The Limits of Irony

In the 1980s we used to joke about people that we called “politically correct.” My favorite example was people who felt they had to try to precisely mimic the pronunciation of Spanish words– never mind that most of the words they were mimicking had been a part of English for at least 300 hundreds years. They never did this with French, or German, or any other langauge, just Spanish.

It was an odd over-earnest attempt to show respect for Hispanic culture, of course, and we joked about it not because it was wrong but because it seemed exaggerated. “Politically correct” was ironic because it both recognized the important of showing respect for other people while trying to deflate a kind of pretentiousness. It was a gentle prod among friends.

Through some mysterious Orwellian process the U.S. right wing took up the notion of political correctness, carefully removed the irony, and used the crude remaining idea to bludgeon anyone they didn’t like. (In a similar way the right seems to miss the humor of the term “Tea Bagger”). Amazingly, “political correctness” has now been taken up by people who should know better.

One of these “you should know better groups” is the ACTA. (Always a favorite for anyone who watches the right wing academic cadres.) A recent post “Reforming the politically correct university,” seems typically disingenuous. David Azerrad begins by noting the obvious: “Some argue there is no such thing, while others point to case after case demonstrably proving that PC is very real indeed.”

He quickly dismisses the ambiguity. “After all, the endpoint is not to show that PC exists — but to find ways to restore free inquiry, robust debate, and intellectual fairness at our colleges and universities.” In other words, there’s no reason to try to figure out if in fact political correctness exists; we can simply assume that it does and move on to what can be done about it.

This is not to say that “bad things never happen” on campus; many of the incidents cited were misguided at best. But the real question is whether or not these incidents add up to a pattern of stiffing intellectual debate. The symbolic code of the right is important to note here. Azzerad is not defending all intellectual debate; he’s saying that right wing ideas are suppressed.

That’s why this post-ironic notion of political correctness is so deceptive, even though career have been founded on it. There’s always been a very vigorous right wing on campus, from the pro-business economics departments to the union-busting administrators to the traditional defenders of the cannon in the English department. Reaction, I guess, isn’t supposed to be rational.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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