Stanley Fish

Politically Correct: Another View, Part I

VTR Date: May 19, 1991

English and law professor Dr. Stanley Fish discusses political correctness.


GUEST: Stanley Fish
VTR: 5/19/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

And I want to focus once again today, as on several other programs, on the winds of change that have blown rather fiercely through even major American universities in recent years, and that cannot simply be dismissed as only “as academic matter” by those not immediately or intimately involved with the life of the campus. I refer to what is sometimes called “P.C.”, “politically correct” on the campus today, as well as to the purposive “deconstruction” of much that the academy has traditionally insisted was its province and its mission: specifically, to convey the truths – philosophical and procedural – it and its masters have held not only to be self-evident by also self-perpetuating…and immutable!

Of course, precisely what is deemed “politically correct” today – at Stanford or Michigan, or Duke, or Harvard, or wherever – may seem enormously precious and arcane and not at all make that much difference to most thoughtful Americans right now. But that something, anything at all, could be labeled “P.C.” by university students, or faculty, or administrators, is what could come to haunt us all.

Now all of this may simply be a tempest in an academic tea cup…indeed, perhaps only the ingenious product of a brilliantly purposive disinformation campaign, this time by the Right against the Left, by one view of what’s correct, politically and otherwise, against another. But, whichever, whatever, the issue merits – indeed, demands – our close attention…and it would be such a relief if in these less than happy times – as one scholar wrote recently – if academics and their interested others could now approach their differences with civility and reason rather than with denunciations or hosannas.

Certainly a most central figure in what has been going on on the campus is my guest today Dr. Stanley Fish, Professor of English and Law at Duke University. And I want to ask him right off just what light he would throw on the current debates about being “politically correct”, about “deconstructionism”, and, of course, about that wicked so-called “canon”. Dr. Fish?

Fish: Well, those three would…each of them would occupy an entire program. But I’ll start with the “politically correct” designation because it’s the one that everyone meets in the first paragraph of any newspaper or magazine article. One is often asked these days, “Well, what does ‘politically correct’ mean, what is political correctness?” And, as usual, at least in my case, I always like to reply with examples rather than definitions. Let’s say you or I were to put on a button which said, “Schwartzkopf is a dumb-koff” or “Bush…no: Saddam Hussein…si” and walked out in to our local mall. I think in most cities and villages in the United States, were we to do this we would meet with a hostile reception because we would find that the majority of persons we encountered had very different views from the views announced on our buttons…so different and so deeply assumed, to be obviously true, that our actions would be met with hostility, criticism and perhaps, even, at some extreme, physical violence. So what I’m saying is that political correctness is a condition that obtains whenever there’s a majority view so firmly in place that those who hold it think that the people who would think anything else are either…are either crazy or evil.

Heffner: But isn’t part of our…not academic, but part of our national canon, if I may, that when the button says “Bush…no; and Saddam Hussein…si” we protect and defend the right of the person to carry that button and though there may be those who would do her or him in for wearing that button, we defend that person.

Fish: I think that in general, in terms of the legal implications of such actions, that you are correct. But, of course, the kind of protection that some people would like to see on either side of this debate is not particularly legal. Let me give you another example reported in Time magazine and other journals…a basketball player, I think, for Cornell University refused, for whatever reason, to put the American flag on his uniform that all of the other players were wearing. Once this became known, he was the recipient of such hostile criticism from the fans that he finally became discouraged, quit the team and I think, quit the school, although I could be wrong on that. He was, therefore, in some ways, the object of politically correct criticism on this…in this case from the Right. Was there anything there that was actionable? I doubt it because he was simply receiving the kind of catcalls and, and criticism that players often receive, but usually because they have made a mistake in the game, rather than because they were not wearing an American flag on the uniform.

Heffner: But wouldn’t you urge upon your students, as a person charged with raising question, raising issues for them, would you hope that your students would reject that kind of political correctness, that they would reject the rejection in terms of those who do things that are unpopular?

