Recently when I was sitting at the Kimberley Hotel talking to some old friends and a few art students I discovered just how dangerous it is to speak one’s mind these days. That is, to introduce seemingly unknown thoughts into the official social discourse that is standardly observed at places like art schools, universities and social groups. At the end I was accused, amongst other things, of being a ‘Trump supporter.’
What I was trying to explain to a young American art student that night (whose mother does vote for Trump) were the thoughts of Isaiah Berlin and Mikhail Bakhtin and their implications for Political Correctness. He had not heard of either of these two thinkers, nor did he like the ideas of Value Pluralism and Dialogism. Both concepts, however, fly red flags for Politically Correct Discourse that has colonised a certain left-wing cosmopolitanism, and become an official language of a millennial left.
Here I should point out that I too (generally speaking) subscribe to certain aspects of Politically Correct Discourse. But ‘discourse’ and ‘correct’, these words should keep us on our guard. If we have understood and can still learn anything from thinkers like, Herder, Berlin, Bakhtin, Kristeva, Camus, Arendt, (early) Sartre, Derrida, Beauvoir, Hart, Derrida, Adorno, Benjamin and Foucault, it is that it is dangerous to believe in reified values, values that entrench themselves in a discourse. If you have some sympathy for plurality, for difference, for other languages and dialects, then there is nothing that is ‘correct’ and there is certainly no one correct discourse.
The German Volk, Nazism, Afrikaans Nationalism, Fascism, Colonial English, the pure ‘National Language’ of any tribe or nation, Stalinism, Maoism, the Enlightenment, Rationalism, and (sadly) Political Correctness have one thing in common: they claim that there is a discoverable set of ‘true’ values that should and must be obeyed if one is to live a good and fulfilled life. What is more, it is claimed that these values are expressed in their official language of choice, whether it be German, Afrikaans, (pure) English etc. And it is precisely this that Isaiah Berlin would spend much of his philosophical life explaining the dangers of, as Bakhtin would its falsehood.
As a starting premise perhaps we can agree that PC discourse has adapted and chosen words and manners of expressions that its adherents (I cannot think of another word) subscribe to. It has also exiled certain words from the speaker’s vocabulary. This is the act of what Bakhtin calls an ‘official national language’ or ‘monologism’.
What we on the left seem to have forgotten is that a word in the mouth of one person simply does not have the same meaning as it does in another. It can, and often is, shot through with other ideologies, other classes, other cultures and other histories. There are so many English language histories that to make demands on all of them is surely an act of linguistic dictatorship.
We should keep in mind such things as the fact that pejorative words can mean different things in the mouths of those they are directed at and have been their target. The word ‘gay’ has had a radically different meaning at different times. And in South Africa nobody has quite settled on the word ‘Coloured’ and its use. Although no doubt PC advocates would demand that ‘Coloured’ not be used. The claim being that those people who self-identify as Coloured are living in a state of false consciousness. But the truth is, is that if you are to deny the self-identifying person their chosen identity you are going to end up in that the ironic Rousseau-like conundrum of ‘forcing people to be free’. What is more you will be denying the main tenet of PC, viz people are allowed to self-identify.
As Michael Gardiner argues when discussing Bakhtin:
although the different classes may use the ‘same’ formal sign system, given signs are in fact subject to divergent ideological accents depending on specific context of the usage what he terms the multiple accentuality of the social side. The dominant class is motivated to ensure the fixity of meaning and arrest the flux of the sign in so far as the establishment of a monolithic or ‘official’ language facilitates the socio-political unification of society.
Surely the object of democracy is not to deny people their words and the context in which they use them and fix our meaning on them. Instead in a democracy our duty to try to reach out to the other people around you, to try to understand the other’s words and the meanings as they exist in their mouths. No doubt the word ‘Coloured’ existed in the apartheid mouth, but it also developed generative meaning in the mouths of what became communities and cultures. There is of course no doubt that ‘Coloured’ is contentious but that the debate around it is not a simple one and it can’t simply be eradicated by the official language of scholars and PCD.
The generative meaning of words (despite their origins in apartheid and colonialism) can’t simply be dismissed as irrelevant or inconvenient or worse an immoral act. No doubt there are times when words offend, when sanction is required, but to deny people their own methods and manners of expression is not the goal of a democratic society. But it does sometimes seem like a mode in PC Discourse and its moral demands. And in doing this it betrays a colonial desire to demand formal language compliance from different language groups and dialects: ‘speak our language, in our manner or we will put you to the (socialmedia) sword.’
We should bear in mind, moral values are multiple. More importantly they are, as Isaiah Berlin put it, ‘incommensurable’ – they often clash against each other. The values of equality and freedom can often not be reconciled, but both are valuable. The worlds of language and morals are multiple, multivalent and contestable. That a singular ideologically unified language like high German, Afrikaans, BBC English or PCD can describe them is impossible. What is more, at the root of this idea is the right-wing method that a open democracy and society attempts to counteract. PC Discourse is fast becoming a language that has far greater similarities to a colonial and right-wing attitude than to that of an open liberal and democratic world. Here its connection to Trumpism and national populism becomes disturbing. In fact Trumpism and PCD seem, to me at least, to be the other side of the same coin. At their origin they are about describing an identity and a set of values in their language with their words and the meaning they ascribe to them. At no moment do they allow the other (or the subaltern) to speak.