On Being Politically Correct

GUEST: Elie Wiesel
VTR: 06/03/1993

Whatever paths nations follow or overarching choices mankind makes about issues that universally claim our attention, surely it is instead whatever individual men and women you and we, decide and then do about these issues much closer to home and hearth that truly looms larger. So that whatever we do must be measured in personal moral terms. I’m Richard Heffner. My friend and colleague is Elie Wiesel, distinguished writer, novelist, teacher, much-honored Nobel Peace Prize winner. Together our dialogues will examine what may be considered the moral responsibility of the private person in dealing with each of many issues facing us today. Those ranging from capital punishment to the proper boundaries between religion and politics, church and state. From the proper limits on extending life at its beginning and at its end, to education for what, for whom. Today our dialogue will focus on a theme some believed, wrongly so it seems now, would quickly run its course in America and not confront us with its own contradictions. Political correctness, “PC” as it’s known on the campus and off, does now challenge Americans who respect and would protect others’ felt needs and sensitivities, but not at the expense of our freedoms.

Elie, I’ve never met anyone who was more understanding of and concerned about other individuals’ feelings and sensitivities than you are. Does that lead you to a great or greater sympathy for this politically correct movement?

WIESEL: Not really. I don’t like the word “political”. If one does what one does because of moral demands, it is one thing. But for political correctness? I don’t go for that. I’ll give you an example. In my first books when I wrote, French, the generic l’homme, man, does this or that, it was nothing for me. I wrote it. Today, because of the sensitivity of some women when I speak about that I, without even worrying now, I said he or she. Or then I use the word “person” or “individual”. Other than create a kind of antagonism. So that hurts people. I don’t like to hurt people. But normally I simply said, “Man does this. Man is created in God’s image”. Today you have to say something else. Man has created man or woman. It’s not easy all the time. Sometimes it’s difficult to define the proper word and the proper mode to say that.

HEFFNER: You say, “The proper mode”. Isn’t that what is being sought by those who are pushing what has perhaps erroneously been called PC? It could be morally correct, spiritually correct.

WIESEL: Normally correct, let’s say. The basic idea should be not to humiliate anyone else. And then I go for that. Why should we humiliate? We’re not there, we’re not in the world to humiliate our fellow human being.

HEFFNER: Of course, you say, “We should not humiliate our fellow human beings”. What restrictions then can, should, need we put upon what unthinking people do? People who might very well be as sympathetic as you are with the new use of the word “man”, “mankind”?

WIESEL: The language is changing. Language on one hand is becoming very violent. I think we took it from sports. And I’m not a sports person. The only time when I was exposed to sports was when I had to throw out the first ball at the World Series or something in baseball. I knew nothing about it. And the team I was throwing out the ball for lost the series anyway.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WIESEL: But for instance, you know, you say, for instance, “Give me a break.” What do you mean a break? Why a break? It’s violent. Or “Cut an image”, “Cut a deal”. On the other hand, when you try to describe horrible things, you use other words that are not so terrible. For instance you say you don’t want to say a country is poor. You say it’s underprivileged. You no longer say a government is lying. You say it is, the word is no longer “operative”, under Nixon, or you say it’s intoxicating. All right? It’s no longer indulging, let’s say, in “revolutions” but in “destabilizations”. And during the Vietnam War, we used to speak about the battle, tempo of the battle, the orchestration of the war. These are beautiful words. Which means something happened to language. I think what we say now, the PC is a result of that destabilization of the language that we are trying to form a new language that should unite people now that they’re separated.

HEFFNER: And your reaction to that?

WIESEL: If it’s political, I’m against it, really. That was…On the other hand, if somebody’s still using “man”, I don’t think he should be punished for that or ostracized for that. We are all free. I can speak the way I want. I have tried to teach. And in teaching I try to tell my students, please, you know. In my class, one of my great prides, I mean, my sources of pride in my class at Boston University is never has a student been humiliated in my class. Never. If a student says something silly, which happens, of course, instead of laughing, the other students come to his or her defense, and they rally around that person, that student. And it’s a good feeling. Well, that’s of course, an idealistic kind of situation.

