Judicial Power and American Character: Censoring Ourselves in An Anxious Age

By Robert F. Nagel | Go to book overview

9
Censoring Ourselves

The words censorship and vilification conjure up ominous historical associations. We think, for instance, of the wholesale effort to keep abolitionist materials out of the antebellum South or the ugly name-calling by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Efforts to prevent change by the suppression of destabilizing messages have often had a grave and systematic character. It is odd, then, that a prevalent reaction when these tactics are used to induce change is humor. The attempts of progressive censors to sanitize the minutiae of our public vocabulary are so targeted and detailed as to verge on the frivolous. 1 Even the ever-lengthening list of words of opprobrium (ageist, Eurocentrist, logocentrist) seems to be too mechanical to convey real condemnation. Political correctness verges on self-parody. Its practitioners, although resolutely humorless while going about the endless task of improving the rest of us, are the source of considerable amounts of somewhat nervous comedy.

There are some solid reasons for the nervousness in our laughter. I suggested in the last two chapters that both suppression and name-calling are much more common than is often assumed. These are not devices used only by right-wing authoritarians and hypersensitive campus reformers. These tactics are built into contemporary life; they are practiced where we do not notice -- by highly trained administrators, elite scholars, and moderate judges. A second reason for nervousness is that progressive intolerance is more likely to gain official status when powerful groups view others as imperfect, weak, and in need of correction. Viewed this

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