to have a look at it. What I mean by ‘moral universe’ is effectively, who wins and who loses, how are good and evil rewarded and punished? So, for instance, when my 12-year old niece returned from watching Poseidon at the cinema, she was able to tell me that it was easy to spot who was going to suffer a horrible watery death. ‘There was one man in a scene near the beginning of the film,’ she told me, ‘who pushed his way into the front of the queue and was rude. You knew he was going to get it.’ Absolutely. That’s the clear-cut, politically correct Hollywood ethic at work for you: stand in line nicely or you die. As a general rule of thumb, a work becomes more literary the more complex its moral universe. What’s interesting is that the moral universe is very fundamental to the shapeliness of fiction, however conflicted or hidden it may be: to simply put life on the page in this respect would be unreadable and unbearably depressing for the average reader. We feel cheated if conflicts are not resolved, if good does not find some kind of reward, and increasingly we are highly sensitised to the way that women, ethnic minorities, the disabled and the marginal are treated within stories.

But of course it’s the work of great literature to disturb, trouble and overturn our neat judgements about how things ought to be. It’s been a staple part of avant-garde and experimental fiction to shock and offend. Sometimes this is simply childishness, but sometimes there is a valid point to be made; it’s an unfortunate tendency of ethical thinking to slip into complacency and self-righteousness, to become prescriptive and dogmatic and, in extreme cases to deaden creativity by the imposition of blanket rules and regulations. At the same time, we can’t call ourselves card-carrying members of the human race unless we remain perpetually vigilant on ethical issues.

Another brief example: one of my all-time favourite books is Albert Camus’s The Outsider, the story of the eccentric Meursault, a Frenchman who does not cry at his mother’s funeral and refuses to tell his girlfriend that he loves her. Meursault is initially repellent to the reader because he won’t engage with emotional intelligence in his life the way we expect people to do. Instead he is entirely bound up with the sensory domain, given over to the feel of the sun and the sea and the soft crispness of the hand towel in the men’s toilets. Blind to the ethical dimension, Meursault ends up falling in with a bad lot and is therefore carrying another man’s gun when he ends up on the beach by chance in the full glare of the midday sun with the only other person in sight a young Arab man. There is implicit threat here, but it seems mostly to come from the intolerable heat of the sun. The two men engage in a strange stand off and then, as if something must occur to break the stasis, Meursault shoots and kills him.

The second part of the novel finds him in jail awaiting trial. His lawyer visits him and tries to get him to concoct a story to explain what occurred. Meursault refuses; he did what he did because of the sun, there is no other excuse for it. The priest visits him, urging him to repent and regret his actions. Meursault refuses, he wished he had not done it, but he won’t admit to feelings he doesn’t have. Over the course of these conversations I found that I was gaining a sneaking respect for Meursault’s honesty. He knows he is responsible and is prepared to face the consequences; what he will not do is tell half-truths the way society wants him to, in order to save his skin. In the end Meursault will go to the gallows for his actions, but he does so having had time to transform his unthought instinctual relationship to life into a considered philosophy; he loves life, just for what it is to him and he won’t tell stories that mask the simple truth in order to dress it up for public acceptance; he embraces an ethics of absolute honesty and he is willing to die for it. And Camus creates an extraordinary narrative that revolves around an act of violence that he will not dignify with a meaning. The death of the Arab can’t be made to mean something comforting; instead it is resolutely unresolved, awkward, jarring. If I love this book, it’s not because it is a pleasure to read, it’s because it is so provocative, so difficult, so uncompromising. A politically correct reading, one that would have simply to condemn outright Meursault’s unforgivable murder of an innocent Arab, would overwhelm the highly complex ethical philosophy that the novel is attempting to sketch. If I read this book as a telling indication of the company I keep, then I can easily see my own beliefs reflected in it: I cannot abide knee-jerk reactions, and easy judgements; I think every situation can only be analysed in its own particular context and history and condemnation is something I reserve for only a tiny handful of extreme cases. And what would Booth’s ethical criticism make of this novel? Nussbaum clearly rates Booth’s work very highly indeed, and it may well be that he would provide all the answers to any queries I might have – I accept I’m at a disadvantage considering his theories through Nussbaum’s (undeniably clear and sophisticated) reading of them. But one thing worries me: Nussbaum talks of the way that Booth, who loves Rabelais, is forced to concede that his works present an offensive view of women. And so ‘his esteem for Rabelais is consequently diminished.’ This is the part of ethicial criticism I am unsure about; should we ban Huckleberry Finn from the syllabus, close the book of Rabelais’ works with a sad shake of our heads? Put back on the shelf all those works that don’t live up to the demanding criteria of the twenty-first century? I’d like to know how Rabelais was supposed to have enlightened views on women, living in 17th century France. It seems to risk denying the actuality of these stories’ historical context, the social horizons in which they were produced. A final thought: I can’t feel able to undertake ethical criticism on the grounds of race, but I can and do read texts from a feminist perspective, and it always struck me that we ought to be grateful for novels from the likes of Norman Mailer. There would be no progression in ideological thought if we didn’t have stories blatantly celebrating their prejudices.

