Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Political Correctness"

A great op-ed by Doris Lessing, in today's New York Times is a great antidote to another op-ed earlier in the week by Slavoj Zizek on Tibet and China. Some particularly juicy paragraphs from Lessing:

A successor to “commitment” is “raising consciousness.” This is double-edged. The people whose consciousness is being raised may be given information they most desperately lack and need, may be given moral support they need. But the process nearly always means that the pupil gets only the propaganda the instructor approves of. “Raising consciousness,” like “commitment,” like “political correctness,” is a continuation of that old bully, the party line.

A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is “about” something or other. I wrote a story, “The Fifth Child,” which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on.....

A professor friend describes how when students kept walking out of classes on genetics and boycotting visiting lecturers whose points of view did not coincide with their ideology, he invited them to his study for discussion and for viewing a video of the actual facts. Half a dozen youngsters in their uniform of jeans and T-shirts filed in, sat down, kept silent while he reasoned with them, kept their eyes down while he ran the video and then, as one person, marched out. A demonstration — they might very well have been shocked to hear — which was a mirror of Communist behavior, an acting out, a visual representation of the closed minds of young Communist activists.


As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, I was surfeited with the type of political correctness she calls "raising consciousness" - in several course in the sociology and women's studies departments I took courses that were designed to indoctrinate the students in the instructor's New Left political beliefs - rather than in teaching us how to think critically about the topics of the courses. As a professor now I try to avoid indoctrinating my students. I'm sure that I don't always succeed, but I think it's much more important to teach students critical thinking skills, how to examine evidence, primary documents, and make good arguments.

To return to Zizek's op-ed - it strikes me an attempt at a sophisticated defense of the Chinese government's policy to suppress Tibetan culture. (I don't think it's actually sophisticated because his purpose comes out pretty clearly). He uses a common rhetorical technique - since Western countries did it before, it must not be so bad, and in any case, since we are also guilty, we have no basis to criticize non-Westerners for doing something that we currently find repugnant.

Before we explode in rage that Chinese Communist totalitarianism now wants to control even the lives of its subjects after their deaths, we should remember that such measures are not unknown to European history. The Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the first step toward the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years’ War, declared the local prince’s religion to be the official faith of a region or country (“cuius regio, eius religio”). The goal was to end violence between German Catholics and Lutherans, but it also meant that when a new ruler of a different religion took power, large groups had to convert. Thus the first big institutional move toward religious tolerance in modern Europe involved a paradox of the same type as that of Order No. 5: your religious belief, a matter of your innermost spiritual experience, is regulated by the whims of your secular leader.


Therefore, it's not so bad that the Chinese have a systematic policy to destroy Tibetan Buddhist culture and religion - it's no worse than what happened between Catholics and Protestants, and since that was so successful in Europe, it probably won't be so bad in Tibet. This, of course, completely ignores the historical context, in which Tibet was militarily conquered by China, leading to the deaths of thousands of Tibetans, the closing of the monestaries, etc.

His second rhetorical device involves smearing the subject of his polemic - Tibetan Buddhism. He says:

In the same vein, the problem with Tibetan Buddhism resides in an obvious fact that many Western enthusiasts conveniently forget: the traditional political structure of Tibet is theocracy, with the Dalai Lama at the center. He unites religious and secular power — so when we are talking about the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, we are taking about choosing a head of state. It is strange to hear self-described democracy advocates who denounce Chinese persecution of followers of the Dalai Lama — a non-democratically elected leader if there ever was one.


So that means that one can only denounce persecution of other people if they are already perfect? So then, to take another example, it's okay for the Egyptian government to torture members of the Muslim Brotherhood whom it has imprisoned because after all they also represent a theocratic political movement? It seems to me that regardless of one's own beliefs, it's still wrong to invade a country and suppress its religious culture. Zizek was opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the same anti-imperialist grounds - but does anti-imperialism only matter when the empire is western?

Then there is the matter of what the present Dalai Lama has to say about democracy. On his official website, there is a quotation from a recent speech:

Madrid, Spain, 9 September 2007 (AP) - The Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, defended democracy as a means of decision-making for his native Tibet at a press conference Sunday in the Spanish city of Barcelona. The exiled leader, who is in Spain to open a new Tibet House Foundation headquarters, said it was up to the Spanish people to resolve their own regional issues.

"I think that is up to you, no?" the Dalai Lama said when asked how Spanish regions could best achieve self-determination. "Democracy allows for freedom of expression and for the free election of parties," he said. He also said his own fate was up to the people of Tibet. "The future of the Dalai Lama will depend on what the people of Tibet want," he said.


In an article from 1993 on the same website, lays out plans for a democratic Tibet:

I have long looked forward to the time when we could devise a political system, suited both to our traditions and to the demands of the modern world. A democracy that has nonviolence and peace at its roots. We have recently embarked on changes that will further democratize and strengthen our administration in exile. For many reasons, I have decided that I will not be the head of, or play any role in the government when Tibet becomes independent. The future head of the Tibetan Government must be someone popularly elected by the people. There are many advantages to such a step and it will enable us to become a true and complete democracy. I hope that these moves will allow the people of Tibet to have a clear say in determining the future of their country.


Since this article was written almost fifteen years ago, it seems to me that if Zizek really wanted to know what the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile thought about democracy, he could have found out as easily as I just did - by Googling "Dalai Lama" and "democracy." Or perhaps he could actually have done some research into the history of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and the development of the Tibetan exile community. But instead, it was much easier simply to use simple rhetorical technques that are designed to stop his readers' actually thinking about the subject he has raised.

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