Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Moderation in All Things

I used to bridle when a French friend derided what he took to be American political correctness. Some of our verbal contortions were indeed absurd, but on the whole the effort to châtier notre langue reflected a healthy awareness of the manifold ways in which, in a multicultural society, one can give offense without meaning to. France seems to be discovering this as well. First, Le Figaro has sacked Eric Zemmour for saying that most French drug dealers are black or Arab, and second, Stéphane Guillon's latest excess--mocking Eric Besson's physical appearance by way of animal similes that harked back to the bad old days of Je suis partout! and other publications of that ilk--has made many people uncomfortable, even if it has also drawn support from others who believe that satire has the right to do as it pleases.

Of course it would be unfortunate if the government forced Guillon off the air. The offense here is against taste rather than truth. Perhaps Guillon will learn that satire is an art that requires knowing "jusqu'où on peut aller trop loin," to quote Jean Cocteau, who also crossed certain lines of propriety in his day. Taste is a delicate thing, but so is free speech, and there is inevitably tension between the two. I have to contend with it even here on the blog. I don't censor comments, even those I consider mean-spirited, ill-informed, or racist. Fortunately, offensive comments are relatively rare. I wish they didn't exist, but I agree with Justice Holmes that when it comes to offensive ideas, it's best to expose them to the air and allow them to deflate.


MCG said...

The inquiry-damping consequences of political correctness are a menace to public debate. Minorities can wield their sensitivities to force the public to suppress the truth. Are most drug dealers in France in fact black or Arab? If that is the truth, surely it is important for the public to confront it. Sacking someone who tells the truth aids no one.

Political correctness has led, notoriously, to sacking someone who merely asked a politically incorrect factual question during a putatively closed meeting, as Larry Summers did. When he was president of Harvard University he asked during a closed meeting whether it might not be worth doing studies to determine whether a genetic disposition might make women less inclined than men to attain the top echelons in scientific research. The audience included professorial women who claimed their sensitivities had been so offended that they wanted to vomit. As a result of the ensuing brouhaha at politically hyper-correct Harvard, Summers was sacked.

Such are the debate-stifling effects of political correctness. Pity the French if they are falling into this trap.

MCG said...

A Frenchman recently told me that politics is the favorite subject for conversation at dinner parties in France. He added that this was because France does not yet suffer from political correctness.

Unknown said...

MCG, From inside Harvard, the story is a little different. The press may have made a great deal about Summers' remark, but it had little to do with his ouster. Whether you agree or disagree with what he did while president of the university, the way in which he did it made many enemies. Not unlike Sarkozy ...

As for minorities "wielding their sensitivities to suppress the truth," I don't have the impression that much "truth" has been suppressed in the United States, do you? People can say pretty much anything about anything, and do. If political correctness encourages some to think twice before opening their mouths, I can only wish that they bothered to think a third time.

Anonymous said...

Fact is, when Zemmour said "most frug dealers are Arab or Black", he was spouting racist prejudice.
There is NO evidence whatsoever that he may be right, simply because there are no race-correlated stats in France.
Since I assume Zemmour does not sample large groups of drug dealers, he has no idea what's he's talking about. He's just stating sick fantasies out aloud on the radio as if those were not his fantasies, but a form of truth.
if he WERE stating a definitive fact, things would have been different, and he would not have been sacked.
As for Guillon, I like his jokes, but as Art said, he was in bad taste. He should not be sacked for that though. Seriously, I hope not. A request such as "Don't compare our guests' features to animals" should suffice.

MCG said...


My point is that minorities can use their sensitivities as a weapon to suppress debate. Getting someone fired because he said most drug dealers in France are black or Arab is a perfect example of using sensitivities to suppress debate.

A principle can stand even where there is a dispute as to its application in a particular case. My point about the Summers matter--and I was well aware of his controversial history inside Harvard--is that absent the force of political correctness, Summers's question about a possible experiment does not constitute an offense at all. On the contrary, it is an appropriate question within the realm of scientific inquiry. Such questions would normally be welcome, certainly in a university whose motto is Truth (Veritas). Absent the prevailing political correctness in the media, moreover, the media could not have blown the issue up. Several earlier events in Summers's period as president of Harvard, I must note, also involved minorities' ability to wield their powerful sensitivities as a weapon. If you are looking for an instance of the suppression of opinion in the United States, you could not do better.

Whether drug dealers in France are black and Arab is a fact question. If statistics aren't available, that does not, contrary to the suggestion in a comment above, mean that we can't discover the truth. What is the truth? Is it the truth that most drug dealers are black or Arab? If so, let's confront it.

In response to your question, yes, minorities' wielding their sensitivities as a weapon has resulted in the suppression of debate in the United States in many ways. Nowadays Muslim sensitivities are wielded particularly effectively. Consider the reluctance of publications here to print the Dutch cartoons of Mohammed that had aroused murderous rampages elsewhere in the world. Second, the Metropolitan Museum's sequestering its images of Mohammed. One could go on.

CJWilly said...

MCG - A good way of telling if a comment is "bad" is by replacing the word "Blacks" or "Muslims" with "Jews" and seeing if it now feels bad.

For example: "Muslims cannot integrate, they remain foreigners, and their influence threatens to destroy Europe."

Now replace with "Jews". Shucks! It's like *Je suis partout* and Charles Maurras all over again!

Art - As a related topic, please cover Jeannette Bougrab. She is young, bright and ever-so-pretty. She almost makes me feel as warm and fuzzy as Colin Powell before he was completely coopted.