16 thoughts on “Political Correctness: Friend or Foe?

  1. Ok, I went back to read The Loving Reader, and a new thought struck me. (See how I would be no good in a salon, either: Madame would already have declared the subject closed and moved on to Political Intrigue by the time I had figured out what I wanted to say and how to say it! And so the litblog expands the salon model so that multiple discussions can be carried on at the same time and need never be closed.) Who is Mr. Moses to decide what is the proper relations of liberated slaves toward whites and the correct portrayal of blacks? Not only have these things changed in time, but they could very well change in situation too. I haven’t read Huck Finn (bowing head in shame) so it’s hard to speak to that specifically–how about de Sade. Perhaps Mr. Moses thinks the Marquis’ portrayal of male-female relations is not proper, and sexual incontinence is morally wrong, so he refuses to teach Philosophy in the Bedroom to his class, because it is bad education. But there is so much more to it than that–there is Philosophy, as well as Bedroom. And if he has a student in his class who is a blossoming sadist, then he is denying that student what would be for her a good education. Finally, how can someone who has never been exposed to slavery or bigotry begin to understand an enslaved and bigoted world, to know this or that is wrong, and how to stand up against it? How did Mr. Moses learn his morals? He has obviously read Huck Finn. Wouldn’t teaching the book help his students learn the same moral lessons as he did, better than denying them his knowledge and experience? His stance is noble, yet there seems to be so much wrong with it.

  2. You have put your finger on precisely the issues that disturb me. Ethical criticism seems essential, and yet we surely have to question a form of criticism that itself intends to exclude and condemn.

  3. This was a truly wonderful post litlove…and I’m going to go away and think about it more carefully. It seems to me that liberals very often get themselves stuck inside this tautology, which is, in its way, so close to that tension between championing free-speech and protecting minorities from prejudical attack. My immediate feeling is: yes! We should read ethically! But then, does reading ethically necessarily involve reading those texts we consider ethical? Isn’t that as narrowing a perspective as putting certain books on black-lists ala the Catholic Church? *sighs*

    Work calls me away (I shouldn’t be online at all but I haven’t had chance to keep up with my favourite litblogs recently and its such a warm friday afternoon…) but I’ll be back.

  4. “it always struck me that we ought to be grateful for novels from the likes of Norman Mailer. There would be no progression in ideological thought if we didn’t have stories blatantly celebrating their prejudices” – This quote is being blown up, put in bold, and taped above my desk. Bravo!

