Doris Lessing's Impatience With Political Correctness

As we bid Lessing farewell, the blight she spoke of—“political correctness” and, in particular, its toxic feminist strain—is on the move again.

The tributes to Doris Lessing, the novelist and Nobel Prize laureate who died on November 17 at 94, have given scant attention to one aspect of her remarkable career: this daughter of the left, an ex-communist and onetime feminist icon, emerged as a harsh critic of left-wing cultural ideology and of feminism in its current incarnation.

Over 20 years ago, I heard Lessing speak at a conference on intellectuals and social change in Eastern Europe at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. It was 1992, the dust still settling from the collapse of the Soviet empire. Lessing opened her memorable talk with a warning: “While we have seen the apparent death of Communism, ways of thinking that were born under Communism or strengthened by Communism still govern our lives.” She was not talking about the East but the West, where coercive “social justice” had reinvented itself as “antiracism,” feminism, and so forth. “Political correctness” had become, Lessing said, “a kind of mildew blighting the whole world,” particularly academic and intellectual circles—a “self-perpetuating machine for dulling thought.”

Those remarks (published in abridged form in the New York Times Book Review) have lost none of their relevance. Unlike some critics on the right, Lessing readily acknowledged that encouraging people to “re-examine attitudes” toward gender, race, and other areas of traditional prejudice was a good thing. Unfortunately, “for every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to look carefully at our assumptions, there are twenty rabble-rousers whose real motive is a desire for power.”

In a later interview with Salon.com, Lessing elaborated on the traits that made “political correctness” an heir to pro-Communist “progressive thinking”: “a need to oversimplify [and] control,” intolerance toward disagreement, and “an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority.”

On other occasions, she directed her critique more specifically at feminism. It was a natural subject for Lessing, whose 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, was hailed as a landmark work about the lives of women navigating the uncertain terrain of their new freedoms. (It is a measure of that era’s very real sexism that even admiring reviews were often laced with condescension: in The New Republic, Irving Howe compared Lessing only to other female authors and commended her for eschewing “those displays of virtuoso bitchiness which are the blood and joy of certain American lady writers.”)

Lessing always resisted attempts to conscript her into the sisterhood—and not just, as some suggest, because she rebelled against all labels and pressures but because of fundamental disagreement with feminism’s direction.

In 2001, speaking at the Edinburgh Book festival, Lessing caused shock waves with a blistering indictment of the “rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed,” including boy-bashing in schools. (She recounted sitting in on a class in which the teacher blamed all wars on male violence while “the little boys sat there crumpled, apologising for their existence.”) Pulling no punches, Lessing declared, “The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man and no one protests. Men seem to be so cowed that they can't fight back, and it is time they did.”

This was no isolated outburst. In a New York Times Magazine interview seven years later, Lessing was even more scathing: the feminist movement, she said, had produced some “monstrous women” by encouraging women to be “critical and unpleasant” at men’s expense.

Yet Lessing never rejected the ideals of equality and liberation. Her final novel, Alfred and Emily (2008), reimagined the life of her difficult mother in an alternate world where she got the chance to be a pioneering educator rather than a frustrated housewife. In her remarks at the Edinburgh festival, she stressed that “great things have been achieved through feminism,” including the rise of “many wonderful, clever, powerful women”—much as she deplored the male-bashing that came with those gains. Far from re-embracing a traditional view of the sexes, Lessing affirmed that “men and women have much more in common than they are separated”; ironically, this feminist belief put her at odds with feminists who wanted “oversimplified statements about men and women.” Lessing was particularly impatient with the fixation on male sexual misconduct, mocking supposedly liberated women who “feel demeaned by a suggestive remark.”

Commenting on the Edinburgh festival brouhaha, London Daily Telegraph columnist Mary Kenny suggested that Lessing’s save-the-males stance reflected an old woman’s maternal protectiveness. But in fact, Lessing always took a nuanced view of the battle of the sexes. Her fiction was never without sympathetic male characters, and the unsympathetic ones were often more pitiful than powerful. In the 1963 short story, “One off the Short List” (my first introduction to Lessing’s work in a college class), the protagonist, a philandering husband and mediocre journalist, pursues a successful female artist for an ego-boosting conquest, persisting until she gives in just to “get it over with.” The man knows he is essentially forcing the woman into bed; yet, far from being a victim, she clearly has the upper hand while he is left humiliated.

