Written in response to:
Guy Rundle’s wise and witty review of Richard King’s On Offence: The Politics of Indignation raises the question: who uses terms like ‘political correctness’ or ‘cultural relativism’ anyway, and to what end? My impression is that they are largely straw men or stalking horses for reactionary commentators, who claim to have been oppressed (or dare I say offended?) by these doctrines in a way that is somehow comparable to the victims of totalitarian regimes – let alone the victims of sexism, racism or exploitation. The implication is usually that ‘enough is enough’ and it is time to redress the balance, as if we had departed from some kind of putative middle-ground in the first place – presumably sometime back in the halcyon days of the 1950s before all this ‘politically correct’ (or conversely ‘anything goes’) nonsense started.
The argument that any one work, genre, culture or civilisation is in some way ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another is self-evidently silly, and it took no ghost of post-structuralism, critical theory or cultural anthropology to tell us that. It is equally silly however to claim that this rejection of hierarchies and recognition of difference implies some kind of aesthetic indifference, moral relativism or political / philosophical nihilism.
The caricature of post-structuralist thinkers like Foucault or Derrida as proponents of relativism, nihilism or (conversely) political correctness is just that: a caricature. This is obvious to anyone who has actually read them. Indeed, Foucault himself strategically used the term ‘politically correct’ in 1968 in order to caution that ‘political thought cannot be politically correct unless it is scientifically rigorous’ – in other words, that moral or political sentiments alone are not enough to constitute accuracy or effectiveness. In general, however, he rigorously refused to be politically correct in the sense of providing any kind of blueprint for what ‘correct’ thinking or action should be. To confuse this with relativism or nihilism is to miss the point of his work.
For Derrida, deconstruction was a similarly rigorous interrogation of thought in the name of thinking and acting more justly, accurately and indeed truthfully. To contest accepted notions of truth, beauty or justice is not to say that truth, beauty or justice do not exist. Moreover, the critique of identity and the self undertaken by post-structuralist thinkers and critical theorists before them is precisely directed against all forms of identity-thinking and identity-politics.
As for political correctness, Derrida wrote in 2001 in De Quoi Demain? (‘What next?’):
As soon as someone stands up to denounce a discourse or a practice, they are accused of re-establishing a ‘dogmatism’ or a ‘political correction’. This other conformism seems to me just as serious. It can become a facile technique to silence all those who speak in the name of a just cause.
This for me hits the bullseye regarding the so-called critique of political correctness or ‘the politics of indignation’.
As Walter Benjamin said, there is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. This statement cuts both ways. If every work of art retains the traces of its time and place, author and society, ideology and social function, it also contains a truth-content (Adorno) and formal autonomy, beauty or sublimity (Kant) that exceed these conditions and imaginatively take us beyond our own personal and historical situation. Reading for pleasure or serious study each to a lesser or greater degree involve a similar receptiveness to both these aspects of a work’s content, form and function. To reduce one to the other is the error of simplistic ideological criticism or an equally naive liberal humanism.
Hamilton Hill, WA