An interesting detail that I think complexified and renewed this question for me is the recent release of Michel Houellebecq’s new book Soumission. Charlie Hebdo was set to run a cartoon featuring Houellebecq the day of the attack.
He has said some pretty directly Islamopobic things in the past, including calling Islam, “the stupidest religion”. He has since, it would seem changed his mind.
The narrative structure of Soumission (as it has been reported, I haven’t read it—it has yet to be translated into English) seems to amount to a complex argument for changes in French politics that treats islam as a sort of real answer to the meaninglessness of living in the post-deconstruction West.
Having read other books by Houellebecq and interviews, I can see that he would be someone to whom Islam and religion in general has a kind of romantic appeal. I think in many ways it represents a kind of unattainable utopia for him. In his book, The Map and the Territory he writes , “What can undoubtedly be said is that the model of society proposed by William Morris certainly would not be utopian in a world where all men were like William Morris.”
Islam seems to represent this same kind of utopic proposal for Houellebeq, one which requires the eradication of people like him, but is still posited as a future good (if that’s not too intense a claim, which for Houellebecq, I don’t believe it would be).
The question for me now is if this book can still be viewed as a provocation.
If it is not, in fact Islamophobic, does its circulation as a book about a Muslim-Take-Over, at a moment when immigration policy’s are becoming less and less human and racism is rampant, mean something?
It seems like in a lot of ways the only radical and possibly helpful response to the current cultural climate. It seems like a possible and paradoxical catalyst for empathy. And for me serves as a real example of what it really looks like to engage in a dialogue about something divisive.
I don’t know what kind of real effects we can expect or will see, if art can have social effects is still a fragile proposition, but I think there is something reassuring about the way this thing is getting contextualized. The media seems happy to correct mis-perceptions and try to keep the dialogue detailed and productive. More than I have come to expect.
I do think sensitivity in speech is important, but actualized sensitivity and real understanding is more essential. Sometimes politically correct language can jeopardize real change. Language changes are not the same a solutions.
David Foster Wallace in his essay Authority and American Usage: PCE is not just silly but ideologically confused and harmful to its own cause. Here is my argument for that opinion. Usage is always political, but it’s complexly political. With respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: on the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change . What’s important is that these two functions are different and have tobe kept straight. Confusing them— in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language’s political symbolism— enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE’s core fallacy— that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes 63 —and of course it’s nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT’s delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage. 64 Forget Stalinization or Logic 101-level equivocations, though. There’s a grosser irony about Politically Correct English. This is that PCE purports to be the dialect of progressive reform but is in fact— in its Orwellian substitution of the euphemisms of social equality for social equality itself— of vastly more help to conservatives and the USstatus quo than traditional SNOOT prescriptions ever were. Were I, for instance, a political conservative who opposed using taxation as a means of redistributing national wealth, I would be delighted to watch PC progressives spend their time and energy arguing over whether a poor person should be described as “low-income” or “economically disadvantaged” or “pre-prosperous” rather than constructing effective public arguments for redistributive legislation or higher marginal tax rates. (Not to mention that strict codes of egalitarian euphemism serve to burke the sorts of painful, unpretty, and sometimes offensive discourse that in a pluralistic democracy lead to actual political change rather than symbolic political change. In other words, PCE acts as a form of censorship, and censorship always serves the status quo.) As a practical matter, I strongly doubt whether a guy who has four small kids and makes $ 12,000 a year feels more empowered or less ill-used by a society thatcarefully refers to him as “economically disadvantaged” rather than “poor.” Were I he, in fact, I’d probably find the PCE term insulting— not just because it’s patronizing (which it is) but because it’s hypocritical and self-serving in a way that oft-patronized people tend to have really good subliminal antennae for. The basic hypocrisy about usages like “economically disadvantaged” and “differently abled” is that PCE advocates believe the beneficiaries of these terms’ compassion and generosity to be poor people and people in wheelchairs, which again omits something that everyone knows but nobody except the scary vocabulary-tape ads’ announcer ever mentions —that part of any speaker’s motive for using a certain vocabulary is always the desire to communicate stuff about himself . Like many forms of Vogue Usage, 65 PCE functions primarily to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker— scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the politicalimplications of language— and so serves the self-regarding interests of the PC far more groups renamed.*†
Wallace, David Foster (2005-12-01). Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (Kindle Locations 1476-1477). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
PCE is, of course, Politically Correct English
and SNOOT is basically someone with an extreme hardline position on english grammar.
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