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What is Political Correctness and Whats Wrong with It?
Political correctness is a culture of mandatory opinion arising from the politics of personal identity. This is an attitude that governs an entire community favoring a certain segment of the community while disfavoring others. It is system of morality associated with minority rights. Its ethical view replaces the concept of equal treatment of individuals with a two-sided scheme in which the members of the favored groups are considered to be institutionally or historically disadvantaged, thus inoculating them from criticism.
Normally, individuals are judged to be bad or good on the basis of their own individual behavior or, as Martin Luther King said, the content of their character. Political correctness subverts that scheme. Instead, individuals take their moral coloration from belonging to particular groups. Group prejudice rather than evaluation of individual behavior determines how the society as a whole will approach the situation.
Specifically, there are labels such as racist which are applied exclusively to some groups - white people - while other groups - black people - are exempt from such labeling. If racism, anti-Semitism, or some other derogatory label is recognized by all to be an evil, then the applicable groups are deemed uniquely or inherently evil. Members of these groups cannot win such a one-sided argument.
Conversely, members of the politically favored group cannot lose; and so it is to their advantage to raise this type of argument again and again. For instance, the charge of racism is made at the drop of a hat. Under a moral code which applied to all persons equally, such individuals would be more careful in accusing others since they would be subject to the same standard of judgment.
Its Political Nature
This type of morality is an outgrowth of politics. In recent years, American politics has been dominated by a partisan struggle between racial, religious, or gender-based groups in which certain groups advance a set of grievances based upon alleged oppression by the majority population.
The Civil Rights movement waged by African Americans in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s to achieve social and political equality, especially in the South, is a prototype of this kind of struggle. In the 1970s, some women saw themselves as a group which, like blacks, had experienced historic oppression. They, too, conducted a political struggle for equality. In the 1980s, gays and lesbians made a similar effort. In the 1990s and our own decade, immigrant groups were added to the series of aggrieved groups.
Two religious communities should also be mentioned. Roman Catholics started out as an oppressed group but, due to the churchs teaching on abortion, ran afoul of the womens movement and were politically evicted from the Civil Rights coalition. American Jews were a group which experienced social discrimination in the early 20th century. Their claimed disadvantage stems less from this, however, than from a centuries-long pattern of hatred and discrimination against Jews which culminated in Nazi persecution and the Holocaust.
The Other who must be an Oppressor
The problem is that for each such group claiming historic oppression there must be another group which was responsible for the ill treatment. There must be an oppressor for each oppressed class. Where does this, for instance, leave me? I am neither black, female, homosexual, nor immigrant, and I am also not a Catholic or Jew. I am someone who was born into the group with which I am identified. I thought I was minding my own business and not abusing anyone. Yet, this type of politics makes my kind of person - and by implication, me - an oppressor of other people.
The situation would not be so bad if my demographic other harbored the ill feeling toward me and it went no further. Unfortunately, this is also the view of society - my society - so I am, in effect, a moral outcast in my own land. The injustice of political correctness is not that ill feelings exist in the community but that the sectarian views of a few are allowed to become the official view of society as expressed through its dominant educators and opinion makers in the media. Minority interests are allowed to override the interests of the general population. Power politics has allowed that to happen.
Its Quarrelsome Nature
Why is political correctness bad? I would compare it with tensions between a married couple. A marriage is strong when the couple love each other; and being in love means that, to a large degree, they will overlook and forgive each others faults. Inevitably, some situations will put a strain on the marriage. But when the sense of being we is stronger than the feeling of I, the marriage will likely survive this stress. On the other hand, when one or another spouse nurses a grievance against the other and brings it up again and again in arguments, then the marriage is likely in trouble. The complainer seems more interested in winning an argument and perhaps intimidating the other partner than in maintaining a relationship supposedly based on love.
So it is when particular groups nurse historic grievances against other groups in society. They identify more strongly with their sub-group within the community than with the community itself. This bodes ill for the future of the community which must maintain a certain sense of unity among its members. Constant complaining about injustices committed in the past, like frequent bickering between marriage partners, creates a life of turmoil and stress. Hateful expressions produce counter expressions of hate, and soon people are suspecting each other of many and various bad things.