Fish: Well, it depends upon what form the rejection takes. If the rejection takes the form of very vigorous protest, and counter-arguments even perhaps in loud tones, then I think it is still within the bounds of what you were speaking of in your introduction, academic civility. Of course, if the rejection takes the form of violence or actual physical prevention of speech or other action then, I think, it is a matter for university discipline because universities cannot tolerate such repressive activity.

Heffner: But, but even before we get to that point, the, the question I really address to you…I remember years ago, too many years that I would…that I would care to remember, editing Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and the whole concept that Tocqueville set forth of the tyranny of the majority was something that we pointed to as “to be avoided”.

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: And you seem to be saying now that the tyranny of the majority exists…

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: …it is, therefore, it’s almost as if you were to say “we must accept it” and in a sense shrug our shoulders. Do you really mean that?

Fish: Well, what I mean is something about the human condition. You’re asking me for a philosophical opinion…

Heffner: Yes.

Fish: …I’m, I’m thinking…no, I, I usually resist…

Heffner: Why not?

Fish: …because…I, I don’t find answers to question…I don’t find philosophical answers to questions useful. And we could talk about that if you’d like, but let me just go to the point that you raised. It seems to me that the assumption in de Tocqueville, as you describe him, would be that the majority could see that its views were simply its views and not views that were indisputably true. What we’re talking about here on either side of the fence, Right or Left are people for whom their views are so indisputably true, that the other view, in effect, doesn’t deserve to be heard. Now, you may think that that’s an illiberal, undemocratic, un-American way of regarding dissent…

Heffner: Don’t you?

Fish: …ah, I , myself, am very suspicious of the general structure of thought that goes under the name of American liberalism because it assumes that people who believe something, who are committed to something, who are convinced of something in an exclusive way, are in some way fanatics of fundamentalists. That is, it seems to me, that one of the underpinning assumptions in Liberalism is the assumption that people’s beliefs should be subject to the rule of reason. Where I would say that there is no such thing as “the rule of reason” independently of beliefs. That reason always appears to persons to have the shape that is more or less determined by their beliefs.

Heffner: Well you and I know that reason is a belief itself.

Fish: Right.

Heffner: Right? Okay. I, I appreciate what it is that you’re saying. But are you ruling out embracing one belief or another? You describe…I, I think quite accurately the fact that Liberalism, reasonableness, sweet reasonableness, rationality…

Fish: Right.

Heffner: …fairness, balance, all of those…

Fish: …all of those…

Heffner: …points of view…

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: …and one accepts them, adopts them, embraces them, or one doesn’t. You say you don’t want to talk philosophically…

Fish: No I don’t.

Heffner: But what are the truths then that you hold as eternal? Do they not involve in any way a statement that one, to the degree, to the extent that one can, wants to foster this kind of so-called Liberal thinking?

Fish: Actually, in my case, no. The cornerstone of my own thinking which I don’t really think should be the topic of this program is the notion of persuasion. It seems to me that what we’re always in the business of, what I am trying to do now, perhaps unsuccessfully, we’re trying to persuade others to our points of view. We’re trying to persuade others to think within the same assumptions that produce for us unquestioned and obvious facts. Persuasion is an activity in relation to which reason is a hand maiden or a tool, where for most Liberal thinkers the priority would be reversed. That is, persuasion would wait upon reason. I am saying that reason always waits upon, or comes in the wake, persuasion. But I am, but I am very uncomfortable with the discussion on an abstract level such as that one, because I think that the…what’s going on in campuses these days has to be understood in pragmatic, local and above all, in historical terms. And I think that once we begin to look at the…for population, that is the profiles of the various person who are engaged in these debates, once we begin to look at the academy and see what kind of moments in the history of the academy have occurred and have been like this one then perhaps we’ll be able to throw a better light on the situation than the light that might be thrown by posing high philosophical questions.

