The coining of a cleverly denigrating term can undermine cultural ideas that deserve serious consideration. An example is the term “political correctness” and the wrong-headed treatment of this subject by the novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco. In his 2004 essay “On Political Correctness,” Eco supports the validity of the concept in a limited sense, particularly the idea that we ought to “let the others decide what they want to be called. And if the new term persists in upsetting them, to accept a third term.” He’s fine with the gradual shift, for example, from “negro” to “black” to “African American.” But his expression of tolerance early in the essay sets up a critique of political correctness on two other fronts.
The first is leveled at what he sees as linguistic excess—terminology that lacks common sense. Using “herstory” instead of “history,” he notes, shows a misunderstanding of the Greek root of the word that doesn’t involve the male pronoun. And using “differently abled” instead of “disabled” might get in the way of providing wheelchair ramps for those who need them. He goes on to cite from satirical PC dictionaries that poke fun at extreme uses, such as “socially separated” for “convict” and “bovine control functionary” for “cowboy.”
The problem with this commonsensical critique is that it loses sight of the way language works, turning what may seem absurd at one moment into what is acceptable, even logical, the next. No doubt there was a time, decades ago, when people like Eco might have thought that gay, no less queer, would be absurd and perhaps inhibiting appellations for homosexuals. In other words, the call to common sense is less commonsensical than one might think.
But Eco’s real target is not linguistic excess but literary excess, and it is here that his argument really goes off track. He claims that political correctness has mistakenly encroached on the literary canon where it has no proper jurisdiction:
Especially in America, there has been a shift from the merely linguistic problem (calling others as they wish to be called) to the problem of the rights of minorities. In certain universities, non-Western students want courses on their own cultural and religious traditions and on their own literature. An African student, say, might want a course on Shakespeare to be replaced with one on African literature. Such curriculum decisions, when made, may have respected African American identity but they also deprive students of knowledge that is useful or those wishing to live in the Western world.
We have forgotten that schools must teach not only what students want to learn but also, and sometimes exactly, what they don’t want or don’t know they want. Otherwise in all primary and middle schools teachers would no longer teach math or Latin, only video games. It’s like the fireman letting the cat run along the highway, because that is what it naturally wants to do.
Eco is doing here what he accuses others of doing in a linguistic context—taking the principle to an illogical extreme. To call people what they want to be called is not so unlike broadening our literary canon to include work that a new generation of scholars and critics deem to be worthy. It is precisely this broadening from the linguistic to the conceptual that turns political correctness from a slogan into a marker for cultural change and growth. But the term’s negative connotation taints discussion from the beginning, though the concept itself can be valid, even profound. It is possible to teach some African-American literature without ignoring Shakespeare. It is equally possible to respect America’s multicultural identity without forgetting that it has a Western tradition we value.
It may be that Europeans—historically a more homogenous place than the United States, despite its recent influx of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East—fail to understand the breadth of American diversity and how it has shaped our culture. Americans have assimilated difference from our nation’s beginning, and there is no reason we can’t continue to do so, both in who we are and in what we teach.
Or in Eco’s case, it may simply be that he is old—or has succumbed to age—and is less willing to acknowledge that a new generation of writers and critics is rethinking which books are worthy of our attention. I teach Shakespeare, and would not easily give up teaching him. But neither would I say that incorporating into the curriculum—and even into the teaching of Shakespeare—texts from other cultures that reflect the richness of America’s diverse population is “letting the cat run along the highway.”
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