Sunday, October 24, 2010

More Reflection, Less Reaction

Not so long ago, I commented on some troubling tendencies I noticed regarding race and racism in America. The recent firestorm over yet another public figure's statements suggests that these tendencies hold true regardless of the particular "ism", or in this case "phobia" that such statements are alleged to reflect. I'll leave it to others to continue debating whether or not the comments in question were or were not bigoted and if the response to them was or was not justified. This most recent incident reminded me of commentary from Baha'u'llah:

"Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence. Consider for instance such things as liberty, civilization and the like. However much men of understanding may favorably regard them, they will, if carried to excess, exercise a pernicious influence upon men...." (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 215)

It seems to me that whatever the intentions of the architects of political correctness we have to ask ourselves at what point it has passed beyond the limits of moderation and ceased to exert a beneficial influence. At what point do efforts to police speech (and by extension thought itself) actually have a negative impact on public discourse? At what point do efforts to protect people from discourse that may potentially harm them itself become a source of harm? At what point does punishing speech deemed offensive begin to in fact encourage such speech? I don't have answers to these questions, but I think America would benefit from more of us taking time to ponder them. The country could use a lot more reflection and a lot less reaction.


  1. Anonymous9:30 AM

    This is a good time to read Nathan Rutstein's "From a Gnat to an Eagle," in which the author is achingly honest about his own path to overcoming racist thoughts. Lurking behind anger (think fiery rhetoric) is usually fear, and once the basis of fear can be opened up and explored, people can move forward. The shame of current situation is that the discussion did not take place in an environment where thought patterns could be explored and tested. Worse, it was a situation in which those kinds of thoughts were used as justification.

  2. Anonymous10:19 AM

    First I will tell you that I highly dislike the term 'political correctness' because most people use it as a cover for hateful and/or abusive speech. When I've interacted with people about issues such as the causes of poverty in America and asked people not to generalize or to use prejudicial phases such as 'Welfare Queens' and other much more odious ones, their response is 'you're so PC'. That immediately shuts down open and frank dialogue. When I tried to have a productive discussion and bought up actual facts about the number of people who have remained on welfare for multiple generations (a small percentage), I've been called a 'Liberal'.

    I work with children, teens and their parents in a professional position and often discussion sensitive topics. I work hard to be aware of my own biases and try to rid myself of prejudices. It would be inappropriate for me with my clients to make the comment about being 'fearful' of any religious, ethical, racial, or religious group at work. There are staff members who have openly crossed that line with clients and/or staff and my employer has the right to discipline or fire them particularly when they have engaged in this conduct multiple times.

    It would be helpful to have an open and frank discussion about our prejudices under the right circumstances. But, a professional who is seen as an impartial analyst on news topics, we also have a responsibility to not 'stir the pot' and to inject our personal biases into the discussion.

    The news media has a great responsibility to accurately report events and situations. There are news outlets in this and other countries who pose as news media when they are actually entertainment outlets. And, they are fueling the basest fears and emotions boiling at and under the surface. They use the "PC' term as a cover. I agree that we need to have open and frank discussions but let's do it in a manner that helps unite not divide us. Freedom of speech brings with it responsibility. We do not have the 'right' to yell 'Fire' in a movie theatre and we do not have the 'right' to say or do anything in the workplace. I truly believe that when we assume a position of power that we respect that power and authority that is given to us.

  3. Anonymous, I think that what you're saying about political correctness speaks to what I'm questioning. Is that concept actually valuable to public discourse or not? I actually have a similar reaction when I hear people talk about so called hate speech. The concept implies that you can make judgments about someone's emotional state simply by examining their choice of words. I also believe that what people do is a better measure of their character than what they say. We are living in a time when a person's entire life of good works can be rendered somehow irrelevant by a single misspoken statement. Does this make sense? Is it just? Does it actually make our society better? These are questions of the kind of society we want to live in, questions that transcend the current news cycle which will eventually move on to the next public figure who allegedly said the wrong thing.

    Anonymous, I hear you about Nat Rutstein's honesty. I wonder if these days he would even be able to take the risk of such honesty without someone reacting rather than reflecting.

  4. Anonymous11:34 AM


    I believe that the use of term 'political correctness' does not encourage open and frank discussion instead used to mock and dismiss ideas and the people who holds those ideas. When I hear the word 'PC', it was used against me by a much younger person in a sarcastic and hostile manner. It was not used to open up a discussion but to dismiss any opposing ideas. Unfortunately this was not a one time incident and I saw it happen over and over again on television, in newspaper article, and on talk radio. I have the same visceral reaction to the word 'Politically Correct' as I do to the terms, 'Liberal' and 'Conservative'. These words have become weapons to shut down dialogue.