HEFFNER: But you know, Elie, when I give my seminar at Rutgers in the Fall, I bet it will happen again this coming Fall as it has the last couple of years there, is, and it has been the last couple of years, a young woman in the class, different young women, never registered for the class, but are there for the single purpose of saying, “Professor Heffner, I’ve looked at your reading list. Why are the authors all dead, white males?” And I say, “To be perfectly honest, I would be delighted if you would make other suggestions of other authors whose works would carry the same import.” I mean here, but…Anna Quindlen wrote something in The New York Times, it was a phrase, “Familiarity breeds content.” Not contempt, but content.

WIESEL: Uh huh, uh huh.

HEFFNER: And I’ve been so impressed by that because it leads me to understand why these young women, when they’re not being so political, but really expressing human feelings, are saying, “We would feel so much better about ourselves if we thought you, the professor, had picked women to be present on that list.” And I wondered whether we don’t have some extra obligation to be aware of these feelings.

WIESEL: I have the same problems, naturally. But that’s not my fault. I’m going back to the classics, and into the antiquity of literature. And there is Plato, there is Socrates. And I’m looking for women. And I have the same problem when students come and say, “What about women?” But I try, and I try to find something. If I teach, I never teach the same class. If I teach, let’s say, a problem with suicide in literature, I have to find cases or anything. Whatever I do, I have always something about or by women.

HEFFNER: Well, you are, of course, much bolder and braver than I am. I always teach the same class. And I’m not proud of it. But I do find it enables me to change my mind about a great many things. But…

WIESEL: Maybe I do too. If I do, I don’t say.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Maybe I should think of new titles instead, but I’m in the same position. I have John Stewart Mill, male. I have Socrates, male.

WIESEL: Socrates is male. What can you do?

HEFFNER: But when you say it’s not our fault…

WIESEL: Is it our fault because we can deal with what we have. But nevertheless, we make an effort, I make an effort to find something, really. Because if I do not find enough, at least I see the way my students who are young women see the same stories from their viewpoint. I listen to them.

HEFFNER: You and I are, if I may, wise enough to know that there are little things, that there are the words we speak that do impact upon others, establish a framework in which they feel content or otherwise. Don’t we have an obligation – as you say, you search out such other books – in other areas other than reading lists, isn’t there something to this humanly correct movement that must appeal to our consciences?

WIESEL: There is. I’ll give you an example. Speak about, let’s say, Black men and women who you like, who are your students, or peers, your colleagues, your friends. At the beginning, of course, the pejorative word, the shameful word was “nigger”. So nobody uses that word. We should respect that. It shouldn’t be used because it was a terrible word. But then came the word “Black”, right? Now the word, I asked , I asked what word, I asked these friends of mine, “What word would you like me to use?” And they say, “Call us African-American.” So therefore I call them African-American. Why not? It doesn’t cost me much. A little bit of effort in the beginning that before saying the word “Black”, you say “African-American”. It’s not much to ask really.

HEFFNER: All right. Now, this is a choice that you make. And you make it willingly, feelingly. And I do too. What is your position on the efforts being made to enforce, to regulate – this is true particularly on the campus these days – to regulate the choice of words, the use of words, and to some extent to the use of sources of reading materials, et cetera? What’s your feeling about that?

WIESEL: As a teacher, and as a student, I resist force. I resist compulsory orders coming from anywhere. Why not create it in a climate of, let’s say, if I want my colleagues to teach certain books, I could go and tell them without giving orders. I could have, look, it’s important. Understand why. But not to punish them, to say, “If not, you will be punished. You will be ostracized.”

HEFFNER: Well, of course, what I’m talking about mostly has to do with student behavior, although you and I know of instances in which university professors have dropped courses because the very teaching of them seemed to rile up so many people who demanded in these instances politically correct statements about certain historical subjects and the academics involved weren’t willing, one might say, to prostitute their professions, their obligations as teachers. So they simply dropped the courses. But on the university level, on the college level, there are so many instances recently of behavior in words – and I don’t think that’s a contradiction in terms – that is being punished. What is your…

WIESEL: Freedom of teaching is the basic element in education. If a teacher doesn’t feel free, the teacher is not a good teacher. And therefore the students will lose. They will suffer more than the teacher himself. I remember I was at City College before I went to Boston. Then came the time of open admissions. As a result, painful experiments and experiences ever made. As a result, City College was no longer City College because there were people, students who didn’t know enough to be in college. And they were frightened, they threatened the professors. I knew some of them. Saying, “If you fail us, I will beat you up.” And some of them, I think, were afraid of that. Or they would be accused of racism. Who wants to be accused of racism? And I found that terrible because on the one hand it was a nice thing to say it’s open admission, anyone has a right to study. Anyone coming from anywhere. But then on the other hand, what is college? A good college means that good students…those who are prepared for it… At that time the mistake was, when those students who wanted to come to City College should have, I say, been given a year, the best teachers to get them ready to enter City College. It wasn’t done until now. Then they tried to do it. Maybe it was too late. But for the same thing, I do not believe in terror as a matter of education.

