POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, AND THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11
presentation at the Tenth Anniversary Meeting of the Society for
Academic Freedom and Scholarship, University of Western Ontario,
London, May 4, 2002.
Shortly after the attacks
of September 11, I met my class of a hundred students in introductory
sociology. I invited them to stand with me in a moment of silence for
those who died. Then I ventured to comment on the attacks. Unsure of
what to say, I nonetheless felt a duty, as many professors did, to try
to help students make sense of the news.
Part of what I said
was this: “Hey, students, there is a real world. It’s not all social
construction. Yesterday, the World Trade Center’s twin towers were
really there in New York. You could see them on the skyline. Today,
they are gone, really gone. And some thousands of people who yesterday
were alive and going about their business just as we are now–today they
are dead, really dead, burned up or squashed. It’s not a matter of
point of view. It’s a fact.”
Srange comments! Banal in any
other time, not in ours. The key attribute of the cultural wave that
has engulfed universities these past thirty years, the wave against
which SAFS tries to be a seawall, is aversion to facts in favour of
rightminded dreaming, the utopianism captured in John Lennon’s song,
“Imagine all the people, living for today, ... and the world will live
things might or ought to be is an essential human ability. Affirming it
is half of the secret of success of Western civilization, especially in
its modern period. The other half is subjecting imagination to the
discipline of how things are. Previous generations have brought us to
present affluence not just by dreaming but by the hard, dialectical
work of trying to reconcile dreams and realites–which is what reason,
science, and industry are about.
In the postmodern movement of
recent decades, imagination escaped the requisite discipline, as if
empirical facts–natural, physical ones and social, historical
ones–could be wished away. “Perspective,” so the TV ad for the Globe & Mail insists, “is everything”–as if,
seen from the right angle, those planes did not really crash into the
World Trade Center after all.
Orwell identified the
postmodern, deconstructive, destructive cultural wave well before it
washed over North America. O’Brien, the torturer in Nineteen Eighty-Four, lectures the man he is
torturing: “You believe that reality is something objective, external,
existing in its own right. ... But I tell you, Winston, that reality is
not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not
in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon
perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and
immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth.” (p. 261)
We today honour Doreen Kimura
for what the postmodern party has condemned her and other psychologists
here at Western: for fidelity to the ethic of modernity in the face of
sanctimonious dreaming about an absolutely egalitarian utopia, for
insistence upon empirical realities–about individual differences, for
instance, and collective differences by sex and race, in aptitude for
various kinds of learning.
The September 11 attacks were a
dramatic intrusion of the real world on postmodern goofiness. To assess
their effect on the dominant cultural wave that SAFS has set itself
against, it helps to recall what gave rise to the wave in the first
Modernity, in a
way, fell victim to its own success. Science and industry enabled
creation of a bubble of comfort in North America during the last third
of the twentieth century, wherein intellectual and cultural elites (the
so-called “new class”) have been unusually protected from objective
These are the main material
conditions, the main separations of today’s intelligentsia from facts
of life, that have permitted many scholarly groups to lose touch: to
apologize for what our civilization has achieved, to sneer at
scientific and technological advance, to treat risk as inimical to
life, to accord equal value to societies where the infant mortality
rate exceeds the literacy rate as to our own, to condemn dissenters
from androgynous fantasies, and otherwise to undermine the society that
accords them privilege. On the liberal-arts side of our campuses, where
“progressive” thinking has reached its apogee, life often seems
surreal, as if what Kors and Silverglate call the shadow university has
displaced the real thing.
- 1. Basic means
of subsistence–food, clothing, shelter, things that preoccupied nearly
all humans all of the time in past centuries–have been assured for this
class, taken for granted for practical purposes. Supermarket shelves
have been perennially well stocked. Not since the 1930s has physical
privation been widespread.
- 2. Mortality
has declined and longevity increased to the point that death need not,
and does not, weigh upon human consciousness nearly as much as it used
- 3. On account
of low death rates, effective contraception, legalized abortion, and
the eagerness of people in premodern countries to immigrate to ours,
the need to reproduce our species is but lightly felt in this new
class, and the natural connection between sexual activity and
parenthood is to a great extent broken.
