I might have been dismissive of Goldsmith’s analysis in his ‘An Enquiry Concerning into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe’. To be fair I am dismissive of most grand, overarching theories. I once wrote an essay for my degree in which I ridiculed Hegel, coming up with three different, and increasingly ridiculous ways to explain the changes in tragedy that he explained through his big theory.
Yet, Goldsmith’s notion of an age of poets, philosophers, then critics can (I think) be applied to the eighteenth century notion of politeness. The original idea was that people are like rocks with sharp edges and their rubbing up against each other in polite conversation would smooth them, helping individuals and society.
By the time we meet the Panacean Society and their politeness-based road to heaven, those ideals had been codified into strict and peculiar rules about not scraping forks on plates, avoiding noisy toast-munching and putting lots of cherries in cakes. The aim of this was to be ‘comfortable to live with’, a very similar aim to that espoused by the original enthusiasts of politeness but the rule-makers had come in and sprinkled their magic. For the Panaceans, adhering to the very letter of the laws was vitally important, a key component in the process of Overcoming, the act of self-improvement which would lead to God’s kingdom on Earth.
Political correctness seems to be a renaissance in the original notions of politeness. The aim towards careful thinking about speech to oil the gears and smooth the paths of an increasingly varied and multicultural society seems a necessity in the modern age. Like the increased urbanisation and population density required something like politeness, so globalisation requires something like political correctness.
But have we reached its critic age? The original poets and philosophers who originated the notions in the seventies and eighties are either dying out or falling foul of the ideas they originated. Are we at the pinkie-out, covering-table-leg stage of political correctness? I have no idea but if it follows the pattern of politeness, that stage is certainly on the way.
One of Goldsmith’s biggest gripes is the effect of critics and rule-bringers on the realm of comedy. From the beginning of his career in the ‘Enquiry’ to the end with ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ he maintained a belief that comedy had been ruined by politeness and the key weapon the critic had against comedy was that it was ‘low’.’By the power of one monosyllable’ any attempt to poke fun at the absurdities and pretensions of life is quashed.
Something similar could be said about the word ‘problematic’. In an earlier age of political correctness, when the desire is to communicate without needless offence and unthinking smallness of vision, then something outside that could indeed be a problem; but in an age of rules, then something problematic is simply outside of those rules. With that simple quadrisyllable a person can be no-platformed.
Goldsmith’s signs of an apocalypse include lengthening books (and I would add to this, lengthening films - does it really take three hours to tell of superheroes twatting each other in the face?) The other signs were the evil tripartite of dictionaries, commentaries and compilations. How many websites, blogs and video series (including this one) consist of these three things? A great many I would say… I think Goldsmith would be very nervous for us.