Stanley Fish

Politically Correct: Another View, Part II

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.

Now last time, my guest and I began to talk about what’s labeled “P.C.” or “politically correct” on America’s campuses today; about the academy’s so-called canon of what to study, if not what to believe, versus newer, if not necessarily truer views; and about the intricacies of the deconstruction that’s become the rather arcane rage of academic life.

Of course, that’s because Stanley Fish, Professor of English and Law at Duke University, is such a central figure in all of this campus conflict. And I want to go on with our discussions today. Now, last time you were sure I was trying to stop you to make some philosophical point and you don’t want to make philosophical points…

Fish: That’s right.

Heffner: …instead I said our time is up…hardly a philosophical point. What were you going to say?

Fish: Well, I was going to say that I received a letter recently, and I wasn’t the only one who received it…it was sent to many Chairpersons around the country, from a young student, an eighth-grader in West Virginia, attending a Middle School and she wrote to me and she said, “Dear Sir or Madam: This year in my eighth grade history class we are doing a project of radical feminist writings of the 18th century. And I want to know what kind of attention your university pays to the writing of Mary Wollstonecraft and therefore I have enclosed a survey for you to fill out. Thank you very much”. Now my point is really obvious. Here is someone in the eighth grade. She could hardly be the only eighth grade student in the United States in a Middle School in West Virginia who is now already being introduced to must the kind of materials that some people are arguing should not be allowed into the curriculum or should be marginalized. The historical point is obvious. By the time that she and students like her get to the university, they will view these materials not as outlandish or outside of the center or on the periphery, they will view these materials as ordinary, exactly what should be studied; central, common and, and altogether commonplace. Again, the lesson, at least for me, is as it always is a historical one. All of the fears and dangers that are attached to the introduction of the new materials will fade…the dangers will not be…will not materialize and these new materials will make their way into the center of the curriculum and onto reading lists where they will then constitute a new orthodoxy in relation to which another insurgency will then arise as a challenge. Ad of course, neither you nor I could today predict what that insurgency will be, but I do predict, quite confidentially, that there will be one.

Heffner: You know, I, I can’t help but think of the first…one of the first books I ever really read, “Good-bye Mr. Chips” and that Latin inscription “All things change and we change with them”…

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: Fine. After you say that and you recognize that there is a dynamic to history and that you’re quite correct, by the time that, that young woman comes to the university, things will have changed. Again I ask the question, the two word question…

Fish: So what?

Heffner: So what?

Fish: Because. And again I give you an elaboration of the answer I’ve already given you, because the rhetoric of the opposition is an apocalyptic rhetoric.

Heffner: But they’re wrong.

Fish: Yes, they’re wrong. But if you think that they’re wrong, and I’m happy to have that statement from you…most people who have been reading the series of essays that have come out in a variety of magazines and the number of books which I now count up to 16 that have appeared in the last two to three years, will not agree with you…because it seems to me that the argument, at least in the media, and in the press, as been won by those who are saying that an entire cultural foundation is under assault by irrational and dangerous forces.

Heffner: Well, couldn’t, couldn’t one say that an entire cultural phenomenon or institution or given is under assault…period?

Fish: By something that will soon emerge as the new “given”. The…in both…

Heffner: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Do you really need to say that? Can’t you simply say “There is always a tension between new and old”…

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: …and let either the best win or, let the strongest win because that’s what we were talking about before.

Fish: That’s…is what we’re talking…was what we were talking about before. I would be content to say that. But I have to pose even these commonplaces or, as you and I would agree are commonplaces, I have to utter them I think, again and again because of what I called a moment ago, the “apocalyptic rhetoric”: The rhetoric that has people writing essays in which they say, for example, that Shakespeare is in danger, that soon we will be reading nothing but comic books and graffiti, scribbled on the walls and that if we don’t act now all genuine learning and investigation will perish from the earth.

