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Saying The Right Thing

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The correction of the mistake

Translation of La corrección de la incorrección by Javier Cercas published in EL PAIS SEMANAL - 29-01-2006.

Writer A hears about the death of Writer B's father. A little later, when he meets Writer B, the only thing he can think to say is: “Please accept my sympathies”. “Thank you”, replies Writer B, “but that's only a cliché”. Writer A feels horribly ridiculous: he thinks that Writer B is right, that his own remark was trite, a commonplace saying, a piece of idle and fossilized thinking that is incapable of expressing his feelings and of communicating the sincerity of his compassion for the loss that Writer B has suffered. But then Writer A reconsiders. He thinks that what he has said is indeed a cliché, but one that has been validated through centuries of common use. Although the expression has been petrified and is used in television soap operas and slushy novels, there is no shorter and more precise way of expressing one's condolences. Just as there is no shorter and more precise way of communicating the love one feels for a woman than saying, “I love you”, in spite of the fact that this is also the form of words used in slushy novels and television soap operas. Musing on this, Writer A remembers the words of Martin Amis, “all writing is a campaign against the cliché”. Writer A agrees with Amis, that the cliché is a language, more precisely a thought that is fossilized and incapable of expressing the genuine, and given that a writer is always trying to come up with a individual vision of the genuine (although knowing that at the end of the day this is impossible), writing is not writing a cliché. In the ideal world, it is a cliché to refer to a seat using the word “seat” and a table using the word “table”. But going on from here, not even a writer can avoid using clichés completely, as he faces the risk of being unintelligible, stupid, autistic or repetitious. To write, like speaking, is to generalise, and generalising is the easiest way of making a mistake, but also the only way of being understood.

I don't know why I was thinking all this when, a few days ago, I read an interview published in Letras Libres with the novelist and editor Luis Magrinyà, where he declared himself very much in favour of political correctness, saying, “seeing that the reaction against it is often reactionary, harking back to the old times in which one could be racist and chauvinist without anything happening (does anything happen now anyway?)”. And it's about time someone said this. It is true that political correctness is often only a mask for traditional hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness, if not simple stupidity, but it is also true that going against political correctness, putting all of one's trust in the stupid or infantile positions of eccentricity, does not guarantee being right. So political incorrectness can be just as hypocritical, sanctimonious, stupid and conservative as political correctness. For example: it is incorrect politically to maintain that blacks are inferior to whites, but this does not take away from such an nonconformist statement (that blacks are inferior to whites) even the smallest part its falsehood, baseness or stupidity. Another example: it is incorrect politically to say that to resolve the debate over the new statute proposed by the Catalan parliament, one should bring the tanks out onto the streets. But this statement, although it could raise a smile if said by an comic or a cynic on a stage, would not amuse anyone if said in the middle of a discussion on the statute by a badly informed and anachronistic military man who believes it and is working towards that end (lets admit that I am talking about general Mena).

In spite of the fact that it aspires to be a collection of universal laws, political correctness does not exist in the abstract, but depends on who, how, when and where. What is politically incorrect in Madrid can be politically correct in Barcelona and vice versa. What is politically correct in the district of Salamanca can be politically incorrect in Vallecas and vice versa. What is politically incorrect in a newspaper, on radio or on television can be politically correct in another television channel, radio or newspaper and vice versa. The new political thinkers of the Spanish right have coined an ugly phrase to refer to political correctness: they call it, “buenismo” (something like “goodism” in English). Maybe one day we will have to discuss “malismo” (“badism”?). Political correctness is a form of moral and political cliché; political incorrectness is not far from being incorrect. To rely on a cliché indiscriminately leads to stupidity; rejecting it indiscriminately leads in the same direction. This is because the total war against the cliché always ends up with the cliché. An nonconformist can be valiant, effective and pleasant, provided that he hasn't fallen into the conformism of being nonconformist, which is the worst kind of conformism. It is beginning to be the case that there is nothing so correct politically as being incorrect politically.

[Translator's note. I'm not sure about the last sentence. Maybe it was meant to be: “It is beginning to be the case that there is nothing so correct politically as being politically correct.”]


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