Political correctness does this and more. In an Orwellian way, it assaults not only the natural good feeling and kinship among people but also the truth. In the name of ending prejudice against some groups, it erects a more virulent and institutionalized form of prejudice directed against others. In the name of love it often brings hate. In the name of promoting tolerance, it becomes intolerant of those who show intolerance - which in some cases effectively means people who disagree with their kind of politics. The core idea is that only they can be right.
Sometimes vicious in tone and action, this is the product of a zealous political effort to muzzle free speech and force people to think in a certain way. The name, political correctness, properly identifies such an attitude as the product of a politics which presumes to say that only certain political views are correct instead of allowing free inquiry to make that determination. Heir to the Stalinist way of thinking, it is inherently hostile to the liberty of individuals.
Inscribed upon the facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building are the words equal justice under the law. The politics of political correctness do not take them literally. Equal justice, it is argued, would not be fair to members of groups which are disadvantaged because of their past history. Only a compensatory injustice applied to those who are deemed privileged, even by association with a group in the past, would be truly just according to this politically correct point of view. One needs to look at the historical context in deciding how to treat individuals.
Equal opportunity, in this context, means giving an extra helping hand to individuals who started out behind, being born into families which were handicapped by the legacy of slavery or another such situation. It means policies of affirmative action in education and employment, which presume that, all else being equal, the individual in the disadvantaged class be given a certain preference. It means that some citizens belong to a protected class, having certain legal protections that others do not. The sardonic expression that while all are created equal, some are more equal than others has come home to roost.
Claiming a Special Right to Deference
These groups are claiming a special right to be free of discrimination directed against themselves by other groups or by society. They are claiming that right on the basis of their unique disadvantage in the past. They want laws to be passed that allow them, but not others, to claim such discrimination. They also want to be free of derogatory speech. They want the law to intervene when jokes are told at their expense or when decisions are made adversely affecting them to the benefit of a member of an unprotected class, and they want in such cases to collect large sums of money in damages. Thus, in a community under the thumb of political correctness, lawyers and politicians intrude in peoples private lives monitoring the way that groups relate to each other and applying the stigma of hate to politically disfavored behavior.
It is, therefore, not enough that the current laws, regulations, and social practices be fair and impartial with respect to the different groups. Colorblind justice is not enough. Political correctness makes a case based on the past. The root of the situation is history; and the fact is that the various aggrieved groups do have real grievances. Each has its history of being abused in a society where other groups had more power. That is their common denominator, that they were a minority or a weaker or subservient group in a past society. And now they want that situation to be rectified. They want historic revenge.
However, the histories and situations of the groups are so different that a single explanation will not suffice. Women, for instance, have been numerically and socially on a par with men in most societies yet feminist groups cite a disadvantage arising from their traditional role as family nurturers rather than the more esteemed leaders of business or politics. On the other hand, blacks, homosexuals, immigrants, Jews, and Roman Catholics have all been minorities in the United States with respect to numbers of people. Additionally, each has experienced a special kind of disadvantage, different from that experienced by the other groups.
The stereotypical WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) male is presumed in most cases to constitute the controlling majority population even if this type of person was actually outnumbered within the population. At any rate, he is the one who shoulders the main load of historical guilt. He personifies that residual population which does not have a set of grievances.
His type of person may have exploited by bankers or been overworked in the factories or mines, but that does not matter because it was other such individuals who generally did the exploiting. We are looking for systematic abuse committed by one group against another in our determination of historic guilt. To constitute an effective politics, we want to be able to advance a moral claim that means something. We want to set up an enemy that people can understand. Minorities readily grasp the potential danger from a majority population, whoever that might be.
Black people in America, or African Americans, who make up around ten percent of the U.S. population, claim historic disadvantage by virtue of the fact that most were descended from slaves. Their ancestors were rounded up in Africa by hunters from other tribes and sold to white slave traders, who brought them to the Americas to sell to plantation owners and others who needed labor. As slaves, they were owned by the slave masters. Regardless of how they were individually treated, this was a humanly degrading form of existence. It was an institution which uniquely affected blacks. Slavery as a legal institution came to an end in America with the close of the U.S. Civil War.