Heffner: Well, let me ask you how you feel about the comic books and the graffiti. Let’s take part of that argument and let me know what your own response…

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: …to it is.

Fish: That’s an excellent question. I think that what happens is that new pieces of culture become subjected to academic scrutiny. That is, and I can give you a kind of classical example: It used to be the case that Renaissance plays were studied, but the prefaces to Renaissance plays were not. That is they were not studied in the same way that the plays were because the assumption was that the prefaces merely gave information, whereas the play was the thing. Now a little while ago, some scholars began to say, “But look, the prefaces, too, are part of the performance. They shouldn’t be just discarded as information or program notes. They performed some kind of work. Let’s look at them and subject them to the same kind of analysis that we’ve been subjecting the speeches and lines of the plays proper”. When that happened, and it has happened, a piece of the culture that was before thought to be outside of academic inquiry was brought into academic inquiry. Notice, too, that when the preface now becomes something that can be seriously studied, that doesn’t mean that the play isn’t any longer seriously studied. So when someone decides that graffiti and even comic books can be the subject of serious literary, sociological analysis, that doesn’t mean that Hemingway, Faulkner, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. will no longer be the subject…

Heffner: Yes, but you, you’ve claimed to be a very practical, very pragmatic person. And I have to testify that many years ago, I referred to it before, my edition of
Tocqueville’s Democracy in America came out…the fact is that I wrote a damn good introduction to it.

Fish: Right.

Heffner: Okay. And…

Fish: I haven’t read it, but I believe it.

Heffner: …that in a very real sense what has happened now is that Tocqueville certainly in the original two volumes in French has been consumed, in a sense, in the sense of burned up, gone and even the two volume Phillips-Bradley edition is gone. What’s left to a considerable extent is not even my editing of Tocqueville, but the damn 30 or 40 page introduction. That is what is being read, as I learned from my colleagues in academic life, and not the text itself. Now, something has gone by the boards, something has been destroyed, something has consumed, and I don’t think it’s a very, very positive thing. I’m not going to compare my introduction with comic books…

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: …or with graffiti…

Fish: I understand.

Heffner: …but the essence of the material…

Fish: I don’t think what’s…I think what has happened to de Tocqueville in, in your account of it is something that can happen to any author. What happens is that for a while and for reasons that would change with every historical period, interest in an author ceases, partly because…either because people can’t think o f any more questions to ask, or because there has been a programmed and programmatic attack on the usefulness of the author. In the 30s, the middle 30s, there was such a sustained attack on the poet whose work I have devoted a lifetime, and that is the poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, and other canonical words. I the 30s there was an assault on Milton’s reputation led by T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Middleton Murray and Robert Graves, and some others of almost equal stature. For a while it seemed that Milton was in fact going to pass from the central scene. And in 1933, F. R. Liebis in a famous essay wrote this first sentence: (the essay was on Milton, in a volume called Re-evaluations) and he said, quote, “The dislodgement of Milton from the literary canon has been effected with remarkably little fuss” unquote. Now I’m happy to say that that was a premature judgment, but it was not an unreasonable judgment. What happens again is that authors either are dislodged because of campaigns against the, or, as in the case of Shakespeare, 15 or 20 years ago, people run out of things to say. One of the ironies of the present debate is that Shakespeare is often portrayed as the victim of the new developments…deconstruction, new historicism, minority studies. In fact, exactly the reverse is true. Shakespeare has been the beneficiary of these new movements because up until 15 or 20 years ago when they emerged, Shakespeare studies were moribund. Young graduate students were being warned away from Shakespeare as a subject because no one could think of something new to say…interesting, revitalizing. Now Shakespeare studies are once again at the center of Renaissance work…he has been revitalized as a result of these changes. What I’m talking about is what Northrop Frye scorned in the first chapter of his Anatomy of Criticism, as the “academic marketplace”.

