Poised between two Thanksgivings — Canadian and American — I am indulging in a moment of annoyance directed at anyone who tells me what to think or how to feel at the privacy of my own dinner table. I am particularly annoyed at a political friend who has attacked me for celebrating the genocide of native Americans. (BTW, any link between Thanksgiving and genocide is based on utterly false history. In fact, standard accounts of Thanksgiving are flatly wrong. See “What Really Happened at Plymouth” by Murray Rothbard at the lewrockwell site.)
And, yet, this is what the world has come to. Everyone monitors everyone else’s words and thoughts for their level of political correct purity. God forbid you tell a joke that could be construed as racist or express a doubt about gay marriage because you think all marriages should be private contracts. And now it has come down to being an advocate of genocide if you enjoy the smell of Thanksgiving turkey because it smells like happy memories. It is presumptuous in the extreme for anyone to reach inside my kitchen and lecture me on the why, why not and how I should eat a meal.
Personally, I blame the philosopher Michel Foucault, and not merely because he was French.
Foucault had a pivotal influence on political correctness and on the development of the idea that everything one person thinks or says everyone else’s business. Why? He believed that the collective “texts” of society defined everything about the human beings within it.
Foucault’s specialty was the interpretation and meaning of language. He viewed words and culture as so powerful that they literally created reality. Foucault’s landmark book Les mots et les choses (Words and Things) appeared in 1966. He argued that history and culture are indispensable in understanding matters like sexuality. That’s not a controversial theory.
Then he introduced the concept of an “episteme” or “knowledge” in Greek. An episteme of a society is its self-enclosed totality that includes language, attitudes, ideas, science… It is the way that a specific society or era approaches the world. As history progresses, one episteme replaces another. That of the Middle Ages is replaced by that of the Renaissance and, then, a new era dawns. The episteme determines who the people of that era are.
Foucault meant this literally. Consider the human body. Most people assume there is a pre-cultural human body; they assume there is a permanence to mankind’s biology. But for Foucault, the human body existed in the episteme, and it was constructed by society; in other words, it is a social construct. In his treatise The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault presented the idea of the “medical gaze.” The medical gaze was said to determine the human body by objectifying it and so converting into a thing that medicine could control, for example through surgery. But the medical gaze of the eighteenth century was different from that of the nineteenth century. The episteme was different. Therefore, in the eighteenth century, the human body was literally different from the human body of the nineteenth century. The body was constructed by every society that gazed at it.
Take another example: the Victorian era of repressed sexuality. A common manner of analysis is to look at the era’s plays and literature, its songs and newspapers, and to conclude that they reflected a sexually repressed society. Foucault saw the contrary. To him, the sexually repressed society was a creation and reflection of the texts. Like the human body, there was no set or biological sexuality. It was a social construct.
“Sexuality as a social construct” is the mirror image of sexual essentialism, which views sex as a natural force that exists prior to society. Certainly, sexuality is influenced by society but it is not determined by it. Sexual essentialism claims there is something natural or biological about deeply felt urges such as motherhood, heterosexuality or homosexuality. By contrast, Foucault saw biology and sexuality as being written on shifting sand. Even deeply felt sexual preferences such as heterosexuality or homosexuality had been determined by the texts.
To some social radicals, like gender feminists, sex as a social construct is good news. After all, if sex has been constructed by the texts, then it can be deconstructed in the same manner and put back together correctly. That’s why gender feminists seek to control one of the most powerful texts – pornography. That’s why they consider a woman’s body to be objectified and defined by pornography, rather as the medical gaze objectifies all bodies.
How does the foregoing relate back to my Thanksgiving annoyance? Today, many who forcibly thrust their political critiques onto others do so because the idea of social construction has become pervasive. They may have never heard the name “Foucault,” they may be unable to define “political correctness” but the concept has been pounded into society’s psyche for decades now. It is embedded. If someone believes that my words and attitudes exert a defining and destructive influence upon him – if my words and attitudes are the literal equivalent of acts of attack – then no civil conversation can take place. My protestation “but I have a right to an opinion” loses all force because what he will hear me saying is “I have a right to assault you.”
All in all, it leaves me tempted to adopt the approach of the anarchist Little Black Star (LBS) in his admirable blog post “Thanksgiving vs. Anti-Thanksgiving: A Political Analysis.” Because he celebrates Thanksgiving, he receives hate mail every year with his favorite being from a self-described anarchist and vegetarian. It read, “who calls Thanksgiving a holiday: F*** YOU. Read a f***ing book.” (The asterisks were not included.)
He responded, “Serious?” The last book he read was on the Oregon Trail and it hadn’t taught him a thing about Thanksgiving. He requested, “Please angry people, be specific!….You know, being all pissed off and yelling “F*** YOU” to people isn’t going to make them be all like “gee, you’re right, let me re-examine my entire lifestyle.” It’s going to make them say “pass me a turkey leg and f*** you too.”
Of course, saying “Foucault you” works for me.
Tags: political correctness