Political correctness and David Foster Wallace.

While I am by no means on a path towards conservatism, I do find that as I get older and my thinking is less governed by emotions and hopefully more objective and hopefully I'm more able and willing to consider all sides of an issue, I have come to agree more with conservatives in a handful of areas. But make no mistake, when viewed on whole, I find myself becoming increasingly progressive.

Now that 'my side' (I use quotes because I didn't vote for Obama. But I am happy he is president and I still support him because I understand that being President necessarily involves a lot of difficult compromise because he is not a dictator) is in power, the areas where me and my fellow partisans diverge tend to become more apparent.

There have been several on my mind lately, so maybe these next few entries will be devoted to areas where I agree with conservatives. Or maybe not, I guess we will see.

But the topic which motivated me to write today (and it fortunately does not involve dogs or graduate school) is Political Correctness. Like so many other things like it, it comes from good intentions and what it replaced, rampant, institutional racism/sexism/whateverism is much worse.

But like so many swinging pendulums, before it arrives somewhere in an agreeable middle, it goes all the way to one extreme. I don't think we are that extreme point today, that probably occurred around the late nineties early two thousands, it seems we have begun the slow swing back towards the middle, but we are early in the process and still lean far towards the side of dogmatism.

My bigegst problem with political correctness is that it is too black and white, too moralistic and too extreme. Once a person cries 'racist' or 'sexist' or whatever, the discussion is over. That label, fair or not, becomes the sum total of a person's argument and all nuance, discussion and debate is lost.

Like other things which can lead to black and white thinking such as religion or political activism, political correctness can also lead to (what I believe are) arbitrary moral distinctions. Such as the word 'African American' being the morally superior label despite, as David Cross wisely observed it being "a ridiculous and ill-applied label that was accepted with a thoughtless rush just to make white people feel at ease and slightly noble"

However, I do tend to avoid using certain terms or expressing certain ideas when I can. My distaste for political correctness is not strong enough to outweigh the thorniness certain expressions can induce. So, although I disagree with much of political correctness, I don't feel strongly enough about it that it seems worth getting people worked up. (There are a handful of exceptions to this)

Then their are people like Doctor Laura or other Am Talk Radio hosts who, in their extreme dislike of political correctness, go out of their way to say words they know people find offensive and seem to relish using such words. Even though I mostly agree with whatever reasons they give for using such words (making words taboo gives them words too much power, it is inconsistent for one group to be allowed a word while another cannot, regardless of context. Not that I am aching to use racial slurs or anything, but surely some grey area exists in regard to this word. ) So even though I agree with their reasoning, I still find what they are doing to be distasteful, but I could never quite put my finger on why. Was this just my partisanship showing? Is it simply because I dislike and disagree with people like Dr Laura that I dislike her use of racial slurs? I would like to think I am more fair minded than that, but I had no alternative explanation.

Until yesterday! While reading an article by David Foster Wallace ('article' feels a little misleading. It did originally appear in a magazine, but it takes up over 60 pages in the book I read it in) about Am talk radio in general, through examining one host in particular, a guy named John Zeigler. (who I had never heard of, but I guess he was pretty big in Southern California). Previous to the position he held at the time of the article, Zeigler had been fired from a couple places for using the 'N-Word'. In discussing this, Wallace writes:

"Even though there is plenty of stuff for reasonable people to dislike about Political correctness as dogma, there is also something creepy about the brutal, self-righteous glee with which [Zeigler] and other conservative hosts defy all PC conventions. If it causes you real pain to hear or see something and I make it a point to inflict that thing on you merely because I object to your reasons for finding it painful, then there's something wrong with my sense of proportion or my recognition of your basic humanity or both."

Reading that was one of those rare, but powerful and satisfying moments when you hear someone articulate an idea you hadn't even fully thought. Wallace accurately described why, despite my objections to political correctness, I dislike when people fragrantly defy it.

P.s. I had never read anything by David Foster Wallace before this article, (which by the way is called Host, which can be found here and if you do end up reading it, I strongly suggest clicking on the colored boxes. The commentary, though it interrupts the flow, is much of what makes the article great) and for some reason I thought I wouldn't like his writing, largely because I don't relate to how he styled himself, but I was so wrong! I am now a big fan and am eager to read more by him. I know, I am very late to this game, and my reason for thinking I wouldn't like him is stupid, but come on, doesn't he look like a guy who would not be a great writer?


Jack W. said...

D.F. Wallace is my favorite writer. Did you read this in Ira Glass's book, or in Consider The Lobster? Or just online?

He has a penchant for describing emotions his readers feel deep down, like oceanic deep. And his sentences often invoke laughter and sadness all at once. To me he is in a league of his own.

I, too, shy away from overly dogmatic stances or umbrella rationalizations for actions or toward defending an argument. Though my family has been for the most part understood my having moved on from church activity, I've found there are points in which I breach their comfort level of understanding the definitive 'Why' regarding my jettisoned beliefs.

I guess what I am trying to say is that perhaps for each person an individual spectrum of political or otherwise dogmatic correctness steers the ship of communication in which a person is willing/unwilling to engage in. Anything past this personalized spectrum -- the elasticity of such which is determined by each consumptive activity one's attention is calibrated toward -- turns into white noise and therefore cast aside as drivel, nonsense, extremism, et cetera.

It is perhaps no surprise that dogs can hear more sounds, pitches and frequencies and are thus (hu)man's best friend, audibly and perceptively.

Chris Almond said...

Hi Jack, nice to hear from you, it's been a while.
I read it in the Ira Glass book.
I remember you having mentioned ol' D.F as your favorite writer and was anticipating a comment from you! I remember you suggested some of his books to me before and I regret not having taken the suggestion more seriously. But now I am really looking forward to reading more of D.F. Wallace.
And maybe it is because I'm fairly stoned right now, but I can't understand the rest of your comment.