Heffner: when you say “a better light”, you mean so that the situation will be illumined?

Fish: That’s right. Exactly.

Heffner: But not determined.

Fish: Not determined, because the kind of light that I would like to throw, which is a historical light mainly, my history could be challenged. Let me give you an example. One of the ways in which this controversy is often reported is, is so as to suggest that it’s something new, that it has just erupted in the last few years, and has challenged a, a set of common assumptions, and an “in place” civility that has been the norm for quite a while. But in fact the phenomenon of debates about the curriculum and of serious political disagreements on the campus is a very old one, and often in the very terms that we’re now seeing. Thirty-five years ago, when I was entering this profession, the hot question in…especially in the humanistic side of the academy was…is American literature a suitable subject to be placed centrally in our curriculum? The reasons against putting American literature into the curriculum in a central way were the same reasons that are now being put forward against Women’s Studies, Minority Studies, Black Studies. That is, the reasons were “American literature is a political rather than an aesthetic category. It hasn’t stood the test of time. It hasn’t been around long enough. American Literature is too close to popular culture. Besides, if we put all of these American Literature courses in and start reading Hemingway and Faulkner seriously, we won’t read Shakespeare and Homer seriously”. Now, of course, the arguments are that if we put in Black Studies, Minority Studies…if we start reading Alice Walker or Tony Morrison, we won’t read Shakespeare and Hemingway. Eighty years ago the debate was whether or not to allow English Literature into a serious curriculum because it was assumed that the Greeks and Classics embodied the whole of the culture that we needed to transmit to our students and that that transmission of culture would be diluted by the introduction of English Literature. And so on and so on. As far back as you go, the same exact set of questions has, has been asked, and the same…and the same dire predictions which have never, in fact, materialized have been made by those who want to stop at some beachhead that had been won 35 years ago.

Heffner: But that makes it sound as though you really want us to believe that history teaches lessons. Let’s look at the lessons of the past. When, in fact, we pick and choose the lessons that that thing…history…has taught us…

Fish: Well, that’s true.

Heffner: …we pick this and we pick that.

Fish: Well, as I said a moment ago, I would be happy to engage in the discussion with someone who wanted to put forward an alternate history of the matters that I’ve just been discussing. But I would like to see historical perspective. I would like to see, for example, questions about the…as I said a moment ago, the profiles of the persons on the two sides of this question.

Heffner: I, I…that interested me and I wanted to pick that up. What do you mean by that?

Fish: I mean by that that if you…I’ll give you another example…two weeks ago there was an appearance on our campus by Lynne Cheney, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who’s more or less identified herself with the anti-PC movement.

Heffner: You surprise me. Is it really “politically correct” to say the Chairman or the Chairperson…

Fish: Chairperson…

Heffner: I get hit when I say Chairman.

Fish: I, I accept the hit. And provide the apology to anyone who’s listening (chuckle).

Heffner: Need you really, though? Isn’t it kind of “funky” on my part…

Fish: No. Well, it depends…

Heffner: …to say that?

Fish: …well it depends on what …well, “funky” might not be the word I would choose. It depends on the spirit with which you said it.

Heffner: It’s a needling spirit.

Fish: Well, if it’s a needling spirit, it’s one thing. If on the other hand there are persons whose sensitivities are genuine and you know that they’re genuine, whether or not you share them might, might still be the case that you wish to respect them.

Heffner: Wouldn’t it be sufficient for me to take note that this eminent scholar, who was very much involved with the question of politically correct, has said, about this lady “Chairman”, not “Chairwoman”, “Chairperson”, and let it go at that? But you wouldn’t expect of me, or tolerate from me, I would hope, that I would make much of that, though I seem to be making much of it now.