A second era of grievances began with the period of Reconstruction in the defeated South. Opinion differs whether white repression was justified by the harsh conditions imposed by northerners or it was simply a reflection of bigotry and white-supremacist sentiment. In any event, the southern states followed a policy of racial segregation for almost one hundred years in which the laws and social practices were rigged to the advantage of whites under the Jim Crow system. Despite Constitutional guarantees of equality, the freed blacks continued to live in a subservient condition in which they were sometimes brutalized by lynchings and other violence. The Civil Rights struggle ended this period. Laws and court rulings in the 1950s and 1960s restored effective voting rights and ended racial segregation.
Following that period, black Americans continued to press grievances based on their minority status in a largely white society. It was alleged that a buddy system operated in business by which the incumbent white managers would hire and promote other whites rather than blacks. Blacks naturally felt discomfort from breaking into certain occupations and professions that were previously reserved for whites. In various covert ways, white society continued to discriminate against their race. Predominately white police forces were effectively racist. Having won legal victories, the Civil Rights movement needed to continue until racism was extinguished in white peoples hearts.
The Womens Movement
As an integral part of the human family as its most basic level, women are in quite a different situation. Some high-born women are indeed privileged. But women as a group experienced historic disadvantage in certain ways. Until the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted, only men had the right to vote. Women were also denied certain rights with respect to owning property. They had inadequate access to education. Often it seemed that a womans status depended upon her relationship to a man. There was a division of labor between the sexes in which women assumed the less glamorous function of child rearing while men assumed a responsibility for gainful employment that sometimes brought power and prestige.
In the years following the enactment of womens suffrage, the situation gradually changed. More women became educated. More assumed the higher-paying mens jobs. Betty Friedans book, The Feminine Mystique, expressed the dissatisfaction of women who felt trapped in domestic roles and wanted a more active life outside the home. The 1960s brought more promiscuous sexual activity as birth-control pills allowed women to have sex with reduced fear of pregnancy. It also brought a culmination of the Civil Rights movement and another mass movement against the Vietnam war. Some say that the womens movement, begun in the late 1960s, involved women who played subservient roles in these other protest movements - made the coffee while the men plotted strategy. They saw a need and an opportunity for a movement of their own to gain equality with respect to the men.
There was a fervor in the early part of this movement in which women burned their bras and denounced patriarchal society and sometimes proclaimed the femininity of God, declaring their independence of men. The movement went on to support the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ultimately failed. A certain victory was achieved in the Roe v. Wade ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court which essentially allowed a woman alone to decided whether to seek an abortion. Also, women succeeded in elevating attention to crimes against women, including violence committed within the family. But, as a political movement, its energy was largely spent.
Gays and lesbians
Homosexual activity has always existed among humans but only lately has this achieved political significance. The great majority of the adult population is heterosexual in its sexual orientation. Heterosexual intercourse alone produces children. From an early age, male homosexuals have been derided for their effeminate ways, as not being masculine enough, as lesbians also have been for being insufficiently feminine. Unflattering labels such as queer or perverted have been applied to homosexuals of both genders. As a result, their first inclination was to keep quiet about their own sexual orientation, as if this were a source of shame.
It may be that the womens movement, with its focus on changing gender roles, gave inspiration to the early movement of Civil Rights-style equality for gays and lesbians. The first step was to come out of the closet - openly declare that one is gay. Gay pride was the next step. In parades and other public events, the uncloseted gays and lesbians would openly and proudly exhibit themselves as homosexuals, sometimes flaunting their deviant ways. The famous Stonewall Riot in New York City saw homosexuals fight back against city police who were trying to close a gay bar. Gays and lesbians became a political pressure group seeking supportive legislation.
The gay-rights movement, unlike other political movements of this type, continues to face open hostility, especially from conservative religious groups. Certain Biblical passages condemn homosexual activity, which is therefore considered a sin in the eyes of these religious practitioners. The issue of gay marriage, while supported by a certain court ruling, has become a focus of opposition. Many Americans disagree that homosexuality should be presented to children as a personal orientation as valid as heterosexual relationships. There is more public support for equal rights in the areas of employment, employee benefits, and the right of gays and lesbians to inherit property from a deceased partner.
