No, political correctness has not gone too far

Jon Cogburn did not exactly cover himself in glory in his latest post, where he decries the rhetoric of ableism. (And to be fair to other New APPS contributors, one of his co-bloggers quickly denounced the post, though perhaps taking it down would be a better option, just speaking blog administrator to blog administrator.)

It’s a familiar genre: the white man’s cri de coeur about the excesses of political correctness. Such rants always start from a place of entitlement, so that demands to think about the way you talk are always presumptively an imposition (rather than common courtesy). The white man has been a good sport up till now, the story goes, but now, now they’ve gone too far! Is he seriously expected not to speak the bold truth that being able to see is preferable to blindness? We see a similar dynamic in public debates over the transgender community’s preferences for how people should talk about them — the underlying affect in mainstream responses is one of irritation that we’re supposed to regard transgender experience as an intelligible phenomenon rather than a weird abberation.

As a white man, I must admit that I have felt that tug of resistence upon learning of a previously unknown “politically correct” speech pattern. There is something irritating, after all, about being told that a phrase that I meant completely innocently has been taken as an insult. Over the years, though, I’ve developed a unique strategy for dealing with such feelings: instead of writing a 1000-word blog post vindicating myself against the unjust charges, I simply apologize for causing offense and move on with my life. Indeed, I take the further step of trying to be more aware of similar phrases in that vein.

And I can testify that my ability to express myself elegantly and effectively has not been permanently damaged by the restrictions of not being a total dick to people and not making a point of rubbing their disadvantages in their faces. Language is a robust and supple tool, able to bear up even under the weight of basic human decency.

20 thoughts on “No, political correctness has not gone too far

  1. But Adam, all these inferior human beings have a right to know how inferior they are, dammit! And Cogburn will fight to death to defend that right!

    How good. How noble.

    Why, he wonders, are people so upset? And how come no one is responding to his argument, but only calling him names? (Huh, it totally seems like being called names prevents reasonable discourse; but of course that doesn’t apply when the names in question are just respectful, helpful observations about how disabled someone is…)

  2. “Thank you, Cogburn, if not for you and your lucid ableism, I would have wandered around my whole life in confusion. But now that I know where I stand in relation to you — hierarchically, I mean, obviously, because your life is so much better than mine — I feel so much more enlightened and respected!”

  3. The responses Jon’s getting prove his point, the way Sarkeesian’s respondents often prove her point.

    Jon has written about his own suffering and the suffering of his son, again mentioning this in that post, and it is this suffering that’s the frame for understanding where he’s coming from. If we can’t understand his point to be how others who are not suffering in the same way speak on his behalf—even to tell him that he cannot say what’s on his own mind in the way it’s there in his own mind, when he does so to work out the conflicting feelings and thoughts and habits and fears and hopes and resignations and refusals his life’s sufferings shape—without concern for getting it right regarding his concerns prompted through his own suffering, but with concern for getting it right regarding those larger systemic issues that we must remind him are always ever-present in all of our lives and which we’re academically trained to diagnose in others, then we are really not practicing what we preach.

    What does not being a “total dick” to Jon in this instance actually look like? Is it dismissing his nuanced concerns with sarcasm or telling him what he “fails to understand” or “appears to be saying”? Is it dismissing his own words and his own story, using them instead as token to go after the more available “social liberalism” target, white males? Is it informing everyone how easy it is to let slide irritations, as though one’s own mental life should be the mark and standard of what all people must do, regardless how they talk about their own mental suffering or what it’s like for them to feel overburdened by socially shared emotions? Is it dismissing Jon’s post as a rant, one more piece in a diagnosed genre of work to be silenced and ignored and condemned, no matter how thoughtfully written or vulnerably exposed he is there?

    You put yourself forward as a model of one white male who learned to not be like all those other white males. But what are you modeling except those behaviors he’s saying are exactly the problem with patrons who think they know better than those who say the words patrons want them to use aren’t working?