Even at her most male-friendly, Lessing acknowledged there were still women’s issues to be addressed. “Real equality comes when child care is sorted out,” she said at the Edinburgh event. One may quibble with her apparent belief that “changing laws” was the answer, or even ask whether full equality in this area is possible or desirable to most people (and, specifically, most women). Yet, if nothing else, Lessing raised the right questions and urged feminists to focus on actual issues instead of railing at “beastly men.”

As we bid Lessing farewell, the blight she spoke of—“political correctness” and, in particular, its toxic feminist strain—is on the move again. Her trenchant critiques, which some on the left would like to brush off as mere contrarian “crankiness,” should be heeded by anyone truly concerned with justice for all.

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  • Sunken Idaho||

    For her Salon interview: "The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority." Sound like anybody we know?

  • fish||

    Sound like anybody we know?

    You're in Fists chair......

  • Zeb||

    Sounds like an awful lot of people I know.

  • Libertymike||

    Like those who insist that they are above pigskin persiflage?

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    My decidedly non-PC ass dismisses Ms. Lessing because she was an Islamist - hardly an enlightened philosophy in the least.

    Males do make up the large majority of warmongers. So call us out on it.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Don't know much about Lessing, but there's this from one of her obituaries:

    "...she could find spiritual satisfaction in Sufism, an aspect of Islam, while at the same time calling Islam itself one of “these bloody, bloody religions”.

    "In 1986, her love-hate relationship with Islam was reinforced by a visit to Afghanistan as a guest of Afghan Aid. She supported the cause of the Mujahadeen, embarked on a flurry of fundraising activities on their behalf while at the same time loathing and deploring the treatment accorded Muslim women."

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/new.....tuary.html

  • John||

    Shreek is retarded and a racist. You can't expect him to know that Sufism is not mainstream Islam much less radical Islam.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    I didn't call her "radical". Religion poisons the mind though - radical or not.

  • fish||

    Religion poisons the mind though - radical or not.

    I concur...state worship is a mind killer.

  • KPres||

    Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and while I think most westerners who venture into that kind of thing are basically flakes (she was a product of the 60s, after all), it's at least more rationally appealing than the standard fundy versions of religion. People that like Spinoza, who you've mentioned approvingly, would find themselves at home in Sufism, as long as you can get past the figurative language.

  • ||

    As a Catholic I invite you to perform unlikely and obscene acts on yourself.

    The atheist regimes of Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Ceausescu's Romania and the rest show just how bad things wold be withOUT God.

  • BigT||

    As a Catholic I invite you to perform unlikely and obscene acts on yourself.

    Maybe you should demonstrate a few. After all, the Inquisition was quite a creative effort by the church. None of those dictators you mention acted on behalf of non-religion; they merely didn't believe in invisible friends.

  • Ketogenic Paleo||

    Hitler is perfect proof of how dangerous religion can be, especially when allowed to enter the realm of politics.
    See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-E9EmeFXjk
    All the rest are marxist, a political utopian ideology that's similar to religion.

  • ||

    I didn't call her "radical". Religion poisons the mind though - radical or not.

    So MLK and Gandhi should be dismissed as well?

    Not to mention Clinton and Obama who are both avowed Christians.

  • Ketogenic Paleo||

    Sufism is the spiritual sect of Islam and the only one that preaches non-violence.
    For obvious reasons it tends to suffer persecution from the other pro-violence sects.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Yeah, when women are in power they don't get into wars. Look at Boadicea, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, and other pacifists.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    And look at Elizabeth I vs. Mary Queen of Scots - meee-ow!

  • ||

    Don't be dissing on Mary!!

    I have been watching Reign and she is super hot.

  • SIV||

    Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher...

  • fish||

    What difference at this point does it make?”

  • Restoras||

    C'mon you guys! Quit harshing and Shreeks mellow!

  • TheZeitgeist||

    At least Eleanor of Aquitaine was hot. A foundering, bloody Crusade never looked sexier than when she was running one.

  • Palin's Buttplug||

    "Majority" Edward. Learn to read. You did give the Peanuts a little hope though.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    No, you half-wit. EvH is pointing out that the evidence suggests that your thesis is completely, utterly, false. And does a damned fine job of it, at that. The fact is that women in power (given the comparatively small sample size) have shown themselves no more reluctant than men to engage in war as a means of pursuing state policy. And ultimately, this is something that an understanding of geopolitics beyond an elementary school level ("we should alllll play niiiicccce") would make abundantly clear. Nations don't go to war because of the personal character of the leadership. They go to war because of the perceived state of their enduring interests.