Immigrant populations have traditionally endured a period of hardship during their early years of residency in the United States. One expects to be an outsider in a new land. Employers hire immigrants to do the low-skill, low-wage jobs. These groups typically experience their share of crime. The natives, facing competition from immigrants, show various forms of hostility, relegating them to a lower social class. No Irish need apply put such attitudes out in the open. But gradually the immigrant groups work their way up into the social mainstream, assimilate, and become part of the ethnic fabric that is American society.
The massive immigration in the first two decades of the 20th century, especially from southern Europe, resulted in legislation which restricted the number of persons legally allowed to enter the United States. That situation continued until the mid 1960s when the law was changed to permit relatively free access to this country by relatives of current residents. That opened a flood gate of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and other places. Employers wanted access to cheap labor and organized labor saw a new source of recruits.
Both before and after the passage of NAFTA, a growing number of persons entered the country illegally. Government, until recently, did little to stop this trend. Then House Republicans demanded action. The Democrats, on the other hand, tended to oppose a crackdown on illegals. The Bush administration, torn between employer requirements and its base of political support, took a compromise position.
The immigration question currently boils down between hard liners who want immigration laws to be enforced and lawbreakers to be punished and liberals who see such immigrants as a disadvantaged class, potentially part of the Civil Rights coalition. The nativist opponents are either bigots in the traditional mold or patriots trying to save a crumbling nation.
Recent immigration from Latin America also raises the question of assimilation into the American melting pot. Will the new immigrants melt - abandon their native tongue and speak English - or will they come in such numbers and hold so stubbornly to their culture that the United States will become an entirely different nation?
Opposition to immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had much to do with the fact that, unlike earlier immigrant groups, the new immigrants were mostly Roman Catholic. The population of the United States was predominantly Protestant. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was an anti-Catholic organization seeking to preserve American values. In its eyes, Catholicism was tainted with its strange rituals and foreign leadership. If its influence became too strong, the Pope might try to control our nation from the Vatican.
Anti-Catholic prejudice surely contributed to Al Smiths defeat in the 1928 presidential election. The next Catholic who was a major contender for the presidency, John F. Kennedy, tackled the issue of religious prejudice head on, promising a group of Protestant ministers in Texas that he would not let his Catholic religion unduly influence his decisions as president. A theme in the 1960 election campaign was whether Protestant voters could rid themselves of religious prejudice and vote for Kennedy. After Kennedy won the election, the same argument was applied to blacks seeking to end segregation and be admitted to full citizenship. It appealed to the educated class of that era, endowed with Christian values, to fight prejudice in any form. The bigots were strictly low class.
Interestingly, Roman Catholics no longer fit the image of a group fighting for equal rights. They are no longer overwhelmingly Democrats. Catholic teachings on birth control, abortion, and homosexuality have given this denomination of Christians a conservative reputation. Christianity itself has become increasingly non-denominational, focusing not on theology but the person of Jesus. As sectarian divisions have faded, Catholic and Protestant no longer seem poles apart. The differences between them are slight compared with the differences between religious and non-religious persons. With some exceptions, Catholics are not struggling immigrants but persons fully integrated into U.S. society. Even the term WASP is no longer in use.
Jewish Americans are a different story. Even if few fit the pattern of a disadvantaged group, Jews retain the idea of a people apart from the majority population and culture. The idea goes back thousands of years to the time when Jewish nationhood was destroyed and the Jews lived under foreign domination. After Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., this people scattered to various parts of the world while retaining its religious culture. Jews were always a minority in the Diaspora.
Their history of persecution began in those times and continued into the era when the Christian church became politically powerful. Even though Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism, it had anti-Semitic tendencies by virtue of the fact that the Jewish priesthood had sentenced Jesus to death and most Jews had subsequently refused to acknowledge Him as the risen Messiah. The Jews were Christ-killers. They were stubborn deniers of Christian truth. Prejudice against Jews waxed and waned in medieval Europe but was always a factor. After the Christian conquest of Spain in 1492, Jews and Moslems alike were given the choice of converting, leaving the country, or being killed.
With their tight religious heritage, Jews refused to assimilate fully into any society other than their own. They kept to themselves in enclaves known as ghettos. Denied access to certain occupations, they became the middle men and money-lenders of society. Many became wealthy from such enterprise. Jews acquired a reputation of loving money a bit too much. They were persons who, like Shylock, squeezed the last ounce of profit out of a situation, regardless of its human cost. This was another argument supporting anti-Semitism.
