The first prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once said, “I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.”
Sometimes the pursuit of political correctness and the pursuit of truth are at odds with one another.
The heart of the politically correct (PC) movement is good. It is a call to extend compassion, dignity and respect to others, especially those who are marginalized, disadvantaged and discriminated against. However, there is a shadow side to the PC movement. It can reinforce marginalization by singling out a group as needing our protection or special treatment, empower others through patronization or entitlement, and threaten free speech with overzealous censorship.
An article in The Atlantic magazine entitled “The coddling of the American mind” reveals how many university professors, often using pseudonyms for protection, thought the political correctness of universities and colleges was out of control. They claimed an extreme PC culture was bullying anyone and everyone into submission to its ideology. One professor said, “I’m a Liberal professor, and my Liberal students terrify me.”
I heard Canadian professor Ron Srigley of the University of Prince Edward Island in a CBC Sunday Edition radio interview, aired on Jan. 17,2016, suggesting our universities are no longer institutions of education, but politically correct fundraising machines that dispense diplomas.
Journalist Hannah Fearn claims in her online article for The Independent, “The culture of extreme political correctness at universities is dangerous to freedom of speech,” that the complicated terminology of political correctness is actually hindering honest conversation about important issues.
Human relations expert B.J. Gallagher writes in the Huffington Post: “Political correctness has become a bigger problem than the problem it was intended to address. . . . If we must constantly self-censor any conversation pertaining to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or physical ability, then we are doomed to perpetuate the very barriers we say we want to overcome.” She continues, “The effect of political correctness has been to make everyone avoid these topics altogether—thereby hindering our ability to get comfortable in living and working with those who are different from us.”
Many comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have spoken out against the PC movement, claiming it is producing a society of individuals who believe they have a right to not be offended while at the same time are addicted to being offended. They feel we’ve crossed the rational threshold of political correctness in society, especially in colleges and universities, and that this PC culture is killing comedy.
Some comedians are even refusing to perform at university campuses because of the over-sensitivity of the students. British comedian John Cleese is one of them. He warns of the dangers of political correctness in a video clip that is now going viral, saying, “Psychiatrist Robert Skinner once said to me, ‘If people can’t control their own emotions, then they have to start trying to control other people’s behaviour.’ ” Cleese claims that this is what is happening with the PC culture today, and he believes if this fear of offending people continues, humour will be lost and we might as well be living in 1984, referring to George Orwell’s novel 1984 that describes a dystopian society oppressed and controlled through government surveillance, censorship and terror.
When a single ideology starts dictating what is allowed to be part of public discourse, and dissenting voices and unpopular perspectives are silenced or censored, the pursuit of truth is lost. It wasn’t healthy when the church had this kind of power in the past and it isn’t healthy for any ideology or group to have this kind of power now. It doesn’t matter if we are liberal or conservative, gay or straight, religious or secular, the pursuit of truth requires a willingness to engage ideas and perspectives that contradict or even offend our own ideas, values, beliefs and convictions. The pursuit of truth also requires humility and an openness to the possibility I may be wrong, even about that which I’m most committed to, passionate about and convinced of.
Whenever certain perspectives are banned or censored, whenever we’re more committed to defending or enforcing our own ideology than to learning and understanding, whenever we’re unwilling to educate ourselves by examining all the available and pertinent information on the subject at hand, even if it doesn’t support our worldview, the pursuit of truth has been forsaken. Instead of seeking truth, we are seeking only to affirm what we already believe to be true, which may be a fabrication of our own imaginations, biases, preferences and narcissism. We have become, in a word, dogmatic.
To be continued . . . .
This is Pt. 5 of “The pursuit of truth” series.
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.