Is Political Correctness Really Correct?

It was a typical fall afternoon on November 5, 2009 at Fort Hood in Texas – the most heavily populated United States military post in the world. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan entered the Soldier Readiness Center where he worked. It was business as usual at this medical centre as military personnel obtained their medical treatment. Hasan quietly took a seat and bowed his head. A mere ten minutes later, the Army Major turned the office from a curative hub to the bloody epicentre of a senseless mass shooting that left 14 people dead and 30 others wounded, including Hasan him-self who was eventually subdued by a civilian police officer.

According to eyewitnesses, Hasan shouted, “Allahu Akbar” just before firing more than 100 rounds at soldiers in the centre and on a crowd gathered for a college graduation ceremony scheduled at a nearby theatre. Investigations following the tragic incident revealed some troubling facts about Hasan. Apparently his superiors in the military had, or should have had, reason to be suspicious of Hasan — including his contact with a radical cleric, visits to web-sites espousing radical Islamist ideas and a strange presentation he once gave to Army psychiatrists that focused on Islam and justified suicide bombings. However, none of the many individuals who were troubled by the red flags thrown up by Hasan did anything concrete that could have possibly saved the lives of the 14 who died. It was subsequently reported that Army professionals taken aback by Hasan’s bizarre behaviour explained that, in reporting him to superiors, they were “worried that they might be discriminating against Hasan because of his seemingly extremist Islamic beliefs.” It appears that there was a fear among would-be accusers of being charged with politically incorrect bias and hence they kept silent against their intuition.

American Columnist David Ruthenberg may be right in concluding that, “The cold, hard truth is political correctness has not only run amok, it is now clearly responsible for a murder rampage on our turf at one of our top military bases. That is terrorism, and PC thinking made it possible.” While what happened at Fort Hood may be a rare case of the extreme conse-quence of political correctness, this social phenomenon is ubiquitous.

Similarly here in Asia, we now have to be careful and fearful of what we say, write or think – not just in the public square but also in private in some instances. A few years ago an acquaintance of ours in the United States was “punished” for holding on to views that differed from the majority – he was refused tenure at the university where he taught as he wrote a book which suggested that the universe was designed. Though he fully deserved to be tenured, his application was rejected on account of his belief in intelligent design (though he was never accused of teaching it in his classes). Never mind if you are speaking the honest truth, but if you use the wrong word or expression (i.e., what is deemed politically incorrect), you will be denounced as offensive, insensitive, racist, sexist, homophobic and a Christian fundamentalist who is rocking the racial and social diversity boat.

“Truth hurts” used to be a popular saying; but today, that adage seems to have been replaced by “Truth offends.” This is interesting; if truth is the accurate depiction of reality, why should it offend? It is hard to imagine why anyone is not interested in the truth – about any-thing. The sad thing is that we currently live in times where many people do not seem to care about the importance of truth. The present attitude towards truth does not just have eternal consequences, for if truth is truth, then differences make a difference – not just between truth and lies, but between intimacy and separation in relationships, between harmony and conflict in communities, between efficiency and incompetence in business, between reliability and deceit in science and journalism, between trust and suspicion in leadership, be-tween freedom and oppression in government, and most seriously, between life and death.

Fundamentally, much of the advocacy for political correctness has been influenced by a form of relativism, vis-à-vis epistemological relativism. Basically, this form of relativism views knowledge as relative and objective truth (that is, affirming that some claims about reality are true or false regardless of what others perceive to be true) as nonexistent. Two assumptions are made:

1. No single culture, community or group has discovered the ‘objective’ truth about anything because universal truth does not exist – hence those who claim to know the truth are either ignorant or proud.

2. As there is no such thing as objective truth, all knowledge and moral standards are merely cul-tural perspectives. As there is no such thing as objective truth, it follows that no one group of people should talk like they have access to objective truth.

All alleged truths – religious convictions, morality, etc, – are merely ‘true’ only to the particular communities that affirm them, and they should not impose their truth on others. Hence, in order for us to live with one another peacefully in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, we must tolerate each other. We must be careful not to use certain terms which would offend or contradict others’ beliefs.

Proponents of political correctness claim that we ought to be tolerant as every kind of authority has the predisposition to become abusive. However, it is becoming apparent that this aggrandized and selective compulsion to be tolerant or ‘sensitive’ has quickly evolved into a pretext for new forms of oppression. But the view that the greatest evil is intolerance and insensitivity has now assumed an oppressive role. Surely tolerance is not simply acceptance of anything and everything, for real life informs us that some things are to be tolerated and some not. We need to distin-guish between tolerating the person, his behaviour and his views.

Living in a civic society requires that we tolerate other people who have convictions that are different from ours. In a religiously pluralistic society, social tolerance has to do with how we treat others regardless of their ideology or religious views, that is, with dignity and respect. To discriminate on the basis of religious difference is not only unacceptable it is immoral. However, this form of civic tolerance does not mean that the differing ideas we all hold are of equal worth, merit or truth. It only means that all views should get a fair hearing. Therefore, to comment that some views are false or immoral does not contradict the ideal of tolerance for others. But this is not the form of tolerance political correctness calls for. Political correctness calls for not merely tolerance of the person but also the acceptance of someone’s view or behaviour – regardless of how false or immoral it is.