Heffner: Well, talking about the academic marketplace, do I understand that you would more likely welcome in the academic marketplace the displacement of Milton than I would welcome the displacement of Tocqueville? After all…

Fish: Of course I would not…

Heffner: …the people shall judge.

Fish: Of course I would not welcome the displacement of Milton.

Heffner: But you would accept it more readily I suspect because the people would have judged.

Fish: Well, let’s put it this way: I would certainly find it of great personal distress (laughter), but I would not be moved to generalize from that distress to a conclusion like “The world is falling apart. Standards and norms are disappearing; the, the barbarians are at the citadel”. I mean it would seem to me to be unfortunate, but I could not generalize it into a cosmic disaster.

Heffner: Even if the barbarians were there at the citadel?

Fish: Well, the question of who are the barbarians and who and whether the defenders of the citadel are tired people defending positions of, of privilege and old, outworn creeds, is of course a very old question that you and I are not going to settle today.

Heffner: And I gather from our previous program that I’m not going to be able to back you into either accepting or rejecting the notion that there is something in Milton that is, in your estimation, of eternal value to us and therefore, should be preserved. Whether it is “whoever knew truth put to the worst…

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: …in a free and open encounter”…

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: …which is a subject we ought to talk about…

Fish: Right.

Heffner: …but that you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t identify Milton as being of such consequence…

Fish: Well, I would say this about the consequence of Milton, that is has become less in the last 45 years because…

Heffner: How could it be?

Fish: …well because the line that you quote is from Milton’s “Areopagitica”, his great oration on the freedom of the press. In 1944, when World War II was, was still raging, there was a conference, a worldwide conference on Milton’s “Areopagitica” which was attended not simply by literary people, but by statesmen, political theorists, economists, politicians, etc. They were testifying to the fact that the words of that oration were important to the world at the time of a global struggle. At that moment I would have thought that Milton’s stock was not only high, but secure. Because it seems to me that the value that an author has is a function of the investment that society has in him or her on a variety of levels. That’s one of the reasons, for example, why the threat to Milton in the 30s would probably never, at least in our lifetime surely, occur to Shakespeare, because the worldwide investment in Shakespeare and the centuries, as it were, of commentary, and indeed, financial conglomerates that surround Shakespeare is so great that I think that he is safe, at least in the foreseeable future.

Heffner: But aren’t you and I, as academics, primary among those who are going to make an investment or make our students make an investment in Milton, or not?

Fish: Well, it depends because in some universities…not mine I’m happy to say, Milton courses don’t “make” as they say and so there aren’t as many as there used to be. Which leads to the question of whether or not they should be requirements so that courses in the older materials are, are filled up by students who would otherwise be reluctant to take them.

Heffner: And how do you answer that question…let’s say in relation to Milton?

Fish: I answer that question in tow ways. As a Miltonist I would say I am in favor of a Milton requirement. As a Chairman, which I also am, I would want to say that each department in any university or college and all universities and colleges are different and the differences are important…each department has to consider the nature of its clientele, that is its student body…the kind of education they came to the institution to obtain, the history of the institution, and make-up curricula designs and changes on the basis of a local sense of what is useful and, and what is…again, in a local sense, required.

Heffner: No eternal verities, I gather.

Fish: Well, again, we, we play out this ballet as we have in both programs where you are trying to put me into a philosophical corner and I am trying, evasively, if…I hope in a creatively evasive way, to get out of it.

Heffner: Well, you know, you’re doing very well by way of getting out of it…but I’m going to ask another question along these lines, and then I want to switch…don’t you ever want to say, as historically as a people we have said, “we hold these truths to be self-evident”…

Fish: Sure.

Heffner: …and then to go on with a canon.

Fish: Well, I hold lots of truths to be self-evident. You hold lots of truths to be self-evident. Some of them may be, in fact, the same truths. None of us are relativists. In fact I would say that no one could be a relativist if by relativism you mean holding your own opinions in some kind of equilibrium in the sense of diffidence with others. One’s own views are always one’s own in the sense the other views are other people’s views, and one’s own views are always primary. So I hold truths to be self-evident. The question is should it be the case that my self-evident truths are the ones that should rule the curriculum and/or the world?

