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From Russian Nihilists to Al-Qaeda: The dark spectre of political correctness

A spectre is haunting Europe—and it is not the spectre of communism.  Marx’s dream had been replaced by a much more primitive, pernicious, and grotesque spectre, that of Political Correctness and by its twin brother: equally primitive, grotesque and virulent xenophobia and racism.

This spectre replacement is hardly coincidental. Like a good cop, bad cop routine, these twin brothers seem to succeed in their insidious attempt to suppress any serious discourse of domestic or foreign policies, any attempt to go beyond the previously approved and predetermined lines of reasoning so that the ruling order remains protected from Marx’s or any other truly dangerous spectres.

Besides its philosophical poverty, PC had recently demonstrated its utter bankruptcy in the face of wars, invasions, population displacement, and cheap labor policies. It failed to formulate and carry out a proper response to the so-called refugee crisis that overwhelmed Europe first by the sheer amount of people indiscriminately admitted into Europe, and then by the amount and intensity of violent crimes that some of those refugees have committed.

It is getting painfully obvious, that neither brushing the violence under the rug, nor permitting skinheads to demand the banning of all refugees provide an adequate response to the problems raised by the years of colonialism, exploitation, and military adventures.

The situation appears to be beyond the intellectual league of a well-meaning PC politicians, like President Hollande or Chancellor Angela Merkel, to solve. 

For many Americans, PC belongs to the esoteric domain of academia. In Europe, however, PC’s reach is much deeper and wider, its philosophy dominates various aspects of society, as been amply demonstrated by the recent wave of violence.   

PC penetration into the social fabric of European life is much more thorough.

One day we read about Dutch museums, which intend to rename various paintings and other objects of art whose titles use terminology no longer acceptable by today’s PC commissars; next day we read of German decision to ban pork products in school cafeterias so that its Muslim students won’t be offended, on the third, we learn about Danish politician convicted for his 2014 complaint that new, “religiously intolerant” Muslim refugees bring old prejudices, such as anti-Semitism, into European discourse.

Persecuting people who write or tweet on the subjects that go against the main PC narrative became a popular past-time for the European politicians.

All these cases are usually relegated to the domain of curiosity, similar to some bizarre incidents on US campuses, be it complaints about micro aggression, demands for safe space and gender-neutral pronouns, or accusation of cultural appropriation.

Yet, the role of PC is much more insidious: it prevents the society from adequately addressing a new wave of violence and brutality.

PC’s role as the leading political force was made painfully obvious during the recent scandals connected with brutal attacks on women, the violence and mayhem against innocent bystanders in Nice and Berlin, and the failure of the police, press, and politicians to confront it in the adequate manner that can re-assure the public of its safety.

The warnings about the pervasive and pernicious power of PC discourse have been sounded on many occasions, ranging from radical politicians and journalists, to the counter PC humour.   

The German press, for example, awards an annual prize to a ‘weasel word,” that is to “an awkward or controversial term that has shaped public discourse.”

In 2015, such award was given to a term “gutmensch,” the word that became too popular to the point of mockery and which refers to uber-politically correct person, a well-meaning but utterly helpless individual.

That’s hardly a coincidence. The refugee crisis, destined to shape the public discourse for years to come, had exposed the total bankruptcy of “gutmensch” and his PC approach to social, political, and cultural life.

It is a mark of a “gutmensch” not to offend anyone’s sensitivity. But when it came down to mass media’s failure to report violent crimes out of the fear of instilling in the heads of populace the wrong information about perpetrators, it became clear that PC has gone too far, and that “gutmensch” has become an accomplice of a vicious criminal.

It is this role of a gutmensch, of a well-meaning enforcer of orthodoxy serving as an accomplice that I want to explore in this essay.

While many relegate the PC debate to the so-called culture wars, it is clear that what lies at the bottom of it, is the plain old struggle for power.

Numerous journalists and politicians, who failed to report, or tried to spin the real nature of the sexual assaults that took place in Germany, Sweden or Finland, have used only one argument as an excuse: we don’t want to give ammo to our political rivals.  As Peter Ågren, police chief in central Stockholm, put it:

‘Sometimes we do not dare to say how things really are because we believe it will play into the hands of the Sweden Democrats.’ [The Sweden Democrats are the anti-immigration party in Sweden—VG].”

In other words, while the impulse to hush the accusations directed at a group traditionally marginalised or suppressed might be understandable, especially when considered within the context of German and European genocidal and colonial wars, it is clear, that what drives politicians, is not the desire to correct the past abuses, or the fear of offending somebody’s sensitivity, but rather the fear of losing power.

Whatever it is, the impulse to control the flow of information is very human.  Consequently, the desire to prevent certain themes or doctrines from entering the public discourse turns censorship.

Those in power strive to impose a particular narrative, a particular way of looking at things that keeps rulers feeling useful and noble, and the ruled ones either hopeful and grateful, or hateful and paranoid, which in both cases distracts them from the comprehensive analysis of their exploitation and abuse.