    These are techniques of orthodoxy. Jon’s saying these behaviors do not foster discussion, living interactions between people with conflicting worldviews, where we all have something to lose, something to gain, skin in the game. Silencing, mocking, deriding, lumping differences into immediately negated categories, ignoring the hard readings in favor of the cheap humiliations and distancing behaviors: the very things he points out as detrimental to really coming to appreciate these kinds of suffering are immediately used against him, under the guise that his language, and thus his mind’s life, needs correction. What a bind. Either he cannot speak using the words he feels are apt to describe his own life since doing so gets him humiliated, or he uses the words he must use in order to conform to the current dominant paradigm of social media he frequents, a paradigm priding itself on its ability to listen to the suffering voices and speaking on their behalf. Rather than open dialogue, these things close it down in favor of the current orthodoxy.

    So, is the *reaction* of immediately ignoring how Jon nuances his words in favor of saying it’s yet another rant from yet another white male—is this not being a dick? Is that human decency? Is human decency taking him to be speaking as a white male and not as he says he’s speaking?

    He says he’s speaking as a disabled person, and even then he softens this much to avoid pity comparisons, who suffers his disabilities and thinks of those disabilities as objective limitations of human flourishing, limitations he works hard to overcome and does not want to limit his own son’s flourishing. I don’t know what it is like to suffer his disabilities, but I know plenty of people whose disabilities do bring them suffering. I know what it’s like to suffer my own. He’s saying that if he wants to describe his own experience of living within his own mental life as it interacts with the world as ‘insane’, why do people who are not suffering the way he and others like him suffer want to also make him feel guilty for using this word? What *right* do they have to ameliorate the word’s impact for him when the very *wrong* implications intrinsic to its being *corrected* in ordinary use are precisely the implications he wants to use to describe what he suffers in this world?

    Jon was being vulnerable. He sees how easily silencing and mocking works and becomes counterproductive to the celebration and cultivation of life. His reward for opening is demonstration of what he’s criticizing and having his vulnerabilities ignored, by those who ordinarily champion how sensitive they are to people’s vulnerabilities. He’s saying the *words* become occasions for the orthodoxy to flex its power within an increasingly impotent community. Rather than open discussion and ask what he means, he’s labeled and denied the right to speak for himself. This part of community spirit proves him right. It’s not about voices and communication and listening. It’s about conformity under the guise of securing the greater good against the greatest, systemic foes.

  4. Maybe I was over-hasty in lumping Jon’s post with that broader genre.

    Maybe Jon’s post title was exceptionally ill-considered and tended to drown out the nuances.

    In no case do I put myself forward as some kind of moral superhero who has achieved heights unattained by other white males.

  5. Jon’s point was that the critique of ableism supposedly causes us to forget that not being able can cause suffering, that the critique replaces genuine work to ameliorate such suffering with an empty rhetorical gesture that focuses upon words, and that it somehow ends up speaking for or silencing the actual experience of those who are not able. No, the reception his post received does not remotely bear out his point.

    I can speak personally to the idea that my suffering will be ignored if it’s not enshrined in ableist language: that’s false. But one of the kinds of suffering that can be ameliorated is precisely the suffering that comes from assuming that a certain kind or standard of ability is normal. The critique of ableism isn’t meant to object to occupational therapy or other ways of increasing the instrumental capacity of people, but to object to the pervasive structural arrangements (reflected in language) which render those assumptions of normalcy the cause of suffering for people who are different.

    Pointing out that Cogburn seems to have either deeply misinterpreted or else wrongly evaluated the critique of ableism is not a way of proving his point. It does not prevent him from expressing his experience. It does not obscure the fact that disability can cause suffering. It is not an empty critique focusing upon his words to exclusion of his argument. On this page in particular we have been trying to point out how absurd it is to believe that ableist language is some sort of necessary reminder that disability can cause suffering, and, furthermore, to point out that it causes a good deal of suffering in itself.

  6. Doesn’t Cogburn have some disabilities himself? If so, it’s more analogous to a minority speaking out against racism, or a woman speaking out against sexism. And it seems rather odd for those without disabilities to tell him what he should and shouldn’t say. It’s a bit like me (a white guy) telling a black person I know better than he how he should talk about racial issues.