Heffner: And your answer is “no”.

Fish: My answer is “no”, that what we have as I say in, in a recent paper that I know you’ve read, what we have is the democratic play of forces in which not only standards and values, but the literary canons that are sometimes attached to them are continually being fashioned and re-fashioned.

Heffner: The good old…

Fish: Emerged and re-emerged…

Heffner: The good old marketplace, right?

Fish: The good old marketplace.

Heffner: Okay…now, now let’s move…since I say that…negatively…I was going to say contemptuously…I don’t mean contemptuously…I just say, “God help us, the good old marketplace in the university as well as the good old marketplace”. Enough about that. Freedom of speech. Milton has certainly always been identified…

Fish: Yes, exactly.

Heffner: …particularly that passage.

Fish: Exactly.

Heffner: And your fix?

Fish: Well, staying with Milton…Milton’s “Areopagitica”, some lines of which are inscribed in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library, is a great document in the history of the notion of free expression and is often in any discussion of the First Amendment cited along with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty as an important pillar of the free speech argument. Three-quarters of the way through the document, the “Areopagitica” Milton pauses to say, and I’m giving you a kind of colloquial version of what he does say, “Hey”, he says, “I didn’t mean Catholics…them we burn”. His actual words are…his actual word is extirpate, i.e. exterminate. And he goes on to say, “you know and some others, too, that I won’t name here”. Now, Milton scholars, especially Milton scholars of the 20th century have been somewhat embarrassed by this moment in the…and seek to explain it as a historical lapse of a function of the unfortunate fact that Milton’s Christianity was as strong as it was, but…

Heffner: Or just a fact of life.

Fish: Yeah. But it seems to me that Milton was onto something extraordinarily important there. What he was saying is that he advocacy of free speech makes sense, only in relation to some underlying set of values in relation to which the free speech is seen as supportive. Since it’s the case that free speech is not identical with those values, but rather is that which is in support of those values, it may be the case that at certain points, certain kinds of speech, if freely uttered are subversive of the very values that speech is supposedly supporting. And when that happens, regulation is necessity unless, as Milton puts it, “Law wishes to unlaw itself”.

Heffner: But isn’t that something that…similar to the historical perspective that you advocate…

Fish: Not “advocate”.

Heffner: Embrace, respect…good, okay?

Fish: Yes, yes. History doesn’t need my advocacy.

Heffner: Okay, it is…and that all you’re saying is let’s look at what is…

Fish: Right.

Heffner: …and let’s stop kidding ourselves.

Fish: Right.

Heffner: Fine…all well and good, but the fact also is that we are capable of picking and choosing those things that we would embrace and if one says that…well, I could say the same thing about Mill…I, I have great difficulty with my students who think of Mill as the apostle of liberty because that’s the way he is always characterized, and yet liberty in the service of…

Fish: Yeah, well again…

Heffner: …certain interests.

Fish: That’s the point.

Heffner: Right?

Fish: The point is that if we can put this into the context of the current debate on campus about hate speech, or racial epithets and on the one hand, there’s the ACLU position, very strong position of absolute toleration and on the other hand, there are the positions of those universities that have adopted a variety of speech codes or have a variety of disciplinary measures. Now often this argument is posed in the following terms: It’s either free speech or it’s destruction by some code. I want to say just with Milton that, again, free speech as a notion is only understood in relation to some set of goals. So that if you have on the campus a situation in which some speech is considered injurious to the very purposes of a university, university administrators then face a hard choice. It’s a hard choice because there are “harms” being performed on both sides. It seems to me that the people who are going around yelling “nigger”, or “kike”, or “faggot” or the people who are putting swastikas on, on other students’ desks are causing injury to those students. It seems to me that universities that wish to regulate or discipline this speech are causing injuries to the persons that they wish to regulate or discipline. There are harms on both sides, and it is a question in my mind of relative harm. So to put the question as precisely as possible, “at what point in educational…in the educational context…at what point does the toleration of free speech usually and generally a good and a virtue threaten to subvert the very purpose for which the university or the college exists”? The only other argument on the other side would be if you…is if you thought that the university or the college existed only to allow free speech. But that would make the university or college into a Hyde Park corner or into something like a radio talk show, where the point was just simply to get up and sound off. But that’s not what universities are for.