Political correctness, however, does not present itself as an enforced censorship on behalf of the powerful. And herein lies its ingenuity. Since imposing the limits on conversation is clearly a manifestation of power, nobody should doubt that PC is the instrument that the ruling class uses to protect itself.

Yet, this imposition of the limits on the discourse is carried out in the name of the dispossessed, marginalised, and underprivileged. It is as if at a certain moment, crocodiles had agreed not to say anything bad about the rabbits that they devour, so that a crocodile that cracks up a joke about a particularly tender rabbit’s bone that he broke the other day, would get silenced and shunned.

Some agreed to do it for pragmatic reasons: why spook the rabbits, when it is more convenient to let them believe that one of these days they can turn into crocodiles themselves.

Others might have idealistic reasons: imagining that if nothing bad is said about rabbits, that might induce some of their fellow crocodiles to change their dietary habits.

And why not? The example of those converts can be used by rabbit propagandists, that is by rabbits, hired by the croc-collective for the sole purpose of convincing the rest of the rabbits that the crocodiles have suddenly become vegetarians, and therefore, there is no reason to be concerned, worried, or stay alert.

By imposing the rabbit-friendly discourse, crocodiles resort to a rather cynical or pragmatic game of masquerading their cruelty as sentimentality. They might even write stories about sweet little rabbits and their cruel treatment in the hands of some wolf or fox, or even some pre-historic crocodile, but not in the hands of the current croc-establishment. 

There is certain pragmatism to that: why say nasty things about rabbits, why be gratuitously rude or condescending: the less said about eating rabbits the better.

Of course, from the perspective of a devoured rabbit all this sounds like crocodile tears. Rabbits would prefer the real, moral improvement rather than the linguistic one.

It sometimes happens that rabbits wrestle the power from the crocodiles. At that moment, they immediately introduce new narratives, the ones stressing the unmitigated cruelty and malicious hypocrisy of crocodiles on the one hand, and the infinite nobility of the rabbits on the other. But by no means these new narratives would ever imply that the rabbits that gained power have become crocodiles themselves: the transformation so brilliantly exposed by Orwell’s Animal Farm.

When they came to power, Russian radicals — whose writings were diligently suppressed by the tsarist Empire–began to suppress the writings of the “exploiting classes” in their turn. Lenin’s wife, Krupskaia, drew a famous list of books that were supposed to be banned in the Soviet Union, the list that included everything from the Bible and Koran to Dante and Schopenhauer. She also proposed to ban ninety-seven children’s books, including famous folk tales, for their promotion of wrong ideology. “Children’s books are the weapons of social education,” she claimed, and therefore “the content of the books should be communist.”

What this cultural politics presupposes, as the case of Krupskaia reveals, is a particular moral stance, a particular sense of superiority, manifested by any victorious zealot, martyr, or revolutionary, This superiority results in accepting two highly dubious propositions as axioms:

(1) It presupposes certain moral and intellectual arrogance, implying that the regime that came to power, has an inherent knowledge of right and wrong; it can therefore proceed with instilling only “the politically correct” information into the heads of its population.

(2) That there is correlation between what one hears in schools or reads in books with what one becomes. This correlation is by no means straightforward, however. One can grow very delicate in a vulgar family, or visa versa.

Attempts to control the educational discourse also imply that there is a split between goodness and truth, the split, unknown to ancient Greeks, for example. Great Russian authors have constantly resisted this split as well.

This split presumes that goodness has by far greater value than truth, and therefore it is reasonable to sacrifice truth for the sake of some imaginary goodness.

This politically correct, or expedient approach to truth, has surely received an additional boost from recent theories claiming that since the category of truth is constructed in any case, it is our task to construct it in a particular, politically expedient way.

Granted that the truth of any complex event is elusive and depends on the eyewitnesses who always have their agenda, it does not mean that we should simply give up on our investigations and probing and concentrate on constructing stories any way we see fit.

Recent failures of western press to adequately cover major political events, be it the US presidential elections or the war in Syria, have revealed that the public is not ready to accept the fairy tales peddled to it by the mass media. As opposed to the irresponsible western journalists, the public still remembers the prophet Isaiah’s warning: 

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

The years of lies, perpetrated by all kinds of benevolent regimes, have taught us, that it is truth that is the best friend of anyone who is oppressed, no matter how elusive the search for truth is, or whatever facts it uncovers. In the long run, it is truth that sets us free, not lies, fantasies, or propaganda. Yet, it is this truth that is immediately sacrificed by any self-appointed PC regime that strives for some sort of imaginary goodness.

Dostoevsky had thoroughly explored this phenomenon of sacrificing truth for the sake of some imaginary goodness. His writings, Diary of a Writer in particular, provide a fascinating panorama of post-Reform Russia, the period that had abolished serfdom and introduced radically different economic and political situation with its new discourse.

Consequently, the old serf system began to be accused in all possible sins: it was this system that induced, if not forced the poor and underprivileged to commit crimes.

