Speaking in Code

By Stephanie Herman
Originally published in Pinc

Adapted for pinc from an article published in the SAVE Letter (Students Advocating Valid Education), Dec. '96

In 1970, Germaine Greer published _The Female Eunuch_, the final chapter of which suggested the elocutionary course second-wave feminism needed to pursue: "The key to the strategy of liberation lies in exposing the situation, and the simplest way to do it is to outrage the pundits and the experts by sheer impudence of speech and gesture, the exploitation of cliche 'feminine logic' to expose masculine pomposity, absurdity and injustice." Greer was granting her sisters nothing less than license to speak freely, adding that, "Women's weapons are traditionally their tongues..."

In addition to this plan of offense, feminism also needed an indefatigable defense against those members of the opposition articulate enough to attempt argument. Enter Karen DeCrow, president of the National Organization for Women from 1974 to 1977, who is credited with coining the term "political correctness" in 1975 (ironically, the same year the Freedom of Information Act was passed). Once ignited, its flames were hysterically fanned on college campuses, even more so in women's studies departments. In fact, it's because liberal groups such as NOW, women's studies "professors" and left-wing feminists at large espouse PC that _Living Marxism_ was compelled to print this warning to its readers in 1994: "The danger of PC is that it lends some liberal legitimacy to authoritarianism."

To protect their own from the authoritarian doctrine of political correctness, feminist censors adopted the caveat that within their campus oasis -- the women's studies department -- adherence to the rules of PC would be unnecessary. Those rules were really for other people to obey -- people more likely to rape women, make fun of art majors, mock homosexuality with limp-wrist gestures -- in short, people more likely to oppress. Because they consider themselves genetically free of this nasty tendency to oppress, feminists can be creatively subjective in interpreting the fuzzy prescripts of political correctness.

Textbooks hastily compiled into women's studies reading lists were similarly exempt from such prescripts. The *most* exempt was probably the Sisterhood is Powerful anthology, clutched to the bosom of campus feminists for most of the enlightened 1970s. On Page 514 the young gender warrioresse/nurturer could read excerpts from the infamous SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) manifesto, explaining away the male gender as "a biological accident." Its author, Valerie Solanis (often praised for her brutal honesty), believed and suggested that any man found unwilling to adhere to SCUM's ideology should be killed.

During the following decade (of "greed" and other mean-spirited Republican policies), Mary Daly, associate professor at Boston College, published her Wickedary, a feminist lexicon, incorporating the wicca point of view, that defines all men as "cockocrats" and all priests as sadists. But rather than describing Daly's compilation as mean-spirited, most feminists were content with simply "spirited." Ten years later, her book is still widely referenced in women's studies departments at many of our country's institutions of higher learning. At UC Berkeley, for example, the Wickedary is not only on the reading list for the women's studies department; it's also required reading for a second-year french class, "Sexual Difference, Gender, and the French Language," as well.

The focus of many women's studies courses is often in direct violation to the prescripts of PC, as well. The professors of "Feminist Literary Theory" at the University of Western Ontario, are permitted to address "the issues important to the development of feminist literary studies, among them questions relating to the race, class and gender of authors and readers." And at Emory College, the professors of the course "Feminist Theory" are in the morally elevated position to pay "particular attention... to the influence of the triumvirate of race, class, and sexual identity..." while professors of another Emory course, "The History of Women's Movements," are free to emphasize "feminist politics at the intersection of race, gender, class and sexuality."

But while feminists are allowed to freely express and emphasize such politically incorrect demarcations, those outside the feminist academy simply can't be trusted with the same freedoms. When the Connecticut College summer reading list included "Sexual Personae" by Camilla Paglia, an outspoken critic of present-day feminism, the Women's Studies Committee and other campus feminists attempted to ban the book from the list for what they perceived as its "offensive" ideology. The book was removed from the reading list, but the committee was forced to reinstate it after students protested (on the condition that Susan Faludi's angry treatise against men, Backlash, be read in conjunction with Paglia).