Under this kind of tolerance, no idea or behaviour can be opposed or judged. For example, if one is truly tolerant of others, then he will not judge or critically evaluate other religions. Of course, on this understanding (or misunderstanding!) of tolerance, all religious ad-herents – whether Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, etc. – who affirm the truthfulness of their beliefs and the falsity of contradictory beliefs are by definition grossly intolerant. But this is a confused form of tolerance, for to never disagree with anyone, even when statements of others are known to be false is not a mark of tolerance but an indication of intellectual suicide. And to never reject any behaviour to be wrong or immoral is not a liveable idea. This distinction between tolerance of the person and tolerance of the person’s views and behaviour is critical.

In the current political correctness rhetoric, tolerance is most frequently called for behaviour and views: homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion, etc. However, the true meaning of tolerance is “putting up with something one disapproves of” or “putting up with error.” Tolerance in a pluralistic society then involves the acceptance of the person who holds beliefs one disapproves of. We can consider the convictions of another to be false and yet treat him with respect and dignity. Being tolerant of others who hold on to different ideologies or religions there-fore does not involve accepting their beliefs to be true or refusing to critically judge the content of those beliefs. However, just like the various forms of relativism, political correctness’s call for tolerance assumes for itself a position that it rejects. In saying, “There is no such thing as universal truth and hence we have to be tolerant. Those who make claims to universal truth are intolerant”, it is already assuming that tolerance is true for all and that all of us should be tolerant. Does this not make tolerance into a ‘universal truth,’ which in turn makes it intolerant? Are not the advocates of political correctness then imposing their truth on those who disagree with them? That is not being very tolerant, is it?

Political correctness is therefore intolerance masked as sensitive tolerance of all viewpoints. However, when Christians are accused of being intolerant and politi-cally incorrect, it probably never occurs to these name-callers that they are doing ex-actly the same thing by being intolerant towards the Christians.

In countries like Singapore where the reigning ideology is multicultural diversity, it would be offensive and intolerant to assume that only the Christian faith is true. Sure, Christians can go to their church and practice their religion in private but their religion should not find its way in the public square. The late Richard John Neuhaus was right to comment that at the heart of that order is the axiom of “faith in private and toleration in public” i.e., the naked public square. He adds that promoters of this form of tolerance just do not get it: their notion of tolerance is, “We’ll tolerate you so long as you don’t trouble us with your different ideas.”

The simplistic worldview espoused by many today is apparently ignorant of the fact that such tolerance cannot stand on its own feet. Calls for democratic “process” and “procedure” as though this form of public discourse is self-evidently right and therefore requires no justification, bear marks of an ideological totalitarianism. No argument is offered, a prejudice is simply stated and the prejudice is most specifi-cally against religion in public. It is no wonder that many observers have drawn parallels between political correctness and Marxism and referred to it as cultural Marxism – that is, Marxism translated from economic into cultural terms. The basic premise of political correctness is that society is divided into two categories of persons, victims – who are a priori good; and oppressors who are evil. The oppressors are always wrong and the victims are always right. Those who claim to have access to absolute truth – like the Christians – are the oppressors who impose their morality and religion on the rest of the population as a way to exert their power over the victims. In the worldview of cultural Marxism, the Bible, for example, is really about gender and race. Groups that are victims are the feminists, homosexuals and other minority groups. In fact, religion, especially Christianity, is a negative term which often connotes fantasy and wishful thinking, and is usually inclined toward intolerance and fanaticism: Christians are intolerant bigots who preach that those who do not believe in Jesus will wind up in hell. And it is against such a mood and backdrop of political correctness that we as followers of Jesus are called to bear witness to the exclusive truth of Christ. May the Lord help us!

*This is part of my article that was published in a 2010 issue of Church and Society In Asia Today (A publication of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia, Trinity Theological College, Singapore).


~ by iccthomas on May 16, 2012.

2 Responses to “Is Political Correctness Really Correct?”

  1. I think you are conflating different things. Political correctness concerning LGBT folk is mere courtesy. Concerning the relations of religions, Boku Haram has got it wrong. In hearing what another religion says, why not see if there is any good in it? It is valuable to the other person- why?

    As for tenure, my feeling is that intelligent design is unprovable, and things such as the eye which raise the question “how could this have evolved?”- well, eventually that question gets answered. I can answer it myself for the eye, and others can for poison glands or whatever. I am no deist, but I think the religious search for truth should not go where the scientific search is so much more adapted to find the truth.

    • Thank you for your comments, Clare. I absolutely agree with you that we should hear out, acknowledge and even learn from the good of the various religions out there. However, beyond calls to ethical living, all religions come to a point where they contend that they are the one true religion. After all, spiritual and religious pursuits are not merely concerned about goodness but ultimately about truth. And this is what I was pointing out – that Political Correctness suggests that there is no way we can know truth or religions are about preference and not about truth. Therefore, truth will have no place in religious discussions. But clearly, as my post contends, that is not the way to go.