HEFFNER: But you’re addressing yourself to one aspect of it, and I wonder how you would approach another aspect. And that is terror that directs itself toward students who use words that you and I would find unacceptable, use the word “nigger”, and use euphemisms that you and I would find clearly unacceptable…

WIESEL: Objectionable, absolutely.

HEFFNER: …what then is and can be and of right should be the punishment, if you want to use the word “punishment” for that?

WIESEL: Teachers…If that would happen to me, I must tell you, never, I have never seen a student, never heard a student use these words. Suppose if it happened I would take the student to my office and I would speak to him or to her for an hour or two, or three, or four, until that student understands. If not, I’m a poor teacher. I would put the onus on the teachers then. If I am a teacher, I must be able to convince my student not to use certain words that carry such dynamite, such a weight of hatred in them.

HEFFNER: That’s your usual optimism.

WIESEL: I’m a romantic. You know that.

HEFFNER: You believe in change, in changeability. It’s fascinating to me though that you say that it would be your failure if you weren’t able to change someone else’s behavior.

WIESEL: That’s not really behavior.

HEFFNER: What is it?

WIESEL: It’s a provocation. Why does a student use that word? To provoke. To show that he or she is strong enough to resist the teacher’s authority or respect. And then I would show the student what really it means to have respect, or even to resist this respect. It’s okay to be disrespectful. It’s all right in academic life, in literature. One must be disrespectful. But there are limits.

HEFFNER: You play the role now of the psychotherapist.

WIESEL: No. Not really.

HEFFNER: Isn’t that what you are saying? I mean, you are sort of denying the notion that you may be dealing with one nasty bit of work here in Student A or Student B. Someone whom you might in another setting characterize as evil. Are you saying that students can’t be evil because they aren’t…

WIESEL: They are too young for that. But you know, but still, if that student wouldn’t listen…

HEFFNER: Yeah?

WIESEL: …I think that student would be in a position that he or she would have to understand that his place is not in my class. Because he is only doing harm to himself, to herself, to other students. And the other students, they would, I think they would resent his or her presence that he would have to leave. But it never happened to me.

HEFFNER: You are very fortunate.

WIESEL: Never.

HEFFNER: And if one escalates that, from your class, where you have the capacity to say, “Please…”

WIESEL: I can’t. No. If the student says, “I’m not leaving”. Then he would stay. I would suggest. I would say, “Look, it’s in your interest and mine and the students’…” But nevertheless he wants to stay, he stays.

HEFFNER: All right. That does raise the question that’s coming up on so many campuses with the notion of expelling students.

WIESEL: I couldn’t. Unless the student was really doing something so outrageous, so immoral, that the administration wants to expel him. I couldn’t.

HEFFNER: Well, we’ve gotten to the point, Max Lerner once wrote, I guess the title of the book was “Ideas or Weapons”, and he was saying, quite correctly, that words can be weapons. Where do we draw the line? At what point do we say, “You are, by using disrespectful, taunting, negative, hostile language, you are attacking another person. Your words have become deeds, and deeds can be punished. Out you go”.

WIESEL: Oh, I listen to the victim. If the victim comes, let’s say, somebody who calls a bad word, of a Black person, and African-American person, and that person comes and says to me, “Look, I’m insulted”, then I listen to that person. I say “That person is right”. I’ll give you an example which is more recent. Last year we had the Crown Heights tragedy, and a young Jew was beaten up and killed. Unfortunately it was a trial. The whole thing was outrageous. It was poorly handled. It was a scandal. Nevertheless, those people there in Crown Heights, my Jews – I am a Jew, they are Jews, and I came, they had a demonstration, I came for the demonstration – they later used the word “pogrom”. And I think it is not a proper word, because if this is a pogrom, a pogrom is nothing but that. However, how can you not listen to those who were the victims of a pogrom? That means the brother of Yankel Rosenbaum who was killed. When he says a pogrom, I don’t accept the word, but you have to listen. So, in the classroom too, I listen to the victim.

