On The Virtues of Political Correctness (And Of Related Godless Pieties)

Last month Ian had a terrific post which highlighted that being what is derisively termed “politically correct” is not a matter of lying in response to bogus left-wing political pressure and thought police but rather of a matter of moral and conceptual rigor which is willing to actively resist the bigotries and falsehoods encoded into our less circumspect everyday language and culture by unjustly privileged groups:

Here’s the issue though – there is no ’correct‘ way of classifying a group that is united by social convention only. When we build our understandings of race or gender on faulty assumptions, they crumble under the weight of anything more than the most cursory scrutiny. Of course we run into trouble when discussing gender – it is not a binary concept in any place other than our minds. Of course we run into trouble when discussing race – it has no consistent basis in science.

‘Politically correct’ language accomplishes an important task: it shines a light on places where our conceptual grasp of a topic is less than complete. Places where our ‘traditional’ understanding is leading us away from truth. Places where our privilege moves us to demand that reality conform to our expectations, rather than the other way around. By breaking down the language we use, by interrupting the comfortable flow of ideas borne of unthinking cultural narratives, by putting our words under a microscope, we can examine the extent to which those words buoy up conclusions drawn from faulty premises.

To declare oneself ‘politically incorrect’, once we understand why political correctness is necessary, ceases to be a bold declaration of one’s refusal to mindlessly follow social conventions. To the contrary; it is announcing one’s intention to courageously embrace those conventions and the pillars of privilege upon which they are built. It is stating unequivocally that the speaker is completely uninterested in understanding why it is necessary to adjust language to reflect reality. Rather than being an iconoclastic stance, it is a vainglorious assertion of one’s lack of interest in swimming against the tide of cultural prejudice; preferring instead to tread water in the flowing tide of public opinion.

If we recognize the existence of systemic discrimination against minority groups, then fighting for ‘politically correct’ language is not merely a semantic stance motivated by guilt and the desire to avoid hurt feelings. It is instead a tool that can be used to draw attention to places where what we’ve done in the past is interfering with where we’d like to go. When used judiciously, it can ignite thoughtful discussion in those dark places that our collective unconscious is all too happy to leave unexamined. When ignored, or worse derogated, it clamps the much-derided muzzle not around our mouths, but around our minds.

This is just one of several areas where we godless liberals are willing to be much more morally demanding than the supposedly self-sacrificing and morally obsessed fundamentalists. They routinely mock environmentalists, political correctness, feminism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-ableism, etc. Sometimes they ironically mock these things as being “religious”. Apparently if you have cumbersome rules based on ancient superstitions and which express outdated values that hurt people needlessly and have limited tangible real world benefits, then it’s a good and true religion. But if you develop and strongly advocate for new moral codes of action and speech in response to increasing consciousness about the effects of received narratives on arbitrarily marginalized groups—then you have a laughably over-serious quasi-religiousness that’s worth dismissing.

At least one progressive Christian friend of mine, Marta, gets this and had a great observation in my comments section last fall in response to Drew Dyck (author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith. . . and How to Bring Them Back) who wrote an article in Christianity Today which attributed rising rates of apostasy to the apostates’ moral laxity:

I remember that CT article – IIRC, I actually mentioned it in a blog post, because I was flummoxed at the arrogance to think high moral standards were what drove people away from Christianity. Modern-day and historical Christianity have a long list of sins, if you will forgive the phrase – the Crusades, anti-Semitism, slavery-enabling, homophobia, pedophilia, the social gospel, and the list goes on – that I think would more than explain why people find contemporary Christianity distasteful. And I say this as someone who still identifies as Christian and happens to think that casual sex is actually immoral (though far from the top of the hit list). I should not be a hard sell, and yet even I would probably reject Christianity if I was deciding based on the morality of its institutions.

Seriously, if I wanted an easy-to-follow moral code, I think I’d choose Christianity. Stay away from drug use, gay sex, and obviously promiscuous heterosexual sex, and you’re pretty well in the clear. Throw in a conservative Sunday suit/dress and a tidy haircut and a minimal “tithe” (the $5-$10 most contribute is hardly a tenth….), and don’t swear too loudly, and you’re practically a saint. Violence is allowed (look at the military/sports culture). So is obesity and excess in pretty much everything but drugs. Harry Potter might get you in trouble depending on the church, as might your beloved Nietzsche, but even that’s seen as a kind of extremism these days. Certainly there’s no need to fight against unjust corporate, social or political structures. That’s actually a fairly low threshold to meet!

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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