      Regarding science, I would suggest that science is not identical to the search for truth. It is one tool or methodology for discovering some truths. But science must take place in a wider philosophical context where it intersects with many other disciplines, such as philosophy, mathematics, theology, history, and sociology. Even the concept of truth is not a scientific one–different views of truth will not be settled in any laboratory experiment and the results written up in a scientific journal. It is a philosophical concept inherited as a gift by science, and for which science depends if it is ever to get off the ground. Something similar can be said about mathematics. Truth is far more wider than science, and truth is united. There is nothing true in science that is false in history, philosophy, or religion. As human beings, we separate and specialize in disciplines because it’s necessary, but at the end of the day, truth is one and reality is one, and whatever is true in these various disciplines must coherently fit together.

      As for ID in particular, it is not so relevant whether or not it is provable–after all, outside of mathematics and strict logic, the term “proof” is a vague and slippery one–what does it mean to “prove” something? How many people must be convinced? Vincent Bugliosi, in his authoritative 1600-page book on the JFK assassination, probably did as much as was humanly possible to prove that John Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot President Kennedy, but there nonetheless remain many conspiracy theorists out there who remain steadfastly unconvinced (and are, perhaps, unconvinceable). Has Bugliosi therefore failed as a scholar? It seems that one of the problems of “proving” something is that it is relative to other people–the scholar can fully do his intellectual and scholarly duty and still fail to “prove” to another the obvious truth if that person remains–or refuses–to be convinced. Because of the philosophical problems with “proof,” Karl Popper suggested that the basic goal of science is falsification–which is perhaps going to the other extreme. Surely science is interested in the pursuit of truth, of that which we can rationally affirm, not just rooting out falsehood and coming up with a list of ideas we can rationally deny. Perhaps a better criterion for valid scientific study is testability, which means that the hypothesis in question at least has to be falsifiable in principle.

      And if that is the case, ID theory is surely testable. If it were found that the parameters for life in the universe were not narrowly constrained by hundreds of factors, many of which are independent of each other; if it were found that (contrary to what Gonzalez argued) there were no strong correlation between factors for habitability and for scientific discovery; if it were found that complex specified information were routinely or even rarely the product of unintelligent forces; if it were found that irreducibly complex structures and systems could be constructed in piecemeal steps while retaining function at each stage; (and we could insert many more “if” clauses here…) then ID would be falsified.

      It seems to me that the real objection to ID is a philosophical notion of what is allowed to count as science. If a theory has religious implications, then it is not allowed. I should clarify–if the theory has particular religious implications, then it is not allowed. For surely, scientific theories like Darwinism play an essential role in undergirding or supporting naturalistic (atheistic) and physicalist–the idea that all that exists is physical or matter in its various forms–worldviews. But I say, let scientists pursue their work regardless of what worldview motivates them or to what use they want to put their scientific findings–be they atheist, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, people who worship carrots, whatever. The important thing is that their theories are testable, and the arguments are put forward in a way that they are open to criticism from other scientists (and other scholars). But realistically speaking, science does not always proceed that way. Maybe it is because humans are pack animals, but there is always a pressure to conformity. Scientists who are in positions of authority act as gatekeepers against new ideas and theories, or against those that have unwanted religious or ethical implications. This is not just the case for the ID controversy–just look up how the Alfred Wegner and his theory of continental drift were treated by the geologists for a few generations before it (and the associated theory of plate tectonics) finally were accepted.

      It is undeniable that philosophical and sociological factors play a role in what theories scientists are willing to accept as plausible. In practice, this means that some theories are protected from being put to the test, to being criticized, and others are prevented from being heard–if some scientists get their way. And that is how political correctness is relevant to this issue, and why it is dangerous to science itself–and to human flourishing, if I’m correct in my view that the truth is something human beings need. The case of Guillermo Gonzalez was exactly that: a case of a scientific issue being settled by the inappropriate use of power. Gonzalez’ denial of tenure was an injustice perpetrated upon him. He was a highly accomplished astronomer. I looked it up again to be sure, but he had 68 refereed articles published in scientific journals, and had co-authored a highly regarded astronomy textbook for Cambridge University Press. His work had led to the discovery of a number of planets outside our solar system. His record in that regard was arguably superior to his peers in his department, considering the early stage of his career. Furthermore, he did not teach ID in the classroom, but standard mainstream astronomy. He was denied tenure because he coauthored a book arguing for ID conclusions regarding the cosmic habitat of earth. This was outside of his duties at Iowa State University, but nonetheless a grant for writing this very book was authorized by ISU. ISU fired him merely because he held and promoted (outside of the classroom) ID views–a fact that is evident from ISU emails, which they tried to cover up. So merely because he holds a view and promotes in the public square, he is fired? Is this not a case of power being inappropriately used to settle an issue of truth? Or what in other contexts is called totalitarianism? This should not happen to anybody, regardless of the worldviews of the individuals involved. How can science… or humanity… flourish under such conditions?

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