- 4. Notwithstanding
U.S. military campaigns in faraway places, the prospect of us being
conquered and subjugated by a foreign enemy has not loomed in a serious
way since the defeat of the Axis powers, an event which only senior
citizens today can remember.
- 5. City life
isolates most members of the new class not just from the elements and
seasons, but from primary and secondary industry, which is increasingly
even offshore. People eat beef their whole lives without seeing a calf
slaughtered, much less butchering one themselves.
- 6. Layers upon
layers of bureaucracy in universities, professions, granting agencies,
and government ministries insulate academic departments and disciplines
from the publics that ultimately foot the higher-education bill.
Today’s intellectual elites are
like the princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, who rose
sleepless and bruised from a night’s repose on a bed piled with twenty
duvets on top of twenty mattresses, beneath which there was a single
dried pea. A peasant girl, having worked all day in field and kitchen,
could sleep soundly on a board. So could a girl exhausted by the
embraces of a boy she loved and hoped would father in her a child.
Andersen’s princess, marvelously self-absorbed in her bubble of
emancipation from earthy realities, instead wailed that this single pea
had caused her injury: “I am black and blue all over my body. It’s
horrible.” The prince, in a display of equal lunacy, married her.
In universities, as
in law and the media, where postmodern lunacies have most completely
washed good sense away, the attacks of September 11 have had on the
whole a salutary effect. They have sobered intellectual discourse,
compelled attention to natural and social realities that can be ignored
only at peril to our lives and the lives of our children.
Before the attacks,
Sunera Thobani’s denunciation of America would have been little
challenged in the press, probably little noticed, it being an oft-heard
refrain. Instead Thobani herself was denounced in the media, even in
Parliament. Al Qaeda’s war on America and America’s war on it, along
with the war between Islamic terrorist organizations and Israel, have
provoked the most vigorous debate about our civilization–what it means,
which of its elements deserve defense and which ones not–at least since
the Vietnam War. For the first time in decades, questions of good and
evil are seriously raised, albeit more by journalists than academics.
Our challenge is to
keep this debate going, freely and reasonably, and see it through to a
revitalized Western culture. That will not be easy.
large-scale terrorist attacks continue, if the Western world is further
threatened by foreign enemies, we are likely to slip into the siege
mentality reflected in President Bush’s statement that if you’re not
with us, you’re with the terrorists. In a state of siege, dissent tends
to be suppressed and debate stifled, social criticism of any kind being
seen as disloyalty.
On the other hand,
if the United States and its allies successfully neutralize our foreign
enemies, the lively, healthy questioning of recent months may peter out
in favour of return to the bubble, what Galbraith has called the
culture of contentment.
So far as I can
tell, incursions on the work of professors faithful to the modern
project have abated not just since last September but over the past
half dozen years. By my review of the data, witch hunts in the name of
combatting sexism and racism peaked about 1994. Administrators since
then have become less responsive to postmodern fanaticism, thanks in
part to the threat of adverse publicity by organizations like SAFS,
NAS, and FIRE. Administrators have become more responsive to business
elites, which have little use for postmodernism, though not much more
for the liberal arts.
The recent brand of political
correctness is not yet a spent force, but like the NDP, its main party
instrument in Canada, it is on the wane. It has been to some extent a
generational phenomenon, a hobbyhorse of intellectuals now in their
fifties and sixties. With luck, the coming generation can pick up the
pieces out of the ruins of our arts faculties, and start rebuilding.
As I look at this
younger generation, undergraduates in particular, I see fewer hang-ups
over sex and race, an encouragingly realistic attitude toward life, and
much readiness to work and learn about the natural and social realities
from which their earlier education has in some cases shielded them.
Best of all, in my efforts to teach these undergrads, I have observed a
quality that might yet save us: a sense of irony and humour about this
magnificent life we share.
Kenneth Westhues is a professor of sciology at the University of Waterloo.
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