  • Dweebston||

    Also: democracies don't go to war with one-another. FACT.

  • ||

    Golda Meir.

  • ||

    Joan of Arc.

  • KPres||

    Unless the neocons can pull a candidate out of their ass, I'd say without question that Hillary Clinton will be the nominee in the next election most likely to engage the US in some ill-fated international conflict.

  • fish||

    See dummy...when you stay on your meds you occasionally make comments worthy of discussion.

    It really is a case of "better living through chemistry".

  • ||

    Whose this "us" that you speak of?

  • fish||

    Maybe he is referring to the other rectal appliances?

  • Jordan||

    Males do make up the large majority of warmongers. So call us out on it.

    Collectivist spotted.

  • ReasonableS||

    "Collectivist spotted."

    How is this different that political correctness. You are identifying someone with a label that will probably prove to be unpopular with this demographic. You are inviting others who believe as you do perhaps convinced of your own moral superiority to harass and perhaps silence the ideas of the person.

    So what makes you different than the PC bullies other than you being sure you are right?

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Males do make up the large majority of warmongers.

    If women ran the world there wouldn't be any wars. Just a major international crisis every 28 days.

  • Libertymike||

    Well, to be super accurate, the blood wouldn't necessary flow every 29 days; sometimes the crises would be 29 days apart and at other times, the crises would be 27 days apart....

  • ||

    ...attributed to...Robin Williams.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Geez. And here I was thinking I was being original.

  • Brian||

    "Males do make up the large majority of warmongers. So call us out on it."

    Calling men out collectively for the conduct of rulers is nonsensical.

  • wwhorton||

    Males also make up the majority of professional bass fisherpersons (just made that word up), which means absolutely nothing with regard to the likelihood of being a professional sportsfisher (also that) or to the nature of men generally.

  • Alan||

    A closer look at history reveals many female warmongers, from the Spartan mothers who enjoined their sons to return from battle with their shield or on it, to the Confederate and British women who refused to have any relations with men who had not signed up for the War Between the States and the Great War, respectively.

  • fish||

    the feminist movement, she said, had produced some “monstrous women” by encouraging women to be “critical and unpleasant” at men’s expense.

    MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

    /marcotte

  • Tommy_Grand||

    Good article.

  • Contemplationist||

    She helped to bully and demolish the sanest, most humane state in all of African history - Rhodesia. She was a commie most of her life.
    http://theden.tv/2013/11/21/do.....ful-idiot/

    Sorry, no props at all. Rot in hell.

  • ||

    She spent a lifetime building up a system of thinking that led to the PC idiocy we now have and lost patience for it?

    Hmm.

    I never found people of this sort all that bright - especially people easily offended. I know some brilliant people - doctors, CFO's etc. - who blindly go PC and it sickens me.

    In a previous comment I mentioned how a couple of these successful individuals to me to task for using the word 'retard' in an email.

    Did I mention it's a hockey pool with no retards connected to it? Apparently, midget, fat and even fag has been tolerated but all of a sudden - whoa! - they drew an arbitrary line at retard.

    I was stunned. I got the usual 'how would like it if' fuckhead routine. The irony is my family is replete with mental illness and they still had the balls to tell me some people in the pool have it worse than me. Projection at its worse. As my wife noted, 'if there's someone who should be offended it's you.'

    I asked to give me names and if I truly offended someone I'd consider apologizing. Of course, no names were forthcoming suggesting to me they were just reacting to society's cues as to what words are acceptable in contemporary discourse.

    Not only that, I invited them to read a featured article I wrote about mentally challenged issues - including autism - for a major publication. No one ever contacted me. Says a lot, n'est pas?

    Naturally, I told them in a roundabout way to fuck off.

  • ||

    Oh. And they banned swearing.

  • ReasonableS||

    Vulgar language can be disruptive. Sometimes when they try to ban swearing what they are trying to do is ban the ability to disrupt.

    Why not let your ideas disrupt a conversation instead of how you try to communicate those ideas?

  • ||

    It's a fucking HOCKEY POOL.

    Jesus Christ.

  • ||

    And the comments were generic like "fuck, did you see last night's game" "yeah it was fucking awesome!"

    Nothing disruptive. No personal attacks.

  • ReasonableS||

    That appears to be appropriate for the demographic. It sounds like they overreacted or were reaching out to a larger demographic that would find such language offensive. I don't see how they gain power by banning such language so it can't be politically correct. However if the hockey pool pulls in more money by broadening its demographic then I guess that could be considered a grab for financial power. In that case it could be considered political correctness because they were putting their desire for more money over the existing members' fun.

