The Traffic in Trauma: Learning Whom to Hate

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote in recommendation of a book* that it had the great merit of teaching the young whom to  hate.  That is a lesson still well worth learning, not only for the young but for all ages.

Just the other day I read a passage in newly published book by a well-known author that, under the guise of teaching that same lesson, actually teaches anything but.

Out in Colorado where I live, we were just recently treated to the news of the retirement of Grayson Robinson, the Sheriff of Arapahoe County, who not long before retiring presided over the various press hearings concerning the shootings just this last December at Arapahoe High School.  Sheriff Robinson refused throughout all such proceedings to use the name of the shooter, whose final shot took his own life, lest by using his name he be granted a celebrity that, even posthumously, Sheriff Robinson wanted no part in granting.  (Although he restrained himself from using the young man’s name, the Sheriff did not refrain from labeling the shooter “evil”—a point I will not pursue further, though it certainly deserves careful reflection, above all about who is served by such talk, and who is not.)  I will take at least one page from Sheriff Robinson’s own book.  I will not name the work in which I read the passage I want to discuss, the one I just read recently, the one that fails to teach the lesson that Sartre praised Nissan’s novel for teaching.  Nor will I name the author.  I see no good reason, either humanitarian or selfish, for doing so.

At any rate, the passage at issue comes at the end of a discussion—itself to the point and worthwhile, in my judgment—of how offensive, indeed how truly obscene, the normalization of torture in the relatively recent, for the dominant part positively received film, Zero Dark Thirty, which tells the back-story to the long trail of sleuthing that eventually culminated in the American killing of Osama bin Laden, really is.  The author then goes on to mention the linguistic sleight-of-hand wherein the Bush administration, long before that actual killing, replaced the term ‘torture’ with the expression ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ to classify and talk about such then (at least) standard American practices as water-boarding those from whom the American government hoped to extract information thought to be of possible use in pursuit of what that government defined to be America’s own self-interest.

So far, so good:  To that point I have no objections.  However, I do object to what the author at issue goes on to do, which is to posit an analogy—in fact, not just an analogy, but also an identity.  He compares the verbal substitution of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ for ‘torture,’ on the one had, with the substitution of ‘physically challenged’ for ‘disabled,’ on the other.  Then he asserts that both substitutions are, in fact, just two different instances of one and the same underlying malady, which he characterizes, following what has become an almost universally dominant current linguistic fashion, as being the malady of “Political Correctness,” to adopt the author’s own device of capitalizing the two words of that expression in his usage of it.

Nothing could be more politically correct today than such usage of the buzz-word “Political Correctness.”

Communication is not coercion.  Communication is co-mund-ication, as I wrote in my preceding post—from the Latin mundus, “world.”  That is, it builds, in sharing, a shared world.  In contrast, coercion calls a halt to sharing.  It imposes limits, barriers, and blockages to communication, stopping it, or at least trying to.  It breaks apart the world.  Words, phrases, or in general expressions have what is deserving of being called “meaning” or “sense” only in the stream of communication, to paraphrase a line from Wittgenstein.  Taken out of that stream and pressed into forced service as implements of coercion, they lose all meaning and cease to make any sense, properly speaking (and by “proper” here, I mean “appropriate to ongoing communication,” since what expressions as such are for is just that).

Long ago now, the term ‘politically correct’ was simply gutted of all meaning.  It was hollowed out completely.  All that was left was the mere verbal shell, which could then be filled with something other than sense or meaning—filled, namely, with coercive force, used to accomplish a no longer communicative but now anti-communicative, purely coercive purpose.  In short, ‘political correctness’ was replaced by  ‘Political Correctness,’ to adopt my passage’s author’s convention.

Before it underwent evisceration of sense, of saying power, and was stamped into ‘Political Correctness,’ a mere tool of coercive power, the term ‘politically correct’ would have meant that which was required to maintain political viability in the concrete circumstances under discussion. Accordingly, just what sort of talk or action might have been politically correct at any given time and setting would have been a function of the political conditions and circumstances of that time and setting.  The term would not have named any one, single style of speech and action, whether of the left, of the right, or of the middle.  In one case—for example, America during the McCarthy era—espousing left-wing political causes might be tantamount to committing political suicide, whereas the same speech and action in another case—perhaps in the Soviet Union during the same era—would have been required to exert any political effectiveness.  What would have been “politically correct” would have varied according to the specifics of the given situations to which the term was applied.

The moment came, however, when the term ‘politically correct’ ceased to have any meaning within the stream of conversation, and instead was shanghaied by the American right-wing for use as a quick and handy label by which to dismiss and ridicule one specific sort of communication.  The sort of communication at issue is any that tries to address instances in which our everyday ways of talking themselves embody extra-communicative—indeed, anti-communicative, which is to say world-destroying, rather than world-building through world-sharing—elements that function coercively, and do so at the greatest price to those who can least afford to pay for it.  That is, the term was co-opted by the American right wing and made to apply exclusively to what my dictionary, as its sole entry for the expression ‘political correctness,’ characterizes this way:  “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

Thus does even The New Oxford American Dictionary itself succumb to the reigning linguistic coercion, not even bothering to mention the meaning that the same expression would once have had, prior to its capture and torture precisely by those who “consider” the “avoidance” at issue “often” to be “taken to extremes”!  Just how “often,” a thoughtful reader might ask?  Well, for those who abducted the expression and pressed it into slavery to serve their own interests in the first place the answer is:  AlwaysWhenever such avoidance—any such avoidance—manifests itself at all!