  7. Charles R and TM, make sure you check out the comment by Philosop-her over there:

    JC’s post, in attacking other people who speak on behalf of disabled people, manages to do the very same thing. And he does so while characterizing opposition arguments as existing outside of the sphere of rational discourse (ie,”insane”). Sometimes there is a tendency, not just by JC here, but often within disability studies itself, to speak as one disability gives you insight into disability as such. For example, I have essential tremors. My case is not terrible, but it could get worse in the future. I am also rather weird in having had it from a very young age. But, in general, most of my life is not particularly effected by ET. Or effected in ways I basically ignore. I try not to carry drinks that are particularly full. My handwriting is terrible. It is a good thing I didn’t want to be a surgeon. Sometimes people think I am terribly nervous. These are not big deals for me. My father was in car accident back in 2001 that shattered his knee caps. He developed cancer in his 30s, and had a whole host of surgeries that permanently changed his body. It would be absurd for me to assume because I have ET that I have some great insight into living as my father. JC’s position that to be ‘able’ is essentially better than to be disabled, and that is true for everyone, is fucked up. The fact that he has some sort of disabilities himself does not change the fact that his position is remarkably fucked up when speaking for disabled people as a whole. I suggested reading Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip (along with a passage from the beginning of the book) over at the NewApps blog, and I would suggest it here, as well.

  8. “JC’s position that to be ‘able’ is essentially better than to be disabled, and that is true for everyone, is fucked up.”

    It’s fairly clear that, in general, it is better (in the sense that one is better off, not that one is morally better) to not be disabled. If you deny that, then you must also deny that it is better, in general, to heal disabilities than not to heal disabilities. And if that’s really what you’re saying, then you are also committed to the view that it’s not better, in general, to devote resources to healing disabilities (through medications, surgeries, or other treatments) than not. That is, if what you’re saying is that, in general, it is not better to be able than disabled, then you can’t claim that we ought to devote resources to curing disabilities.

    Of course, if you’re just interested in making yourself superior to people like Jon Cogburn without actually doing anything to advance the cause of persons suffering from disabilities, then, by all means, carry on.

  9. hahaha (TM, after explaining my lived experience, and your conclusions, I assume you are a troll. And am not engaging).

    Adam, do you have any idea of TM is a common reader or AUFS, or have you recently been infected with philobros?

  10. Scu, here’s the thing. Even with Jon wrong on that point, how does he conclude? What is the *behavioral difference* he’s advocating for us to consider?

    Robert, the manner of the response proves the point I had focused on, the way in which conformity is policed not through discussion but mockery and humiliating gestures. Disagreeing with Jon is not what I am saying is the behavior worth challenging. I am not saying you cannot find his premises to blame. It this manner of disagreeing and collapsing the extension of respect to people who have it wrong, especially given the context of these kinds of discussions about how people *use* words and concerning ourselves with the emotional intensity words invoke in all of us.

    Jon is not Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh, spouting off bullshit to blind people to the scam behind it all. He’s trying to find some way of talking about finding pride for one’s own life in this world that shits on us all in frightening ways. The model for his sense of what counts as living it is to *laugh* with good nature at one’s own slights. That’s where he’s trying to get to, and if he has to work out aloud what he thinks really is the basis for defining and knowing what ‘able’ means, why stop him on his way? Adam’s model is to apologize and move on with his life; nobody has to stop him on his way, because he has already went. We all have different models. Some of us started sooner rather than later; some of us are slower rather than quicker. Shitting on someone’s model while they are working it out with these sarcastic shaming rituals is exactly the bullying and hazing things intellectuals unwittingly do that we’re supposed to notice and call out, and it’s exactly what lurks in us anytime we’re convinced—absolutely convinced—we’re in the right, for the most part, minus whatever harmless thoughtless little times we told a joke someone didn’t get…

    Rather than use one another to work out our hidden bigotries, why don’t we just ask questions, step back, and let one another figure it out at the pace we have to figure it out?

    It’s certainly a lot less emotionally reactive than subjecting one’s self to creating ever more creative ways of ironically saying things we do not believe. If language is powerful enough to ruin us that we must humbly struggle before creating worlds through them, then mindfulness about the effects of all this irony just might restore some sense of celebrating life.

    Perhaps that is the best point to take from what Jon is striving for?

  11. Charles, I might try to answer more, later (I am prepping for the start of the week, so I probably won’t). However, I want to encourage everyone to read (some) of the comments in the thread. It seems for various reasons JC was not posting some of the substantive disagreements with him (because he wanted to maybe have people do guest posts instead), and so there are now several very smart comments, many of them that appeared in the middle of other comments that you might have already read.

  12. I have a hard time knowing how to respond to Charles R.’s comment. On the one hand, I’m increasingly convinced that I did not cover myself in glory with this post, either, insofar as I isolated the “white dudely” aspects of JC’s post in an unfair way. On the other hand, the “white dudely” aspects really were there.

