Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Gimme Back My Umbrage!
Gimme back my bullets.
My roommate's gun got nine bullets.
I'm sick of umbrage being taken, and I think it's time for umbrage to be given. The great Holy Spirit covers us, and dawn shows his brooding over the world. Let's all sigh, raise a glass of hackles, and show our bristles, for we make a bloody world thereby.
(The photo on the right is just a backyard of a house I lived in. Pretty, isn't it?)
We are surely cursed by our own genius. This blog entry will be part of a series, I'm afraid, although each time I hope it's the last I have to say on the subject. Unfortunately, it blends in with the two posts on deconstruction and the prednisent, below/above/before. The actual subject here is interpretation of language, again, but this time in an examination of what happens when we don't ask the town what a word means, or when the town is constrained by half of an ideology of niceness.
It used to be en vogue to kvetch about "political correctness." Students today searching the world wide web will probably stumble across one or another of the old Jeremiads and be puzzled. They won't know what "PC" is. What's more, they won't be able to figure it out from the rants, either. They'll encounter Limbaugh setting up a hue and cry against it. They'll find William Bennett yelling about it, and George F. Will. They'll even find Lewis Lapham upset about it, and they'll all be right, or seemingly right, but I doubt anyone will be able to figure out who the "politically correct" advocates are from those rants. Who on earth had been in favor of this absurdity?
No one was, of course, and yet everyone was. Oh, one minor tea light of intellect or another might have campaigned for one piece of what came to be called "PC" or another, but no one actually proposed all of the things that worriers (like me, I admit) were against. One feminist might have proposed "wymyn" for "women," and one person may yet propose "canine American" for "family dog," and, among the converted in the audience, there might be widespread approval. The pre-selected audience members who go to hear that fringe feminist or that animal rights person will agree, but they knew what they wanted before they came and are only being served with popular demand. It's only news when the fringe speaker turns out to have a more social and conversant position, like head of the Humane Societies of the United States. That's not the issue, though (and that "canine American" thing was in use before, so he didn't invent it or first propose it). The issue is that these terms get adopted by those outside of the choir loft. That's the issue, and that issue has nothing to do with rights campaigners. All along, the shotgun blasts being aimed at the "PC" were misdirected. You can shoot Gloria Steinem with your rhetoric all you want (even though she has been moderate and sane all along in language issues), but Andrea Dworkin and Wayne Pacelle aren't the proper targets. Like Dick Cheney's supporter, they're not quail. "Accidents do happen," in the words of the resilient Harry Whittington.
The underlying problem behind "PC" is much worse than a person whose "fancy gets astride his reason." Indeed, the problem seems to be that "there is a peculiar string in the harmony of human understanding, which in several individuals is exactly of the same tuning" (same author, but here). When one note is struck, it hits unison and harmony from others, so Wayne LaPierre shouts out that libruls and commies want his guns, and a host of frightened militiamen shout "amen." That seems to be it, but it isn't. The note that is sounded is not what you think it is. If it were, we would simply segment into thousands of groups of true believers who cannot communicate with others and therefore cannot achieve any social change or trend. Rather, the problem is that we already have had such groups long before they sound their chords, and we are much molested by them. I hate to stick solely to Swift's great work, but I must: we all prefer peace and superfices in most things. We do not want to dig, for nothing seems improved that way. Furthermore, when we dig into the flesh of a subject, it reacts. We wish, most of all, to not be in an argument with the true believers. As T. S. Eliot said, "The majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion, and is therefore incapable of either much doubt or much faith."
We want peace, and so we spend much of our time negotiating the minefield of discourse, trying neither to spill the soup nor trample on the toe of someone bigger than we are (or someone with friends). So, it only takes one nasty afternoon spent in accusation and guilt to stop saying "girl" and start saying "wymyn." It takes less time to stop saying "Black" and start saying "African American." One or two PeTA paint splashes, and you'll be saying "canine American," too. We want to be nice. We want to call you whatever you want us to call you, because we don't want to have to fight it out.
When we ask the town what a word means, we can resolve as the town does. If the town is split up between a series of neighborhoods, each of them calling a bagel something different, we learn to call a bagel a flurry of names.
Believe it or not, I didn't want to talk about PC. I really didn't. I set out to talk about Christian education. Don't believe me? Go get a cup of moonshine and a Moonpie, and I'll connect the two. I'll wait.