As for me, I must admit that in my own judgment it is “often” (please read:  “always and in every instance”) the case that those who use the terms ‘political correctness’ or ‘politically correct’ in the way my dictionary defines them are abusing those terms.  They are, as some readers may already have caught me remarking, torturing those terms.

Of course, as “often” fits the interests of torturers, they would prefer not to call it that.  They would prefer to call it, perhaps, the employment of “enhanced meaning-clarification techniques.”  So it goes.

Such torture of language would perhaps not matter much—unless, perhaps, to someone who is “going to extremes” in order to be Politically Correct—if all it concerned was language itself (pace language lovers, wimps that they may be).  But such language abuse abuses more than language, unfortunately.  It abuses those who, through such linguistic sleights-of-hand, are effectively robbed of the very possibility of voicing objection to being abused, or finding such voice through those who speak on their behalf.  The abuse against them is thereby, as others have often pointed out before me, compounded—indeed, exponentially so, especially when coupled with the further abuse, as it often is, of being blamed for their own being abused.

As is common to abusers, those who abuse language like to blame their abuse on those they abuse and whom they are using their language-abuse to abuse even further.   The substitution of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ for ‘torture’ is anything but “exactly the same” as the substitution of ‘physically challenged’ for ‘disabled,’ despite the author of the passage with which I began this post saying so.  In truth, the two operations operate in exactly opposite ways.  The first substitution is one in the service of the torturers, whereas the second is—or is at least intends to be—in the service of the tortured.  The conflation of those two opposed operations of verbal substitution, the washing out of the crucial, defining difference between them, can itself only serve the interests of the torturers, and not of the tortured.

What the author of the passage at issue goes on to say right after first equating those two utterly divergent operations of verbal substitution is that they both also operate the same way yet another imagined substitution would operate.  The two substitutions already considered, according to that author, both operate as would the substitution—patently absurd and offensive, as the author intends readers to hear—of ‘enhanced seduction technique’ for ‘rape.’

But if one asks oneself just who would ever suggest such a substitution as that third one, of ‘enhanced seduction technique’ for ‘rape’—that is, if one asks just whose interests would possibly be served by it—the answer would, I think, be obvious:  Only rapists themselves and their accomplices would be served by such a substitution, hardly the raped.

There are three sets of terms involved in the passage at issue.  The first set is ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ and ‘torture.’  The second is ‘physically challenged’ and ‘disabled.’  The third is ‘enhanced seduction technique’ and ‘rape.’  The author of the passage at issue is apparently so intent on verbally abusing those who would seek to avoid “forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against,” as my dictionary puts it, that he ends up (whether deliberately or not I will leave up to readers to decide) using the obvious analogy between substituting ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ for ‘torture,’ on the one hand, and substituting ‘enhanced seduction technique’ for ‘rape,’ on the other—to hide the dis-analogy between either of those two, on the one hand, and substituting ‘physically challenged’ for ‘disabled,’ on the other.  As I have already argued, that substitution is in not at all analogous to the other two.  The attempt to equate all three simply does not at all hold, since the substitution of ‘physically challenged’ for ‘disabled’ is, at least in its intention, done in the service of the abused, whereas the substitution of ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ for ‘torture,’ like that of ‘enhanced seduction technique’ for ‘rape,’ cannot, regardless of anyone’s intention, serve anyone but the abusers.

In fact, if one is looking for a genuine analogy to the substitution of ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ for ‘torture’ (or of ‘enhanced seduction technique’ for ‘rape’) then here is one:  As the substitution of ‘enhanced interrogation technique’ for ‘torture’ (or ‘enhanced seduction technique’ for ‘rape’) is in the service of the torturers (or the rapists), so is the use of the term ‘political correctness’ to stigmatize, ridicule, and silence anyone who dares to advocate avoidance of “forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against,” as my dictionary puts it, in the service of those who practice exclusion, marginalization, and insulting of the socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.   Both the substitution of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ for ‘torture,’ and the dominant contemporary usage of the term ‘political correctness,’ are designed to obfuscate, confuse, and hinder, if not altogether halt, serious, ethically and morally informed, genuine discussion.  They are designed to do the opposite of keeping the conversation going, to borrow a favorite phrase from Richard Rorty.

The replacement of the expression ‘torture’ by the expression ‘enhanced interrogation’ operates in exactly the same way as would the replacement of the expression ‘rape’ by the expression ‘enhanced seduction technique.’  Both in turn operate in exactly the same way as does the regnant usage of the expression ‘political correctness.’  All three cut off communication rather than fostering it.  They block off the stream of life in which alone expressions have meaning, as Wittgenstein said, and deal death instead.

All three are in the service of the traffic in trauma.


*His friend Paul Nissan’s novel Aden Araby, if I remember correctly.

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