Fish: I was about to say this…this is a rhetorical, rhetorical ploy called “occupation”…actually is the Latin term for it, is when you dismiss something in the course of making much of it. I think that one has to make a distinction between some of what we might call the “sillier” aspects of this phenomenon. For example, I heard the other day that there has been an objection to the phrase “rule of thumb” because apparently, and I don’t know the details, “rule of thumb”, as a phrase originated in a practice that was disrespectful to women some centuries ago. Well that seems to me to be silly. Whatever the tainted origin of the phrase “rule of thumb”, it’s now the case that the phrase is entirely a neutral phrase as far as I’m concerned. On the other hand, when you have groups like the disabled or Native Americans or Afro-Americans, or women feeling strongly about the designations that they receive in public address, that’s a different matter. So that I think the entire question can be made into…or issue can be made into one that is silly, but on the other hand, that doesn’t mean that every instance of it is silly.
Heffner: Well, let me take you back to Lynne Cheney…

Fish: Let me go back to Chairperson Cheney…who gave a talk, a quite good one, at the University…Duke University…a couple of my students came in and looked around at the audience and what one of them said is as follows: “I don’t know what these people are for…but they won’t be around long enough to see it happen”. What that student was commenting on was the age of the persons…the average age of the persons who had come to hear Chairperson Cheney. That…in, in that room I was one of the younger people. A week later, the Caribbean, Afro-American novelist Jamaica Kincaid came into the same room to speak where she was introduced by my eminent colleague Henry Louis Gates, Jr….Skin Gates, and that room was, again, quite full, but full of people of another generation and I was, by far, the oldest person in the room.

Heffner: Now what does that observation tell us?

Fish: That observation tell us that what we see, to some extent, in these debates is a generational conflict. That people who were trained as I was 30 to 35 years ago in a whole set of assumptions and the methodologies that accompanied the, now find a whole new set of assumptions, a new methodology and vast amounts of material often emerging from quarters that were never even recognized as potential places before, and this has created profound and, I think, real…that is, genuine discomfort and unhappiness. A lot of people are being pressured in ways that they didn’t anticipate when they first entered the, the academy, the literary academy and the other academy. So what you often hear now are the unhappy cries of persons whose career trajectories are being disrupted by unwelcome newcomers who bring news from strange places and often who bring arguments that are themselves disruptive of the very principles on which people have built entire careers.

Heffner: Professor Fish, I, I, I wonder…forgive me…what the relevance through is and I wonder whether you wouldn’t find danger yourself…suppose you in, in this, in this, more than ad hominum approach…suppose you were to have told the story in reverse…the first group, someone had looked around and said…”these people are going to be here an awfully long time” and worried about it a lot. And you were dismissing to a certain extent and there was something dismissive as you characterized that first comment, of the speaker, of the thrust of her ideas because of the nature of the audience. Can’t we make a judgment about ideas…

Fish: No.

Heffner: Outside of…

Fish: No, no.

Heffner: …where we are…

Fish: No.

Heffner: …in the chronological…

Fish: In fact that’s it precisely…you’ve put your finger, as I’m sure you know, exactly at the heart of the debate. Whether or not the realm of ideas exists independently of what we might in a kind of…call…social, economic, and political forces, or whether or not the very shape of ideas is itself a function, to some extent, of a political or social or economic situation.

Heffner: Oh, I didn’t mean for a moment to assume that one could separate them. But I do mean for much more than a moment, for all of my life, indeed, that our objective should be…

Fish: Yeah.

Heffner: …and this is a philosophical judgment…

Fish: Why?

Heffner: Because I…

Fish: See. See we’re going to argue…we’re going to argue…

Heffner: Sure.

Fish: …about philosophy again.

Heffner: But of course.

Fish: But no, not “of course”, that’s…arguing about philosophy is something that occurs in philosophy seminars. One of the great mistakes, I think, of, of the whole tradition in education is to think that the answers to questions that are posed in philosophy seminars are useful for anything once you leave those seminars.

Heffner: But you know what you’re saying now, and it struck me as I read some of your writings, and the fact that you write like an angel doesn’t lead me terribly far from feeling that there’s something very wrong here in what your conclusions are. You’ll forgive me.