Among other things, Great Reforms introduced the trial by jury with concomitant adversarial legal procedures. It is these procedures that fell victim to new politically correct discourse. The commission of crimes began to be attributed to the evil effects of environment (the faults of the previous regime, in other words), while the lawyers manipulated the newly minted and inexperienced jury, into issuing endless acquittals.   

Reading the reports of such acquittals, Dostoevsky became shocked and bewildered. He mounted an attack upon it, which sounds as fresh today as it was 150 years ago; it clearly contains both analysis and warning. 

“I came away [from reading these reports –VG] with a troubled feeling, almost as if I had been personally insulted.  In these bitter moments I would sometimes imagine Russia as a kind of quagmire or swamp on which someone had contrived to build palace.” (Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “Environment.” In his Writer’s Diary. Vol. 1873-1876. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1997: 132-136)

This failure to use common sense or common morality, made Dostoevsky to compare unfavourably Russian jurors’ propensity for mindless acquittals– which  were turning Russia into swamp–to that of their British counterparts:

Yet, over there the juror understands from the very moment he takes his place in the courtroom that he is not only a sensitive individual with a tender heart but is first of all a citizen. He even thinks … that fulfilling his civic duty stands even higher than any private victory of the heart…. the English juror grudgingly pronounces the guilty verdict, understanding first of all that his duty consists primarily in using that verdict to bear witness to all his fellow citizens that in old England (for which any one of them is prepared to shed his blood) vice is still called vice and villainy is still called villainy, and that the moral foundations of the country endure—firm, unchanged, standing as they stood before.

Dostoevsky, in other words, refuses to separate morality from truth. The ability to achieve and assert truth (when vice is called vice, and not virtue) is viewed by him as the very foundation of society. That’s why he despairs over the corruption of morality and understanding, as the result of which, crime becomes a duty or noble protest. 

These moral and intellectual principles are so important for Dostoevsky, that he is willing to attack – for the sake of them –- the generosity, compassion, and religiosity of his fellow Russians, who were acquitting the criminal due to sympathy or the sense of their own moral inadequacy.

Dostoevsky insists that truth and the pain of dealing with a guilty verdict is infinitely preferable to some simplistic and well-meaning acquittal. The writer offers a complex moral scheme instead of the PC fantasy: if the reality is ugly, it is our task to improve it without hiding behind the flights of rhetorical well-meaning fancy: “how is it that our people suddenly began to be afraid of a little suffering?’ ‘It’s a painful thing,’ they say, ‘to convict a man.’ And what of it? So take your pain away with you. The truth stands higher than your pain.” And then he adds these profound words:

If this pain is genuine and severe, then it will purge us and make us better. And when we have made ourselves better, we will also improve the environment and make it better. And this is the only way it can be made better. But to flee from our own pity and acquit everyone so as not to suffer ourselves -–why, that’s too easy. Doing that, we slowly and surely come to the conclusion that there is no crimes at all, and ‘the environment is to blame’ for everything. We inevitably reach the point where we consider crime eve a duty, a noble protest against the environment.

Dostoevsky’s rejection of legal newspeak, of the false compassion that under the guise of understanding of the downtrodden, has ignored their true predicament, fell –predictably –on dead ears. Dostoevsky’s complex scheme of condemning the criminal while simultaneously engaging in hard work at improving reality was ignored by the majority of his contemporaries who –in their propensity for “simplifications” –preferred much more linear schemes.

Similar dismissals of common sense and hard work, characterise all sorts of PD doctrinaires, ranging from Nadezhda Krupskaia to Angela Merkel, the political leader of today’s Germany who prefers the politically correct approach to reality, resorting to the Obama-like speeches instead of the hard work of addressing and stopping the causes of Middle Eastern emigration, while simultaneously organising the proper procedures for the integration of refugees into a different culture.

It is always easy to do nothing, while pontificating on the virtues of an open society.

Consequently, one indeed feels that Europe has been plunged into a swamp or quagmire of Dostoevsky imagination, a groundless entity incapable of dealing with concrete reality.

By insisting on discourse that obfuscates reality, the leaders of Europe turn it into a swamp, into a primeval mud and chaos. The language usually develop into a particular direction, it strives toward more nuanced and complex understanding of reality.

Politicians and media have to have courage to dismiss the charges of Islamophobia, while differentiating between the Islamic fanatics, criminals, and terrorists on the one hand, and the law abiding Muslims on the other.

The deliberate obfuscation, the obliteration of distinctions, the piling of everyone into generic “refugees” helps no one.

The Biblical God operated by turning chaos into a set of distinctions and differences, dividing dry from wet, light from darkness, heaven from earth, and man from woman.

PC acts in the opposite direction, it obliterates the distinctions, it clearly pushes us back into chaos.

There is an expression “to fish in troubled waters” (Russian uses the term “in muddy waters”). PC practitioners deliberately muddy waters, so that the criminals can fish, abuse, violate, and destroy with impunity.

The angels of political correctness have turned into the demons of chaos and destruction. The events that shake European cities are the grim reminder of this process.

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