    We do need to have honest discussions about how we feel in order for us to work through our own prejudices and to solve problems using rational thought based upon principles and read facts. These discussions need to conducted in a trusting and safe place. And, an entertainment show viewed as a real News show where the hosts make their living by attacking 'the other' is not a place to do so. It has to be in a safe place where all participants feel that they are safe. Unfortunately the incident that generated this discussion occurred on a show where the hosts and guests feel free to say horrible things in the name of being 'fair and balanced'. His personal views clouded other's perceptive of his other role as a news analyst. I see a good parallel in my role as a authority figure in a public school setting. If I went on a radio show and spoke about my 'fear of X' and my students heard me discussion my 'Fear of X', it would discredit me in my professional role.

    I do not believe that one incident alone should make an entire lifetime or career irrelevant (unless it's something horrific) but the former NPR news analyst had actually more inflammatory comments in the past. He had been told that he had blurred the lines of news analyst and commentator. The news outlet handed the situation poorly but so did the former employee. Employers have the right to expect their employees to stick to their job and to not put their job credibility in question.

    When I was in college/grad school in the late sixties to mid-seventies, there was active discussions about race in some of my sociology and psychology classes. We used facts to dispel pre-conceived ideas and myths about people based upon their race, gender, religion, socio-economic status. There were some rules involved in the discussion including speaking civilly to each other and no use of vulgar or slurs and we needed to support our 'opinion's and 'beliefs' with facts. Then, I heard the word 'PC' and I found it used as a way of shutting down civil and open discussion. It's a shame.

  5. Anonymous, I hear you. Like I said I'm going to leave it to others to debate the details of this incident, I think there are broader issues worth discussing. If the notion of being PC has taken on the connotations that you are describing (I think it has) it is not simply about trying to shut down dialogue. In my experience it is the excesses of political correctness that has lead to it's losing credibility whatever the original intentions of those who have promoted this notion. Having gone to college in the 90's I can tell you that this idea that there is a correct way to speak (and by extension a correct way to think, in this case a 'liberal' or 'progressive' way) was quite intentionally and rigorously promoted among students and faculty. It is not some kind of slur that was invented to suppress civil dialogue. I think that there is a difference between civility which about how things are said and political correctness which suggests that there are things which can never be said under any circumstances and if they are said should invite punishment of the "offender" rather than engaging in dialogue such as what you describe.

  6. Anonymous5:14 PM

    It depends on what is meant by "liberty." If liberty implies the liberty and freedom to deprive other people of their own liberties and freedoms, then I would say that is excessive. I also believe that the "will of the majority" alone is a dangerous concept, because what if the "majority of the people" decided and voted that homosexuals should be regarded as non-citizens? That Muslims should be put into internment camps? That Jews are not allowed to be employed in certain fields of work? Is that "liberty?" Is that "freedom?"

    I don't know the answers to political correctness myself, but my personal view is that political correctness is a "lesser evil" than its shadow - full blown public bigotry, which has shown time after time to lead to oppression and persecution of those who are constantly being labeled as "enemies within", "tyrants", "traitors", "job stealers", "unpatriotic", etc. In a sense, I think political correctness plays a role in stopping full out civil war from happening. It is frustrating, and leads to a whole other set of problems. But I would rather have political correctness frustrate me, than have another Third Reich and a "Final Solution."

  7. Anonymous, my problem with the lesser of two evils approach is that it ultimately leaves evil in power. I think we can do better. Another thing is that in my experience supporters of so called political correctness have no problem with it until they find themselves on the receiving end and are the ones being called racist etc. because they allegedly say the "wrong thing". I've seen this happen to people and it is ironic but not surprising. We need to encourage reflection rather than try and create circumstances in which no one ever hears a view expressed that offends them or try to protect people from ideas they don't agree with. How can we figure out what's true if someone else decides ahead of time what we are allowed to hear or say?

  8. Anonymous4:37 PM

    Multiculturalism refers to a society that recognizes values and promotes the contributions of the diverse cultural heritages and ancestries of all its people.
    A multicultural society is one that contiually evolves and is strenghened by the contribution of its diverse peoples.

    Source University of British Columbia.

    Well done Baha'i Friend.
    Baha'i Love, Eric