  13. If you have time, please read the guest post on my blog by philosopher Todd May. It’s at . Todd’s comment is one of the ones not accepted after moderation was taken away from me by Eric Winsberg and John Protevi, who together run newapps. Todd e-mailed me asking if it could be a guest post at newapps, but I’d been pushed out by that point (for reasons that are related to, but also significantly predate the post in question), so he agreed that it could go up on my personal blog.

    I did a “what I should have said” post at . Great to see mention of philosop-her above. I reposted a comment from her at .

    I fully except that the way I expressed myself was hamfisted and am sorry to the extent that doing so caused anybody hurt. I also have enough perspective to realize that my shabby treatment by once friends and co-bloggers is not that big a deal when compared to the issues I so inartfully tried to raise.

  14. Scu: Jon Cogburn did not claim ‘that to be ‘able’ is essentially better than to be disabled, and that is true for everyone;’ his comment was explicitly hedged by a ceteris paribus clause. And although it may be true that there were smart responses to him in the comments on his original post, I don’t think that’s the point. I agree that there were such comments, and I think there was much in what he wrote that could very reasonably be questioned. But what Charles is calling attention to, though, is that whether Jon was right or wrong, and whether some comments made smart points against him or not, there were also a great deal that were manifestly objectionable (I would list, among them, Lance’s and McKinnon’s; Mohan more or less has it right as far as I can see).

    I would count this opening post as among the manifestly objectionable responses. It reads as if the author did not, in fact, actually read Jon’s post before deciding to use it as a spingboard for reciting some internet-leftist shibboleths about the entitled white man, and to reaffirm that he, of course, is not like that, being rather one of the good ones. This sort of in-group out-group point scoring is, as noted, especially remarkable given that it was itself one of the things that Jon was complaining of; similarly for the rise of the term ‘philosobros’ as a generic thing to mark oneself off as against, or the invocation of ‘beer pong’ as the sure sign of.inward decay.

    I find this all dismal.

  15. Jon, I apologize for over-hastily responding to your post as a mere stereotype without being attentive to its specificity. Clearly, I could have just as easily written this with no reference to your post at all.

  16. Adam,

    I don’t know if an earlier, second, remark I made disappeared into cyberspace or got sucked into the spambox.

    I feel pretty strongly that the solution to speech one doesn’t agree with is more speech. I felt bad about losing moderation of the post because a number of people who wanted to say more weren’t given the chance, and I think it’s a really good thing that aspects of the conversation moved over here. I also applaud the way that you are posting comments that disagree with you. Given the sorites series between trolling, offensive-but-honestly-intended-comments, and comments-one-just-disagrees-with it’s far too easy (and as a result, far too common) in the new moderated philosophical blogosphere for people to just not approve challenging comments.

    If I find your interpretation above a little bit uncharitable, that does not mean that it’s unhelpful for me or anyone reading this. In addition to provoking conversation, I think that it will help people be a little more self-aware about how what they say (given the way they are saying it) is likely to be perceived by reasonable people who disagree with them.

    I had let my wife read the original post before putting it up, and heretofore 100% about whether a post might be controversial enough to submit to the other newappsers for censor/censure. In retrospect we can only guess that our judgment was off on this one because of our experiences with how our son’s sensory processing issues have caused him (and often those around him) so much grief these past two years. You have to fight to get the schools to accommodate your kid, but this can only go so far, and the bigger fight is learning how to help your kid accommodate himself to the world while also not making him/her feel like garbage. We’re very lucky that occupational therapy is helping our kid so much, but we have lots of friends whose kids are not benefiting nearly as much. It’s a difficult normative space to be in and actually traumatizing for some parents (literally so, PTSD symptoms are not uncommon), most of whom would find some of the standard tropes from critical disability theory (and the alternatively hectoring and self-congratulatory way they play out in the philosophical blogosphere) to be unhelpful at best, and insulting at worst.

    But, as anyone who blogs enough knows that it’s generally a mistake to blog out of anger. It just clouds your judgment in too many ways. Again, in most such cases the solution is more speech as things calm down, and as a result people can get clearer about what the actual disagreements might be. So thanks again for articulating over here what rubbed you wrong about the OP.

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