Saturday, November 13, 2010

PC-Good intentions gone bad?

The talk radio show host's schtick is to point out the absurdities of what we call PC or political correctness. Today's rave was the Remembrance Day parade in a town in England that banned rifles. He devoted nearly an hour to the subject.

It does seem rather absurd to prohibit the principal tool of the people you are commemorating. Some folks might be offended by the sight of guns but what the heck, that's what war is all about, or so the argument goes. With that I agree. It's foolish to honor men and women who have gone to war without acknowledging war itself. I also agree that political correctness has gone haywire, that in our attempts to avoid offending anyone at all costs, we are creating a society that is afraid to address anything.

But I don't believe it's "political correctness" per se, whatever that may be, that's at fault. The problem lies in the very human flaw of mistaking the letter of the law for the spirit of the law, something that goes back to biblical times and beyond. For millennia, the religious of all stripes have famously been guilty of being obsessed with the tiniest details of the laws of their faith while missing the bigger picture.

Catholics for example are made fun of for seemingly arbitrary customs such as abstaining from eating meat on Fridays. The purpose of the custom which is virtually as old as the Church itself, is filled with deep significance and is quite beautiful. It revolves around performing acts of penance through personal sacrifice, commemorating Friday, the day Jesus died on the Cross. Not eating specifically the flesh of animals reminds us of God's works of salvation, particularly bringing to mind the animals that accompanied Noah and his family on the Ark. All of this of course all in the name of giving thanks and praise to God. This somehow got lost in the translation and for centuries many Catholics dutifully followed the rule without understanding it, either having forgotten their third grade catechism, or simply not bothering to ask why. Fridays became all about finding a suitable substitute for meat rather than a day to reflect upon God's supreme sacrifice for us.

Religious law in all faiths works this way, dogma serves the greater purpose of bringing the believer closer to God. Without that, a law is utterly pointless. Yet so many believers focus only the law, and not the meaning behind the law.

I think the same can be said about political correctness. The very term conjures up notions of absolutism and dogma, which is why it has been whole-heatedly grasped, most often by those on the right, as an ironic and pejorative description of their left leaning adversaries.

The first time I heard the term used in conversation, it was not as a slam against the left. It was used by a left leaning friend who described (without any irony in the least), a political candidate as being "politically correct". That is to say, the candidate's positions were exactly the same as my friend's. I was immediately struck by the arrogance of the statement, he essentially said: "either you think my way, or you're an idiot." That arrogance is unfortunately quite pervasive on the left, especially among the highly educated.

Small wonder that those on the right have grasped the opportunity to mock the other side, in particular their dogmatic approach to so many aspects of society, especially education and speech. But if PC is indeed dogma, then as is the case with all dogma, it has at its core, significant meaning and substance. Many of its adherents have simply over-reached by grasping onto the trivial, while forgetting the important stuff.

To put it simply, at the core of PC, (a term I use grudgingly for lack of a better one), is the idea that people of every gender, race, age, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation, physical or mental limitation, religious belief, or lack of one, in short all human beings on this planet, deserve a fair shake. This very simple idea is one that has not been around for very long. We all know that in our own country, citizenship was limited at one time to male property owners. Slavery was officially abolished only after the costliest war in this nation's history in 1865. Women did not have the right to vote until 1920 and poll taxes were used in the South to discourage poor African Americans from voting until the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964 that forever banned the poll tax. Here as in the rest of world, hatred and intolerance based upon our differences, continue to contaminate society. Even genocide, something we foolishly thought was finished after the terrors of World War II, goes on to this day.

This idea of equal rights for all is not a left vs. right issue. Granted there are still people in society who proudly proclaim their intolerance of those of different races, genders, you name it. We call them racists, sexists, homophobes, the list goes on and on. These folks are for the most part on the fringes of society as they should be. It is not appropriate to speak in language that expresses and encourages hatred of others. I believe this to be right, appropriate, and by golly, correct.

Please note for the record that I said hate speech is and should always be considered inappropriate and unacceptable, but not illegal.

There are words that are unspeakable in every language. In the old days swear words referred to bodily functions or the sex act. The late comedian George Carlin based a popular routine around the "seven words you can't say on TV". Carlin's point was that it's really silly to single out words that cannot be said, after all, "they're just words."

But Carlin was wrong. Words are by far our most powerful tool, more powerful than any weapon. They have the power to shape lives, to inspire people to greatness and to despair, to inspire love and to inspire hate, to create and to destroy people as well as nations. Certain words in every language are reserved for the purpose of expressing unmitigated anger, to incite, to arouse or to disgust. They serve a very useful purpose (as we all know when we hit ourselves on the thumb with a hammer), when their use is limited.

Today you still can't say those seven words on broadcast TV. But in common language they are as ordinary as the air we breathe. As a result they have lost their edge, and by definition their very reason for existence.

I can think of only two words in the English language that rate as truly unspeakable. The mere utterance of these words marks the speaker as a vile lout, an unrepentant sexist, or worst of all a bigot. One is a disparaging word for African Americans, the other, a vulgar term for the vagina, used as a disparaging word for women. You know what they are. I'm guessing that were he alive today, even George Carlin wouldn't dare say those two words in public.

If political correctness has succeeded in making the worst words you can possibly utter out loud to be words that degrade people instead of the old time "potty mouth" language, I'd say that's a pretty good thing.

However in my opinion there is a huge distinction between hateful, degrading language and merely offensive language. That distinction seems to have been lost somewhere along the way.

As far as education is concerned, the movement described with derision as PC has opened up the eyes of educators to be more inclusive, to encourage the study of new ideas, thinkers and cultures that simply had not been on the map in the past.

This is a good thing too.


The flip side to all this, what has made PC despised by traditional educators, is that some of its proponents in opening the door to a world of different cultures have ferociously slammed the door shut on their own culture, creating a new kind of selective education, an intellectual intolerance if you will.

The intolerance in a large portion of academia today is directed toward the works of the dreaded DWM, the dead white male. I dare say that Western Culture, both European and American, the culture that paved the way for democracy, civil rights, women's rights, for freedom of religion, freedom of the the press, freedom of speech, not to mention PC itself, is filled with these DWMs. That is certainly NOT to say that DWMs are solely responsible for all that is good about our society. Far from it, although they have played a part. Nor is it to say that all's well with the West, and the DWMs can claim more than their share in that as well.

But to throw some 2,500 years of collective knowledge out the window, as some universities have been doing, seems a little extreme in the least.


To those people who say that PC is ruining society I say this: "Get that bee out of your bonnet and don't get yourself all worked into a tizzy, everything's going to be ok."

The events of the sixties that gave birth to PC, namely the civil rights and women's rights movements, and the many other movements they inspired, are the step children of revolutions for the rights of individuals and against oppression that go back thousands of years. Every revolution begins with the shout: "off with the king's head." Gradually as the foot-soldiers of the revolution become more emboldened and convinced that they are more true to the cause than the next guy, they demand the heads of the king's petty officer, the king's barber, and anyone who may have ever met the king.

Inevitably however, at some point reason and common sense start to take over. We may not have reached that point in the PC revolution yet, but it is coming.

In a time when political consensus is difficult to achieve, all men and women of reason should still be able to grasp the core values of the revolution that has in part resulted in PC. Today it is difficult to argue against this truth that we hold to be self-evident, as found in Thomas Jefferson's words (with the critical exception of one), that all people are "created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Those were and are still revolutionary words indeed.

Fortunately no one lost their heads, in the literal sense at least, in the PC revolution. The Great Books are still in print and thank goodness there will always be talk radio hosts to let us know when we screw up.

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