The Enlightenment of the 18th Century liberated Europeans from the religious culture of the past thousand or more years. None felt more liberated than the Jews. The Jewish community experienced a flowering of secular thought. This was an age of great Jewish writers, scientists, musicians, and political theorists. Of particular note was Karl Marx, founder of modern communism. In the 20th century, Einstein and Freud developed astonishing new theories to explain observed phenomena. Then this society and culture collapsed with the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Millions died in concentration camps while many others fled to the United States or to Israel.
American Jews remain a disadvantaged group, not so much in fact as in the perception of historic persecution, which is sometimes called anti-Semitism. The Holocaust is such a searing memory that Jews can never feel comfortable when critical remarks about them are made. There is a paranoid feeling that this could happen again unless anti-Jewish sentiment is nipped in the bud.
The other element, of course, is Israel. This new nation, homeland to Jewish people, has been threatened by hostile Arab neighbors since its inception in 1948. American Jews lobby the U.S. government furiously on behalf of Israel. The close relationship between these two countries, the United States and Israel, has, in turn, complicated relations with other countries. America has lately been drawn into a war in Iraq and a possible war with Iran.
The point is that each of these demographic groups that are politically organized has a history filled with suffering. In other words, they are part of humanity. History is the sticking point. How should it be told? Should only the bad parts describing contentious relationships with other groups be included in this history? We have Black History, Womens History, Holocaust History, and several others, all presenting grievances against other parts of humanity. Its like the querulous marriage partner dredging up injustices committed in the past.
Of course, many or most of those things happened; but were they all that happened? History can be written for several intended purposes. If the purpose is to win an argument against someone else, it is a quarrelsome, small-minded kind of history.
In my view, the definition of a racist is whether someone identifies more with his or her particular race than with membership in the human race. If a community is not we, then that community is in trouble. In a democracy, contrary to expectations, the well-organized minority often carries the day. Especially when they feel threatened, people are motivated to seek an advantage for their own group. Lobbyists easily gain concessions to benefit narrow interests as the benefit of the general taxpayer. Who represents the public at large? Everybody and nobody. One just assumes that at the top of societys power structure someone cares. These days that expectation is often misplaced.
I am expressing the point of view of a person in that residual group, unrepresented in the collection of aggrieved parties, who must deal with a society that is crumbling at the middle. There is no positive identity for my Middle America type if it is assumed to be the oppressor of other people. If all the separate components of society, now an electoral majority, all hate the society for what it has done to them in the past, then what is left for the future. We have a majority of the population hating their own society, or else we have a replacement scenario by which the old dominant groups - i.e., WASPS - are ousted from the center of society.
Whats wrong with that? Nothing, perhaps, if youre not one of them. But then we have power politics masquerading as a great moral cause. Its only a shell game intended to take someone elses place.
I call upon the "residuals", if they have any personal pride, to object to this kind of politics. Do not succumb to the self-hatred being foisted upon you. Object to the lobbies in the news room that slant the news to promote a certain group interest. Object to the politicians who win elections by making this type of appeal. Object to the tenured professors who, having grown up in the 60s, are stuck in the Civil Rights mode of thinking. Object to the Hollywood writers and producers who perpetuate this stereotypical world. Object to the well-intentioned but befuddled clerics who confer a moral blessing upon it. Let them all learn a new and truer meaning of the world equality. That slogan inscribed upon the Supreme Court building really should mean something.
The root of political correctness is intimidation. Each of us has the ability to resist that influence or, alternatively, take the easy road of letting someone else do the fighting for us. The first step is simply to stand up and say that this is wrong. The intimidators, though well positioned in the media and the classroom, cannot withstand a chorus of voices crying out with that message. Partisan perspectives seldom describe the whole truth. There is no correctness that does not take into account all the possibilities.
At the root of American society is not the historical view of any particular people but simply freedom. We must all be free to seek the truth and to speak what is on our mind. No government that calls itself a democracy has the right to infringe upon this liberty. No single partisan group, whatever its grievances, has a right to speak for everyone.
What cows have to put up with --
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