"Every educational system," wrote Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind, "has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum." For women's studies, this moral goal doesn't seem to be a universal (albeit artificial and coerced) attitude of tolerance. Instead, it's more a curriculum of incremental domination. By injecting the word "correctness" into their now-famous locution, early radical feminists hoped to linguistically situate men (who exhibit a tendency toward vulgarisms as well as oppression) on the "incorrect" side of personal, political, and -- the feminist synthesis of these two antithetical realms -- *gender* issues.

Feminists soon realized they could linguistically intimidate almost anyone in the world of academia whose ideology differed from their own. Today, the PC conceived within NOW and suckled at the breast of women's studies departments has evolved into feminism's most lethal weapon -- a vehicle to protect their ideology from both banal and constructive criticism.

Initially, feminist censorship involved only offensive labels such as "chick," "babe," or "toots." Proponents argued that one should avoid judgmental or demeaning descriptions regarding her character, behavior or appearance, when simply referring to a person that is female. This all seemed harmless enough, and most college students, still too young to fully grasp the concept of a slippery slope, nodded in agreement and began to glare and growl at anyone not willing to conform to the new speech codes.

To linguistically unseat the enemy, however, feminists had to strenuously corrupt the very rules of linguistics, the most basic of which holds that all communication consists of a sender, a receiver, and a relationship between the two. Political correctness, in constricting the ability of the sender to communicate fully and for the receiver to comprehend fully, became the classic feminist castration metaphor.

The scope of PC was then rapidly expanded from eliminating slurs to eliminating all terms describing individuals who are traditionally viewed as outside the norm. To acknowledge a deficiency, abnormality or illness (in addition to race, gender, nationality, etc.), was now defined as offensive in itself. Twenty years later, one is wary of describing a sightless person as "blind." Because the word describes an infirmity, PC-pushers have labeled it discriminatory and negative. The term "visually impaired" has been offered up as one of a few viable substitutes, although the word "impaired" is not a particularly positive term, either. Of course, to choose a term such as "visually impaired" to connote what the word "blind" has for centuries, is the epitome of a non-necessity. By replacing one with the other, the PC advocates, themselves, are applying identical meaning -- the same meaning that offended in the first instance, but somehow doesn't offend in the second. To subjectively dictate, then, that one term has merit over the other is to ignore and subvert the role of semantics entirely. What a word means becomes less important than how that word makes you feel.

An equally corpulent violation of the laws of linguistics is found in the double-bind nature of the promotion of political correctness. A double-bind is a message that makes one assertion and deduces from that a second assertion, resulting in the pairing of two assertions that are mutually exclusive. In attempting to censor interpersonal communication via political correctness, feminists have asserted that (a) women deserve equality, and that (b) because women deserve equality, they must be granted a protected status by censoring all that is communicated to or about them. These two assertions, however, are mutually exclusive, for it is illogical to demand equality via the mechanism of favoritism. For its inherent illogicality, true double-binds can only be described as pathogenic communications.

Regarding the behavioral effects of a pathogenic double-bind upon individual receivers, several members of the Mental Research Institute of Palo Alto noted three possible outcomes. First, the receiver might become obsessed with finding a way to resolve the conflict -- an impossibility in a true double-bind. Secondly, the receiver may entirely withdraw from human involvement. But in the third, and most disturbing result, the receiver may determine to "comply with any and all injunctions with complete literalness and to abstain overtly from any independent thinking." Many critics of PC would argue that is exactly the destructive result our society is now experiencing.

Human communication is, by its nature, self-limiting, as "...every exchange of messages in a communicational sequence narrows the number of possible next moves," (The Pragmatics of Human Communication, p.183). To further restrain the ability of the sender and receiver to communicate is seen as a trifling but necessary evil to those feminists busily eradicating gender inequality tooth and nail. But rather than an attempt to *equalize* the genders, the inherent constraints of PC were so developed to allow feminists to *dominate* in human discourse -- another chapter in the never-ending paradox of designating inequality as the solution to alleviating inequality. If feminists can ultimately win the communication war -- have the last word, so to speak -- they believe they will have won the ideological war, as well. Of course, you don't depend on equality to win wars -- you fight for the dominant position, even when the war is innocuous enough to pit Humpty Dumpty against Alice:

        "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful
        tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more
        nor less."

        "The question is," said Alice, "whether you *can* make words
        mean so many different things."

        "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master --
        that's all."