With malice galore

December 15, 1993|By Russell Baker

BEHIND the lovely, turbulent spleen-venting that is the argument over political correctness lies something far more authentically American than the spirit of goodness and love for constitutional freedoms which ostensibly motivate the disputants.

That something is malice for one's fellow man.

For those opposed to P.C. doctrines, what a joy it is to tee off on those fascistic language suppressors who are out to destroy freedom of speech by punishing people for Badspeak.

For the P.C. champions, what a delight to flail away with gusto, labeling the unfair, the benighted and the wrong-minded with some of the most poisonous words in the lexicon of what passes for English in this era of galloping illiteracy.

"Racist!" is one of their favorite epithets; "Sexist!" another. At first glance, it may seem a bit odd that folks so eager to stamp out words hurtful to the feelings of others should be so quick to strike with such hurtful words.

The explanation is that this is not such a high-minded battle as both sides want us to suppose. The champions of P.C. are not too nice to be above a little brass-knuckle roughhouse. This explains their readiness to denounce people who don't agree with them as "racists" and "sexists."

Their opponents are not above overstating the case either. Their alarms about the threat to the First Amendment and the rise of brain-washer tyrannies on campuses ignore both the durability of the Constitution and the historical tendency of the American campus to careen from absurdity to absurdity with the shifting winds of popular whim.

It hasn't been so long ago that colleges cravenly let themselves be terrorized by federal Red hunters. That followed shortly after the age of competitive goldfish-swallowing but before the age when colleges started surrendering to student tyrannies which shut down campuses and had rough sport with professors for high-minded political reasons.

The P.C. dispute is one of those arguments Americans enjoy for the opportunity they offer each participant to say something nasty about everybody whose view of the world gripes him. In its most terrible form, this kind of argument once centered on American attitudes toward communism.

When that one was at full throttle many Americans felt patriotically licensed not only to vilify their fellow citizens, but also to congratulate themselves for serving the country well by doing so.

Imputing treason to other Americans with whose views one disagreed became a fashionable form of behavior in that onset. Rarely have Americans had such rich opportunity to indulge in malice for their fellow man.

By that standard the present quarrel about political correctness seems piddling, little more than a small sideshow got up at this particular moment only because, with the nation seemingly enjoying an intermission between melodramas, it lacked material for a truly poisonous exercise.

As so often in America's quarrels with itself, the present argument flows from an onset of Puritanism. The original Puritan settlers were necessarily tyrannical. The problems of surviving on that alien New England coast simply didn't allow indulging what we now think of as constitutional freedoms.

The Puritan character has ever since been willing to put restraints on freedoms when the goal, which in more modern times tends to be moral uplift, requires it. It is the belief in moral uplift that creates the P.C. doctrine.

It aims at nothing less than the perfecting of mankind. Its goal is to improve the moral nature of the country by ridding the national mind of evil ways of thinking. It assumes that the national mind can be purified by revising the vocabulary with which its thinking is expressed.

This leads it to a campaign to stamp out the use of such words as might be hurtful to anybody who thinks of himself as a member of a minority or "oppressed" group. (Except for "racists" and "sexists.")

As so often with these revivals of the Puritan impulse, the goal seems commendably noble. And as always, it inevitably provokes outraged resistance from the great anti-Puritan counterforce which detests the Puritan willingness to squash a few freedoms for goodness' sake.

Plenty of bile will continue to flow from this one until something new comes along.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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