    I would expect people to try to think through the motivations of others though instead of just labeling them politically correct off the bat. I think that is the real problem with political correctness and anti-political correctness, very few people involved in either side think things through.

  • Ketogenic Paleo||

    Part of the problem with trying to ban the word "retard", is it's basically never used on actual retards (assuming you can define what a retard is - low IQ? Slurred speech? Learning disability? Mental disability?).
    It's used to mock people who should know better. Like accusing bad drivers of being blind

  • ||

    Precisely. No harm was meant but again it was in a closed, private environment where I knew no one was actually a 'retard' of whatever sort as you described.

  • Knarf Yenrab (prev. An0nB0t)||

    If you would stick to a single handle, we'd be far more likely to engage you and whatever brand of "white identification" you want to preach.

  • ||

    Wha?

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    F--- Ideology!!!! Forward March!!! Left, Right. Left, Right. Left Right. Right, Left. Right, Left. Right, Left. What a barrel of crap all of it is. So called intellectuals spend their entire f---ing lives promoting some sort of b s type of thinking, and then trash it at the last minute as if they never believed in it at all. F--- ALL OF THEM!!!! All kinds of movements and ideologies, which are just like all those pretty colored diapers advertised out there. But they all end up loaded with s--t!!!!! Nothing but claptrap, bum wad, hogwash and drivel. Remember the anti-feminist slogan back in the day: Find Em, Feel Em, F--- Em, and Forget Em. Ha.

  • KPres||

    It's Reason, you don't have to mask your words. Kind of ironic, though.

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    Does my comment look liked it's "masked"?

  • wwhorton||

    F--- no, bro!

  • ReasonableS||

    Ah, but within the choice of being able to use vulgar language is the choice to mask it or not use it at all.

  • Harvard||

    [So called intellectuals spend their entire f---ing lives promoting some sort of b s type of thinking, and then trash it at the last minute as if they never believed in it at all. ]

    So I can look for Pelosi, Boxer and Jackson Lee to become intelligent capitalists any day now?

  • The Last American Hero||

    No, but don't be surprised if Krugnuts rediscovers Adam Smith before the end.

  • ||

    Adam Smith constructed the trade theory of absolute advantage.

    It was disproved with the law of comparative advantage but Krugman still clenches to the Adam Smith version.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    No, but in his memoirs, Barack Obama will explain that he was always a libertarian sleeper agent working to discredit progressivism all along.

    The memoir will be entitled "Dreams of My Koch Funding".

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    The three people you mention already are capitalists. In this case, State Capitalists. Nice posting with you ace.

  • wwhorton||

    Well, supposedly Lenin recanted on his deathbed.

  • lap83||

    As a female who doesnt care what others think of my politics, I dont even do the "feminism has done great things but..." No. Feminism is just bad. Yes sexism exists among men. But politics doesnt change that. It only makes it worse because then it looks like you cant do shit for yourself.

  • On The Road To Mandalay||

    So what are your politics?

  • ||

    Feminism is just bad.

    Depends on what you call feminism.

    Often women's suffrage is added into the mix of feminism and that is a great thing.

  • Harvard||

    Um.... count me as a "not sure about that".

  • ReasonableS||

    You should read more history of feminism. Without the pioneers who came before you wouldn't be in a position to do things for yourself that you can now do. Things are good now and demonstrating your ability goes a long way now, but in the past even that wasn't enough for all but an extreme minority of exceptional women who had the highest of abilities and the best of circumstances either by the help of sympathetic men or by chance.

  • ||

    You should read more history of feminism.

    Well as I mentioned suffrage above there are different definitions as to what the history of feminism is.

    Can current feminist critical theory really draw its linage from the suffrage movement?

  • ReasonableS||

    Not really. The history of feminism is a history of different movements. Even the struggle to gain the vote for women wasn't uniform. The feminist movements that got most of the attention were usually driven by white middle class women, but there were movements that centered around poor and Afro-American women as well.

  • Ketogenic Paleo||

    20-min video posing a simple question to feminists they never seem to be able to answer:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_iTV3cQFoM

    Longer video: Karen Straughan making a speech at NY Libertarian convention
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LkYDpQQVJ0

  • wadair||

    Slightly OT: Speaking of stupid PC and hypocrisy, NPR says that Gore is concerned "about the impacts of animal production on climate change." Methinks he is more concerned about how his non-green lifestyle looks.