Heffner: Professor Fish, I, I…at the beginning of, I guess, our first program, I talked about hoping that the kinds of discussions we were having could be dealt with with calm and reasonableness. And what you’ve said just now seems to me to be so, so true. Why is it that we have not been balancing in asking ourselves the question in this great debate as to the relative merits and what is achieved in…on balance by a limitation here, or permission there. Why have we gotten into this situation?

Fish: Oh. The answer (laughter)…the answer is that because people are bent on seeing these questions in large philosophical terms. Free speech…

Heffner: Come on.

Fish: …versus something else. And in fact, I think…

Heffner: Aren’t you being too generous?

Fish: Well, I am not usually known for being too generous…

Heffner: Granted.

Fish: …but I’m happy…happy to be caught in a generous moment. Do you know the Hyde Amendment?

Heffner: Yes, I do.

Fish: …the Congressman from Illinois…the Hyde Amendment is an interesting Amendment…because its main clause wishes to extend the protection of First Amendment rights from public universities to private universities. The sub-clause (c) then exempts religiously controlled universities because as the amendment says, the basic tenets of faith at those universities may be inconsistent with total toleration. All I’m saying is that section (c) should extend across the board, that all universities and colleges are based on something. It may not be a religious faith, but there’s no institution that proceeds on the basis of no beliefs whatsoever and it’s always the business of the institution to be judging as to whether or not the activity, including speech activity that goes on within its confines, is supportive or disruptive of its basic reason for being. Why isn’t this seen? It’s because the debate has become so polarized between those who are holding up the banner of free speech as if it were a holy banner, and those who are arguing rather for the regulation of hate speech; that First Amendment terms are the only terms in which the debate seems to be understood by most people.

Heffner: It seems to me…forgive me…again, that you’re being very generous because we’ve always understood that the question “where do we draw the line”?…

Fish: Yes.

Heffner: …is a fundamental question because there is no absolute absolutism.

Fish: Oh, I’m glad…

Heffner: …question of speech on anything. You pin someone down who claims to be an absolutist, you very quickly find the line, the point at which he will draw a line. That’s not happening now. It seems to me that what we’re talking about is a politically motivated debate and I wondered…I’m surprised that you haven’t…

Fish: Well, I’ll give…

Heffner: …focused on that.

Fish: Well, I’ll give you another…another answer which is that the cultural Left, which is not always identical with the political Left, but the cultural Left has been surprised by the fact that the First Amendment has been seized by neo-Conservative forces and used against some of the programs usually called multiculturist that the cultural Left champions. It seems to me that the cultural Left had assumed for a long time that the First Amendment was its amendment, that it had a particular political valence. What this whole matter demonstrates to me is that philosophical notions like freedom of speech don’t belong to any particular party whatsoever, but can be seized, appropriated and refashioned by any…by any party. What we’re seeing now is the fact that a neo-Conservative polemic and an extremely skillful one, I very much admire the way this has been done from a strategic point of view, a neo-Conservative polemic has seized the First Amendment and made it its own and the Left on campus, or the cultural Left on campus is in some disarray in relation to this issue. Of course, I am an exception.

Heffner: (Laughter) And that’s the point at which we do end, and I very much appreciate your joining me today to discuss these issues. Come back because we surely haven’t exhausted them.

Fish: It would be a great pleasure. Thank you.

Heffner: Thank you, Professor Fish. 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, 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.