Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1356, (10 - 16 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Who’s Afraid of Paul Bowles

It can only be politically incorrect to complain of political correctness. But — in the context of Ost-West exchange, especially tweety, web-bound Ost-West — it would be downright wrong not to. 

Not that I hope to redeem “a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous”, as Stephen Fry famously called Twitter. Still, the question has to be asked. How did it come to be that to say anything, anything at all of any public import, you must first go through a checklist? 

This isn’t a checklist of rules or precepts, what is worse. It is one of predetermined human categories: woman, black, queer… Impossibly superficial collective labels that neither clarify context nor improve ethics, but serve horrendous political agendas over and above the pseudo-moral message of their enforcers. 

However large or amorphous, groups are modelled on minority communities. They are imagined to live not only contiguously, in perpetual isolation, but also beyond any possibility of dialogue. The idea is to go through the checklist to make sure nothing you say will give offence. 

So, far from reflecting anything individual or principled, the checklist reduces humanity to cabals of potential offence takers. Those cabals have e-eloquent agents posing as benign influencers all over the Internet. They are determined to silence me. 

I cannot criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic. I cannot criticise Islamism (or any form of religiosity emanating from Muslims, however unreasonable or vicious) without being an Islamophobe. Back here in the Arab world, I cannot object to war-mongering sectarian incitement without being against independent journalism. I cannot object to civil war-inducing riot chic without being a counter-revolutionary, an agent of corrupt military-fascist dictatorships… 

In Paul Bowles’ 1945 story A Distant Episode, a European ethnographer has his tongue cut off by members of the Saharan tribe whose language he is studying. He becomes the caravan’s human pet, chained, covered in jingling bangles and forced to dance. 

Now, while the current discursive paranoia might have its origin in a relatively innocuous Anglophone sense of propriety — the compulsion to be nice — there is something deeply disturbing about the Internet holding and twisting my tongue. 

Political correctness and the minority logic that underlies it might appear to be diametrically opposed to Bowles’s contention. In fact, in its understanding of culture as a force to separate and reductively define identity, in its insistence on irreconcilable difference and in its ultimate denial of a shared humanity, multiculturalism is informed by the exact same terror and despair as A Distant Episode.

Let postcolonial theory, comp lit and all their webified holy cows make of me what they will. I will tell a different story.

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