Life After PC?
Could someone please explain to me how we ended up in this mess?
I’m not talking about the recent election or its aftermath. Or the sorry condition of Connecticut’s economy. Or the increasingly uncertain state of our national and personal security.
I’d simply like to know when, how and why we surrendered our freedom of opinion and expression to the gods of Political Correctness?
This nation was born on the principle of freedom from external control of individual thought and expression, not just of religious belief, but of all opinion. And just so no one missed the point, that freedom was explicitly guaranteed in the very first amendment to the new nation’s Constitution. It is the freedom most critical to survival of democracy and the prevention of tyranny. One would think that we would fight to our final breath to preserve it. Many in fact did.
Yet we seem to be in the process of surrendering it with barely a whimper. It started by (rightly) avoiding words and phrases that clearly were offensive, demeaning and disrespectful to groups of people. It then morphed into the secularization and recharacterization of traditional holidays. (Wishing someone Merry Christmas came to be seen as an act of religious aggression.) We became so concerned about giving offence that we gave others the power to silence us by creating their own definitions of what is offensive, playing on our natural desire to appear tolerant and considerate. That power was then abused and became an offensive tool in political debate in terms of vicious ad hominem attacks on personal character: if I don’t like you, your opinions or your position on a particular issue, then I can accuse you of being “___ist” or exhibiting/condoning “___ism.” Sadly, we saw this in full display during the recent national election where it got so bad that many people simply avoided conversation about the candidates and their policies so as to avoid conflict before expressing their views in the confidentiality of the ballot box. What a tragic loss of constructive participation in the free debate of ideas that our Founders viewed as the lifeblood of our democracy.
Our great universities – founded to promote the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and to foster intellectual debate – are sadly at the forefront of this movement. A short while ago a recent college graduate explained to me that, under the newly accepted common wisdom, she and I are both racist because we were born in the United States. Needless to say, that was quite a shock. It had never occurred to me that racism is like Original Sin – an involuntary condition of birth. Setting aside how breathtakingly offensive that emerging doctrine is, and how it puts everyone in the defensive position of proving the negative, I believe it has the disturbingly dark potential to excuse the very behavior it decries – “it’s OK to be racist; I can’t help it since I was born that way.” If this is where Political Correctness is leading us, I don’t want to go.
The dictionary defines tolerance as “willingness to accept feelings, habits or beliefs that are different from your own.” Acceptance does not require agreement, or subordination of one’s own feelings, habits or beliefs to those of others. And tolerance does not require acceptance of actions or behaviors that are contrary to the norms of civilized society.
Years ago I had the great good fortune to serve on a charitable board with a man of great inspiration. Father Walter Smith, S.J. is the former President & CEO of the HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York City. A Roman Catholic priest, for more than two decades he ran a non-denominational agency that trained chaplains of all faiths to serve the needs of the sick and dying. He became a passionate student of all faith traditions, participating joyfully in their many religious rituals and cultural celebrations. He learned to pray in their words and respect their beliefs. In his actions he personified the concept of interreligious dialogue. Yet he never wavered in commitment to his own religious identity. Isn’t that how all this is supposed to work?
This holiday season, perhaps we can all take a deep breath and lighten up a little bit. Let’s take a page from Father Smith’s book and accept the differences of others while being true to ourselves. Let’s tolerate our differences but not tolerate the name calling. Let’s transition our national discourse back to a pre-PC footing. Let’s commit to a new approach. Perhaps we can call it the New Age of Comity.