HEFFNER: You listen to the misuse of words. Do you feel some sense of obligation to stop the misuse of words? Words are very precious to you.

WIESEL: If I can, of course I stop. I teach by example. There are certain words I don’t use.

HEFFNER: Now, in using “pogrom”, the Jews in Crown Heights used it themselves to describe what was happening to them. Others have used it for, perhaps, political purposes.

WIESEL: I’m against that, and I say so. I say so publicly.

HEFFNER: What is happening to our language in this era of – maybe you will deny my characterization, but it seems to me, Elie, since I lived parallel to the Holocaust, I didn’t live in it, and I can’t really conceptualize that evil that, the totality of evil represented there – but it seems to me that now we are getting meaner and meaner spirited. We are using words as weapons more and more. Not necessarily weapons like “nigger” or “kike”, or things like that, but alongside we are using words to distort what is happening in the world around us. Spin control. There is a wonderful parallel happening. Is this my own assumption, my own pessimistic look at what is happening in our times, or is there any way in which you share it?

WIESEL: There is much pessimism. I share it too. What we must understand, that the tragedy of all tragedies that we call so poorly – the word is also not proper – “Holocaust”, began with words. It began with words, with anti-Semitism, in all kinds of countries, with Nazism. With the propaganda. It began with words. Hitler predicted what really happened. The world didn’t want to listen. There were words invented to describe what they were doing. So therefore something happened to the words. The language itself became corrupt. It destroyed itself from within. There are certain words we cannot use anymore. I met Nelly Sachs, who was a great poetess in Sweden, German-Jewish origin, and got the Nobel Prize. And she told me something that moved me then to tears. That she writes, she wrote her poetry in German. There were certain words she said she couldn’t use because those words had been used by the killers. At one point she went through such turmoil that she had to go and be institutionalized. Very few people knew that. Because of that there was a kind of detachment between the poet and the language of the poet. And today there is a detachment, there is a “distancization”, a la Brecht, between us and the language that we hear and that we use. Words no longer mean what they are meant to convey. So of course I agree with you. Whenever we assault language, something will happen to the human psyche. What is language? “Language is a monument”, said the German philosopher. It is the great monument of civilization. It’s not a building; it’s language. If you want to study the history of a people, don’t go to museums; go to the language of that people. The way terms grew and they aged and they died and they resurrected. Take a few words, a sentence, and see what happened to that sentence let’s say between the year one of the common era and now and you will know everything about people who used that sentence.

HEFFNER: Elie, your knowledge of language is great. Of languages, is great. As you look at language around the world, do you find that we here in America are different in what, in terms of, the terms you just spoke, what’s happening to our language?

WIESEL: I think that the American language is more concrete than others. We can write poetry, concrete poetry. French, for instance, is the best language to express philosophy.

HEFFNER: You write everything in French.

WIESEL: I write in French. It’s philosophy. Hebrew is different. Hebrew is a condensed language. One word contains ten. The American language is concrete. It must be applicable. You must figure out something when you use American. That’s why journalism is the best in English. It’s the best language because it’s precise. The five W’s, you know. You don’t have it in other languages. Here it’s the five W’s. The story must be a story that describes exactly when it happened, to whom, by whom, for what, and so forth. They don’t have it in French. That’s why the French reportage is very political. The reporter has the ability to express political views. Not in America. The New York Times would fire the person who started that. Only the story must be objective, must be true. Meaning objective to the same thing. So, the American nation, on the other hand, is too noisy. It is the noisiest generation we ever had, I think.

HEFFNER: Words, words, words?

WIESEL: Words. Not even. They don’t mean much, but of course people talk.

HEFFNER: Elie, would you describe those five W’s, would you describe the precision with which our language allows one to report in the same way now as you might have a decade ago when you came to this country?

WIESEL: Well, I came to America as a journalist, as a journalist for French and Israeli newspapers.

HEFFNER: And in the one minute we have remaining, I’m really asking you to evaluate what has happened to the words of journalism in America.

WIESEL: I think that because of television, I think the written press has changed too. It became also obsessed with images more than with concrete facts.

HEFFNER: Graven images?

WIESEL: Graven images.

HEFFNER: And we should set our canon against them?

WIESEL: Against political correctness. A prophet has been politically incorrect, and that was his greatness.

HEFFNER: Elie Wiesel, thank you again for joining me today on our dialogues.

WIESEL: Thank you.

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