    It seems to be that (American) curriculum has changed vastly since I was even in school – our high school emphasis was mainly on classics: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Lord Byron, Conrad for British literature and Melville, Thoreau, Hawthorne, etc. for American, with lots of mythology and bible thrown in to understand allusions. It was a fairly sound education, and one that prepared me to more fully appreciate the alternative texts I read in college – ie, how do you have a discussion about where Toni Morrison fits in the American cannon without first understanding the cannon? Now it seems high schools and colleges here place much more emphasis on authors like Walker, Morrison, Conrad McCarthy, Achebe, etc., but I always wonder – don’t you need to understand the texts that came before, to understand ones more recently produced? The university where I did my graduate education and teaching insisted on forcing extremely liberal texts on freshmen – the pedagogy was considered ‘working through the difficulty’ – while I agree in some respects that some of the most exciting thoughts and discussion occur during difficult textual moments, I also think forcing a political agenda on students that generally hail from a conservative base can often ostracize a classroom, and make it difficult for any thoughtful discussion to occur. Hmm, not sure if any of this makes sense or not…but thanks for giving me a space to think some of this through. On another note, I checked out Zelda’s Cut from the library to read on my vacation – can’t wait! Take care.

  5. Does ethical criticism have to condemn and exclude? I mean, can’t one think about books ethically and recognize their flaws, but recognize also what they do well? It strikes me as a matter of how one does this kind of ethical criticism — if one can do it completely and with enough complexity. I wouldn’t want to take books off the syllabus because of troublesome content — those troublesome ideas can become fodder for thought and conversation. But I also don’t think a critic can cover everything — I agree that you shouldn’t be expected to write about race in Huck Finn if it doesn’t feel like something you are prepared to discuss. Although you can point toward others who do talk about race — reocgnize the issue is there (which your posts on it have done) and acknowledge it’s an issue to consider and that other critics have done it. I suppose, ultimately, I see your post as a call to read everything — but to try to read it wisely and with awareness. And maybe to write acknowledging one’s own subject position — one’s own blind spots (if such a thing is possible).

  6. I once, in a group conversation told everyone that I don’t believe anything I read except fiction. People laughed, but I think they understood that what I meant was I find real truths in the fiction I read, not in the nonfiction. If we take away all the great fiction that’s been written over the years (and most of it would have to be taken away if viewed through this narrow lens), based on twenty-first-century ethical/moral grounds, how are we to trace the history of such things as race relations in the United States and encourage young people to think about how far we may have come and yet how far we may still have to go? It’s from reading the books that were written durng the time and in the place, most especially the fiction, the arena in which writers strove for realistic portrayals, that gives us an understanding of our evolution through time. No, it may not, at times, be pleasant to read works that are blatantly racist, misogynistic, homophobic, etc., but no one ever said the truth is always pretty. Maybe there’s different argument to be made here about fear and a reader’s need to protect oneself (from what?) as demonstrated by the literary company one chooses NOT to keep?

  7. Wow, so many fantastic comments I’m not sure how to respond to all the points within them. Courtney and Emily, I’m really interested in what you’re saying about the difficulty of hearing what we don’t wish ideologically to accept. I think this has a lot to do with the problems surrounding ethical criticism, which is, of course, at best all about hearing a different, suppressed voice. So we get into another of those tautologies that Victoria is so right to indicate. And wise as ever, Dorothy, declaring one’s position is a matter of some importance, and beyond that reading with as multi-faceted a perspective as our own experience allows.

  8. Litlove–you always come up with the most thought provoking posts! Another blogger just today mentioned that she loved the book Gone With the Wind, and has read it many times even though it is not very PC. I love M.M. Kaye’s mysteries set in the colonial outposts of the British Empire (books set in the 30s and 40s)–probably not very PC either. But while I understand why the whole idea of colonialism/imperialism is wrong–these books were written in a period in which this was acceptable. I hope as a thoughtful reader I can enjoy the book while at the same time understand its place in time and history and understand why now the idea of colonialism is rejected. I agree with Quillhill and the other commenters–how do you know to recognize it as wrong without being exposed to it and understand why it is wrong–and be able to make your own moral judgments. Of course I am not in a minority group (except being a woman)–maybe if I were not I might feel differently? When I was in a book club and we were reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn there are certain belittling remarks made of Jewish people. One book club member was Jewish and she found these sections highly offensive and objectionable. I am not Jewish–I also thought these were offensive, but I put them in the context of when the book was written–I know how minorities/immigrants were treated, so this was not surprising to me to hear it in a book. But had I been Jewish would I have disliked the book for this reason, too? I guess it is a fine line. And I cannot imagine trying to teach books like these which raise these moral/racial questions. But don’t most books in some sense?

