Tuesday, March 6, 2007

I'd Like To Have a Word With You

A Hypothetical Dialogue: A Coffee Shop, where a philosopher reunites with his old friend

Philosopher: Good to see, my old friend. You don't even know how grateful I am -- I’ve been waiting, you see. I desperately need to tell someone...
Friend: What? What is it?
Philosopher: Well, Old Friend, I have discovered the meaning of life. It’s very exciting and I wanted you to be the first to know. I mean, for me to have kept this to myself so long is almost felonious. So, without further ado –
Friend: (aghast) What did you say?
Philosopher: What?
Friend: Oh I can’t believe this.
Philosopher: I don’t understand. What did I say?
Friend: ‘Felonious’? Hello, excuse me, my father was a felon.
Philosopher: I, I – I’m sorry. It’s been so long. I didn’t remember.”
Friend: I should have known it would be like this. It’s just like you people.
Philosopher: (aghast) What did you say?

While the ethos behind early forms of Political Correctness had noble aims in its attempt to update our socioeconomic lexicon, offering many a break from past oppression and misrepresentation, there are times when I wonder if the enforcement of political correctness serves a contradictory purpose. When the views and ideas of those, labeled "politically incorrect", are dismissed as entirely incorrect, then we all have lost something -- new barriers have been set in place and occasional truths are obscured.

In an extremely well-written essay on the subject, a blogger named Zuky states:
"Underlying every complaint of "PC" is the absurd notion that members of dominant mainstream society have been victimized by an arbitrarily hypersensitive prohibition against linguistic and cultural constructions that are considered historical manifestations of bigotry. It's no coincidence that "PC"-snivelers are for the most part white men who are essentially saying, 'Who the hell do these marginalized groups think they are to tell me how I should or shouldn't portray them?'."

Though I agree that many criticisms of political correctness tend to fall into this category, I believe that we have moved past the 1990's application of the term, for it no longer remains the tool of the oppressed, the forsaken members of particular racial or religious minorities. In America post 9/11, the values shifted from politically correct and politically incorrect to patriotic and unpatriotic -- dissent was tantamount to treason -- and with a nagging irony, the host of a show entitled "Politically Incorrect", Bill Maher lost his sponsors and soon after the show after remarking:
''We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.'' Leading to former Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer to offer a warning: ''The reminder is to all Americans, that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and that this is not a time for remarks like that.” (In 2004, Fleischer wrote to the NYT to explain the statement). The political correctness exemplified during this period no longer resided in the context of cultural oppression, rather it was entirely political and driven by nationalist sentiment. You're either for us or you're for the terrorists. And, sadly, this narrative continues in our political debate today.

When the mechanisms of political correctness are divorced from their original context -- that of erasing historically bigoted terminologies -- and applied to ideologies and fundamentalist causes, they serve only to ossify the dividers that PCness once aimed to dissolve. And the consequences can have dire effects. Would the Senate have been so deaf to optional courses during the 2002 vote for the Iraq War Resolution, if the climate had not been so defensively patriotic? In a truly open forum, opinions are not dismissed out of hand, and yet it is this very type of dismissal that accompanies political correctness in all its forms.

Sadly, the close mindedness previously reserved for those staunch bigots, described in Zuky's essay, now appears more pronounced in the actions of those that feel offended. On university campuses, where fumdamentalist religious faith has eclipsed liberal political correctness, "it seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith."

"Distinguished scholars at several major universities in the United States have been condemned, even subjected to death threats, for proposing psychological, sociological or anthropological interpretations of religious texts in their classes and published writings. In the most egregious cases, defenders of the faith insist that only true believers are qualified to teach their religious tradition."

Whether it be the patriotic correctness after 9/11 or the "religious correctness" displayed in our universities, they form a culture of reaction. Our public discourse has been so plagued in recent years by such ideological pollutants that we appear more interested in what is "correct" than what may be necessary for unified progress or even just for some peace and quiet. I'm particularly dismayed by the stories from college campuses, where the mind should be engaged in skeptical appraisal of all it once held true. Curiosity and multifaceted examination do not promote nihilism; they are no threat to core beliefs or cultural identities. Higher education seeks to promote openness to conflicting opinion and complex thought over blind faith. When we immediate dismiss the truth of one's opinion because we find something offensive in their approach, then we have dismissed reaching our own potential. When one "politically incorrect" statement defines all further statements as incorrect, then our differences will not only be left unresolved, but will only grow more polarized.

In a recent incident on the Duke campus (not that one), a legal recruiter was overheard out of context, "quoting a Waco, Tex., prosecutor in a 1920s murder case in which Leon Jaworski, one of [his] firm’s founding partners, represented a black defendant." In an attempt to prove his firms history of defending the rights of minorities, the recruiter was immediately chastised for the wrongly perceived bigotry of his words.

Just as with the philosopher and his old friend, we too often escape a confrontation of ideas with preemptive dismissal. In a Hegelian dialectic, we begin with a thesis followed by its antithesis, only to end up with a synthesis. In order to arrive at such an understanding, we must not only recognize what is "other", but what is shared. Though Hegel did influence Marxist philosophy, so I guess he's just a communist, even if only indirectly, and we got nothing to learn from him.

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