    Al Gore Goes Vegan, Following In Footsteps Of Bill Clinton

  • ZackTheHypochondriac||

    I'm more concerned about the impacts of animal production on the animals. Gore, like Baldwin, strikes me as the kind of person who would do this just for show and I would not be surprised if either ate animals when no one is looking. If I have misjudged either then they have my sincere apologies.

  • soflarider||

    Gore strikes me more as the type who would invest in farms and use his political influence to promote some type of animal protein cap and trade system.

  • Ketogenic Paleo||

    Anybody who's seriously worried about the impact of meat production on the environment should read Meat: A Benign Extravagance. Written by a vegan-supporting omnivorous hippie permaculture nerd, it covers all sides of the debate and is a great tool for debating the veganbots.

  • J2Hess||

    Well, its a bit inconvenient to get the book at the minute, so I can't assess the arguments. But I can ask, does he deal with how the coversion of forest to grazing land and the introduction of methane-producing cows contributes to altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the climate?

    Signed, not a veganbot and not yourbot either.

  • ReasonableS||

    This article is pretty much the same as political correctness except instead of trying to be polite to everyone to gain political power Cathy Young is being rude to people unpopular with her target audience and she is doing it under the cover of a celebrity who is no longer around to disagree with her.

    While it is true there are some feminist who are willing to distort the truth to gain power, it is also true that some people who dislike feminism are willing to create straw feminist to create the toxic feminist strain.

    Just be as objective as possible. You can't go wrong with that when it comes to learning. Logic isn't always as easy to persuade others to your point of view, but it is a lot more honest than the name calling and emotional attacks that quite a people do here in the comments section and in some of the articles.

  • Ketogenic Paleo||

    y u no make sence?


    20-min video posing a simple question to feminists they never seem to be able to answer:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_iTV3cQFoM

    Longer video: Karen Straughan making a speech at NY Libertarian convention
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LkYDpQQVJ0

  • ReasonableS||

    What is it you are having difficulty understanding?

    If you define political correctness as pretending to support a cause that you don't believe in just to gain political power then pretending to oppose a cause that you don't care about to gain political power is the same thing. Being for gay marriage and only using respectful names for gays to gain political support is the same as opposing gay marriage and using rude names for gays to gain political support.

    People who constantly complain about political correctness are quite often similar to people who constantly criticize political correctness. They don't care about political correctness either way, they only care about using it as a wedge issue.

    As for Karen Straughan she presents a poorly thought out argument of "if feminist think that the Patriarchy still exist then feminist believe that women are inherently inferior to men". Instead of looking to YouTube comments for a reasonable discussion on Patriarchy she could just read the wiki entry on it. In the US we no longer live in a Patriarchy, but we do live in a society with Patriarchal elements most of which are no longer institutional thanks to the work of men and women who worked to liberate women and men.

  • Smack MacDougal||

    At a scant 78 pages, Doris Lessing's Prisons we choose to live inside is a worthy, must-read for any liberty-leaning individualist.

    Lessing presents a clear picture of group dynamics and how individuals turn into monsterous cogs when shielded by group conformity.

  • J2Hess||

    Young's claim that "'political correctness' and, in particular, its toxic feminist strain—is on the move again" brings to mind another current article on the tendency of the media to invent a crime wave with minimal evidence and no analysis.

    There have always been monstrous women; feminism didn't create them as much as give them an excuse. There have always been radicals in any movement who take ideals to extremes and provide the opposition with an easy target and a useful icon to use in misrepresenting the mainstream.

    If political correctness is “a need to oversimplify [and] control,” intolerance toward disagreement, and “an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority”, can we really attribute it only to progressives or the left? What is the equivalent label for the right?

    I became a feminist in 1968 when two college students told my high school class that feminism means that women have the same freedom to chose their roles in life that men do. Everything else is secondary.

  • juliajuli145||

    until I looked at the check which was of $4814, I be certain that...my... mom in-law could actually bringing home money in there spare time on-line.. there aunt started doing this for under 20 months and at present cleared the debts on their appartment and got a top of the range Ford Mustang. why not try this out

    ==============================
    http://www.fb49.com
    ==============================

  • Alan||

    Thanks Cathy for the remembrance of a decent feminist. It is good to remember that at least a few are serious about equality and judging a person on their individual merits.

  • Giulio Prisco||

    I totally agree with Lessing, and I think her "contrarian crankiness" is needed to counterbalance the dull, unthinking politically correctness of contemporary progressive circless.

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