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Political correctness puts the focus on words, not realities

In the continuing political-correctness controversy, a giant paradox leaps to view: The effort to rid language of violence and abuse gathers strength as society becomes more violent and abusive.

This is not cause and effect, as if improved language causes social regression, but may be the reverse: A deteriorating society may accelerate efforts to sanitize communication. Political correctness is a retreat masquerading as an advance. Stymied by vast social ills, some individuals, especially students and professors, feel impelled to ferret out racist or sexist comments. If we cannot reform society, goes the implicit reasoning, we can at least clean up objectionable language and abusive gestures. Racism seems intractable, but racist comments, jokes and perhaps research might be eliminated.

After all, aren't words becoming more real all the time? Once labor consisted of weaving, plowing the land or pounding a nail; it still does, but for fewer and fewer. More people work with words through telephones, paper, computers, conferences and discussions. There are more teachers than coal miners, more secretaries than farmers.

During and after work, we are inundated by words: chatter, memos, images, commercials, news, sound-bites. We are aware of a new reality that is largely symbolic and linguistic.

Nowhere is this symbolic world embraced so strongly as on college campuses. Even ambiguous or complex talk can be examined, monitored _ and altered; this is less possible with an economic reality. Who offers a linguistic solution to homelessness?

But for English professors, the world is a text; for law professors, it is a statute. Almost every school that passed a speech code had its own law school, where the code was hatched. Law schools produce law professors who produce laws for schools. On the campus, people watch their language and gestures. Outside its boundaries, racism and violence thrive.

The language reformers are guilty, however inadvertently, of shifting attention from reality to its idiom. Distinguished urban universities are often a stone's throw from major ghettos; Columbia University, Boston University, the University of Chicago and Yale University border on urban wastelands _ and Harvard, MIT, UCLA and Berkeley are not much farther away. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 burned up to the edge of the University of Southern California. On green campuses, proper and respectful language fills the air, while blocks away poverty and violence mock this gentility.

Conservatives are more than happy to avert their eyes from social ills and join in the word games. Indeed they are the original players, having always preferred targeting ideas and opinions to indicting social and economic realities.

Edmund Burke in that classic of conservatism, "Reflections on the Revolution in France," charged that the ideas of philosophers gave rise to the French Revolution. Two centuries later Burke's tilt still shapes conservative thinking: Corrosive realities recede before corrosive ideas. It is not injustice but new ideas of justice that bring about discontent. It is not riots but political correctness that obsesses conservative political intellectuals today.

The politically correct of the left and right share a cultural schizophrenia: Words excite them, not reality. The classic example was the response of the National Rifle Association to the song Cop Killer by rap singer Ice T.

The NRA issued statements and took out newspaper advertisements offering "full legal and financial resources" to any police or their kin "shot or killed by someone shown to be influenced by this incitement and provocation." The NRA affirmed that "this isn't about freedom of speech." In a nice touch, the group drew upon academics for support: "Researchers indicate a causal link between violent behavior and violence in the media. These songs are an outrage."

This is the same organization that opposes curbing the sale of so-called "cop-killer" ammunition, banning lethal assault weapons and requiring strict gun registration. Words, not guns, are the menace.

Few can doubt the increasing and catastrophic amount of violence in American society. Yet the left and right prefer to talk about talk. "Aren't those lyrics too violent?" asks the NRA member on the way to the gun shop. "Wasn't that joke racist?" asks the literature professor as she glides past the devastated inner city in her Volvo.

In a class I was teaching one student referred to another as an "Oriental." There was a collective gasp. I tried to explain no insult was intended. In any event, we had other things to figure out. Let it ride, I said. We were adults. We could shrug off some names. Of course, I was wrong.

Russell Jacoby is the author of Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America to be published in April by Doubleday.

Special to the Washington Post