  9. I have no problems at a conversational level with saying I didn’t like something because it was, for example, misogynistic or I didn’t like the subject matter. That is my reporting of my experience of the book.

    But that would be incredibly shallow if it was the only way I knew how to experience literature or indeed art/films/music too. I find Lolita very uncomfortable to read because of the subject matter. It is meant to be. And the fact that it evokes a gut feeling of discomfort doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the quality of the writing.

    Admittedly I don’t teach literature but law however I’d have to say I can’t agree with someone deciding not to teach a particular work because of its racism or whatever. I don’t really like educational buzz words but I find the idea of student centred learning fits very well with my teaching philosophy and (attempted) practice. My job as a teacher is to empower students. I respect the fact that they have their own views and responses to various issues and I work with them to refine those. I do this by giving them the language and tools specific to the discipline and by exposing them to a variety of perspectives. I also try to model an open, critical attitude and to emphasize I am not there to impose my views on them.

    Let students make up their own minds. To me not teaching works because you don’t agree with the moral stance articulated in them gets close to the mentality that leads to book burning.

  10. We have a running joke in my department that the only way the students seem to understand literature is through some debased form of ethical criticism: “Ahab is bad because it is not right to hunt whales because they are an endangered species.” In some ways this sort of criticism seems to me to be both narrow and naive. If there is an ethical facet to reading, it makes more sense to me that I should especially read things that may not line up with my already established ethical positions. It is largely through reading about the experiences of those outside of my experience that I come to understand them and make an ethical connection to them and their experiences. This is, I think, similar to what you said about Mailer. I may not have a certain point of view–call it X–but after reading a story about X, I will be better able to understand how others may feel attracted to these ideas, and I will be better able to express my opposition to X. Saying you’re not going to read Huck Finn because it’s morally offensive seems to be taking a position that is trying too hard to be pure and leads to a blindered existence. Can one really understand race in America without having read HF? Probably, but I think you will have an incomplete picture.

  11. I like Emily’s observation that fiction written in the period gets it real, whereas history has all this baggage that comes with it. As objective and balanced non-fiction often tries to be, the fiction is the unvarnished truth.

  12. You know, I think I’m just going to keep posting the most tricky, difficult literary critical problems on my site and have you all solve them! I think I could teach a course from all your fantastic comments. You are quite right, Danielle, all good literature raises awkward questions and we can’t begin to answer them without experiencing a whole range of possible subject positions in relation to them – this is very much what Bikeprof is saying, too. The negative representation of a particular group may be more useful for raising consciousness about it than something bland and positive. And Amanda, I think you pick up on this perfectly – teaching is about offering all the available material to the students, not telling them in advance how to respond to it.

  13. Great post. I think what you said about those students “for whom political correctness is the only approach to literature they have been taught” takes the dumbed-down corruption of Booth’s ethical theory as evidence that his approach itself is somehow incomplete or questionable. My reading of Booth (and Nussbaum… and I might add Stanley Cavell) has been deeply rewarding precisely because Booth and like-minded critics refuse to take a stand on a given ethical issue. The critic’s task, ideally, would be to clarify and/or enunciate everything that is at stake–leaving judgment ultimately up to the reader (see also John Krapp’s _Literature and Morality_). Isn’t that why Camus’ book is so good?… because it demands ethical judgment from the reader; and because practically everything is at stake.

    My experience has been that ethical readings have complicated and revised otherwise dead/orthodox interpretations that were based in the canon-revision politics of the 1980s. What has now become political correctness: “Gee, professor, Jim doesn’t seem to be treated as an equal” or “Hey! Dostoevsky’s women aren’t as fully developed as his men,” was originally (of course) an engaging conversation about what standards we should use to identify books as “great.” My turn to ethical criticism has been as an escape from the increasingly simple formulas of race/class/gender rhetoric.

    Anyway — carry on!

  14. So very interesting to hear from someone who has read the Booth – thank you for that. Extremely useful comment, and I’ll follow up your recommendation of the Krapp book.

  15. Pingback: How do we read « Of Books and Bicycles

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