Fish: Oh.

Heffner: But it seems to me you’ve suddenly discovered the deconstructionists themselves…

Fish: Ah.

Heffner: …have suddenly discovered what historians always knew…that there are no ideas that exist of and by themselves…

Fish: Right.

Heffner: …they’re a function of the environment, economic, social, political…

Fish: Right.

Heffner: …geographic indeed and, so what? What difference does it make if you are looking at an idea whether it is presented and listened to by an audience made up of old fogies like me…

Fish: Or me.

Heffner: …no, no, no, you’re still in-between.

Fish: Not by much.

Heffner: …or the young group that you were talking about? What difference does it make?

Fish: Well, it, it makes a difference because it is precisely the claim of what we might call the Neo-Conservative actors in this little drama or not so little drama…it was precisely their claim that these ideas have power themselves independently of the social and political and economic context in which they arise. Now does…it’s part of the strategy of people like Dr. Cheney…in fact, it’s an argument in several of her pamphlets that ideas always have the same shape independently of whether or not the person announcing them is old, young, Black, White, from one country or another. That entire notion of a life of the mind which in some way has priority over material circumstances and historical forces is, in fact, what’s at the heart of this debate.

Heffner: Suppose…suppose we were to say such considerations couldn’t possibly have priority over those tangible realities that you like to address yourself to…

Fish: So what?

Heffner: …that…so what…

Fish: Right.

Heffner: …and aren’t we still able to make our choices?

Fish: Well that…no…of course you’re still able to make your choices, but let’s think about what enables your choices. And let’s go back to the “so what”. Ah, so what? An answer to the “so what” has to do with a kind of argument that is being made by Chairperson Cheney and others which is an argument that would stop history. At least in terms that’s the heart of the argument. There is, according to all of these persons, a set of common values which make up a common culture and it is in danger. The idea, of course, is that this common culture is, itself, not a historical product, but something that is made up of the best that has been thought and said, the sum of all the masterpieces that have ever been produced in the world. The counter-response, the response that I would ally myself with is one in which values, common or otherwise, are always in the course of being fashioned and re-fashioned. And that what is always happening is that new materials from different perspectives, with alternative goals and purposes are being introduced and that it’s not a question as it is often posed in the literature that I, myself, am opposed to…it’s not a question of a world of values which is being defended by a few against a barbarian horde which is about to dilute or overwhelm them, rather, in my view, it’s a question of values embodied in one political, social vision coming up against, clashing with values that are emerging often from new forces from new populations, from younger persons. It seems to be that in that struggle, which as I indicated earlier is an age-old struggle that the winners will always be the newer people. When I say “winners”, I don’t mean winners in a conclusive sense. No one is going to be slain here. The winners in the sense that the ideas that are now so resisted by some of the Conservative establishment will be assimilated.

Heffner: You know, I’m, I’m surprised that you say that because I would have thought that what you were going to say is that winners always are the winners. And that that’s all that you’re really talking about.

Fish: Now, that’s not bad. I wouldn’t mind that. The winners are the winners, except that that would suggest too much that it’s simply a matter of brute force. And of course it’s not a matter of brute force because there are arguments, there are reasons, there is evidence. But of course, argument, reasons and evidence are themselves function of the very historical forces that I have been naming. Let me give you again an example…no, no…I want to…you’re about to ask me another philosophical question…

Heffner: Absolutely not.

Fish: No, then let me…

Heffner: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute.

Fish: And I want an opportunity…

Heffner: I’m going to ask you something else, believe me, a very practical question. Will you sit where you are because I’m getting the sign that the program is just about over and the question is very practical…will you stay where you are and we’ll do another program so that you can make the point you’re just about to make now?

Fish: Since I like practical questions so much…the answer is “yes”.

Heffner: Okay. Then I’ll thank you for joining me today, Stanley Fish. And stay where you are.

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, and next week’s, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.