The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples





On March 13th there is going to be a training session in Boca Raton for a new curriculum called Building the World We Dream About. It is furthering the idea of the Welcoming Congregation event that we experienced here just as I was coming to Naples. There were two criticisms of that curriculum. The first was that we were already welcoming, and the second that it was too limited, that it only dealt with one of the populations that experience discrimination and oppression. One of the things we learned was that we were not quite as welcoming as we had thought, though we really were pretty good, and that curriculum did make it better. This new curriculum is an attempt to address that second criticism. It is about ethnic and racial justice. I’ve been to a lot of those workshops over the years. There has been a program that the more cynical of us have called Anti, Anti, Em, and that they have tried to get us to call AR/AO/M instead. It means Anti-racist, Anti-oppression and Multiculturalism. It has been in place through all kinds of evolutions for about fifteen years, and so far as I have been able to tell, nothing whatsoever has changed because of it.


Most of you know that one of my jobs is to help Unitarian Universalist congregations in the Florida district settle new ministers. I talk to them, their boards and search committees about best practices in that regard. One of the things I suggest (strongly suggest!) is that they take the Beyond Categorical Thinking training. This is an attempt to get them to think outside their stereotypical ideas about what a minister looks like — age, sex, color, physical disability, sexual orientation, etc. The chair of one of the search committees that I visited this year said, “Oh, I don’t think we need it. We’re pretty good about that except maybe an African-American. We think they’d have trouble finding a social life here.” (It’s an upscale, resort town.) Well, after I got my breath back, which took awhile, I said, “We’re talking about a Unitarian Universalist minister, for heavens sake! Do you imagine they would be unable to discern that sort of thing for themselves?” Can you guarantee that we have none of that attitude here in this congregation? I wouldn’t bet on it. Anyway, as I said, I’ve been to a lot of these workshops, but I have high hopes for this one. It is about communication, among other things, and that is the thing that has been most lacking. We are so sensitive to language, so concerned about being politically correct, using all the right terms, never offending anyone, or we have, on the other side, been so ready to call one another on the carpet for errors in those terms, that we have been unable to talk honestly and directly about the issues. We’re always on tiptoe, looking over our shoulders, waiting to be told that we have offended against some group again or preparing to be offended. The whole name of this sermon is really “I May Not Be Right, But I’m Correct”. I think that political correctness, well-intentioned as it is, has done more to keep us from solving our problems of racism, oppression, discrimination of all kinds, that any other single thing.


A few years ago when I was doing one of my perennial sermons on theodicy, like the one last Sunday, the attempt to justify, if possible, God’s ways to humankind, I used my usual example of the irrelevance of the concept of justice in regard to the workings of the universe, of an innocent child’s being born blind or deaf or retarded, or in some other way physically or mentally afflicted.  A very sweet young man, a visitor, was quite upset with me, saying that my example implied that people who begin life with a serious handicap are some­how to be pitied.  These are not handicaps, he said, but opportunities.  Note how well people who cannot see can hear, or smell, or feel things.  Note how those confined to a wheelchair develop their minds and bodies in other ways.  The young man was very kind in his strictures, but I will admit to being taken somewhat aback.  It is the first time I had ever been taken to task for feeling compassion.  It was the first time I had myself been a target for the vigilantes of political correctness.


It is easy to poke fun at some of the more ludicrous manifestations of political correctness as the author of the Politically Bedtime Stories does, and sometimes it’s even hard to decide whether people are serious or not.  One of the most confusing aspects of it is the various name changes that one of our more peculiar communications from the UU So­cial Justice department characterized as my “opposite race” has undergone.  Opposite?  Does that make Asians and Indians and Semites catty-cornered?.  When I was a girl, those of us who were brought up to believe in equality and integra­tion called the people whom Jesse Jackson ad­jures us to call African-Americans, col­ored people, or, occasionally, Negroes.  Those were the polite terms. They’ve changed again and again, and to use the one out of style is to be offensive.


I don’t think I have to explain to most of you that I agree with most of the basic ideas of the “politically correct.”  I support appropriate affirmative action; I strongly oppose any assumption of superiority or inferiority on the basis of color, creed, sex, disability, age or sexual orientation. I un­derstand the power of language, and I think that it is important to attempt to use lan­guage that is as inclusive as possible.  I even think that maintenance access cover is far more descriptive a term than manhole cover, to use the example that most people opposed to the degenderization of language used to come up with.  Nevertheless, a little sense of history, a certain amount of scholarship, particularly in a university setting where so much of this seems to be going on, a little common sense, a little humor, and an ac­ceptance of others’ good intentions, how­ever clumsily expressed, would probably improve human relationships, both personally and politically, and even, perhaps, enable some progress.  


Part of the problem with reacting appropriately to the oppressive self-righteousness of political correctness has been that most of us who get involved in this sort of thing really do want to use the names for them that people want us to use.  We really do want everyone to have equal opportunity.  We really are aware of and concerned about our own in­grained prejudices.  We want equality for ourselves, too.  Since we have those feel­ings, we’re easily drawn into the maelstrom, and when certain things irritate, anger, or embarrass us on our own side of the issue, we tend to consider our discomfort a prod­uct of our own prejudice rather than a ratio­nal and reasonable response to oppression or stupidity.  Sometimes it is the little, seemingly almost trivial things that we be­come aware of, but these are, it seems to me, straws in the wind.


I think, for example, of the fact that the story, “Little Black Sambo” became a sym­bol of black degradation.  I think it has dis­appeared entirely from libraries and book­stores, and yet it was probably the most unlikely target anyone could have come up with.  If you are old enough to re­member the story, you recall that there were two fac­tors that made the whole flap ridiculous.  In the first place, it was set in India, not Africa.  Little Black Sambo had no particular rela­tionship to African-Americans.  In the sec­ond place, and more importantly, Little Black Sambo was an intel­ligent and re­sourceful child, a perfectly reasonable role model for anyone of any color.  However, the story had an insufficient cultural following to survive.  When it was attempted to take The Ad­ventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the most anti-racist books ever written, especially in its era, from library shelves, on the basis of its racist language, however, there was enough of an outcry that the attempt failed.


Radical feminists tried the same with Little Women  by Louisa May Alcott, never having read it and assuming from its title, for some reason that I have never been able to ascertain, that it was anti-feminist.  Louisa May Alcott, a Unitarian, was a strong feminist, and her bias shows in every book she wrote.  That attempt failed too, I’m happy to say, but the mere fact that it even was mentioned is an embarrassment to feminists.


Book-banning is only one of the plea­surable avocations of the politically cor­rect.  Another is the attempt to silence those with whom they disagree.  This is no prettier on the left than it is on the right, and indeed it almost seems worse, since the whole point of liberal politics, it seems to me, is to protect everyone’s rights, even those of Republicans.  There has been more than one incident of demonstrations which have made it impossible for a speaker to say whatever it was they came to say, and full editions of college newspapers which contain something that a certain group finds offensive have been destroyed. The people doing it call themselves liberal, and yet they are trampling on the rights of free speech and freedom of the press.


What has bothered me most in all this, I think, is the degradation of scholarship.  Black studies and Women’s studies have in some cases almost driven out a general knowledge of history, literature and sociol­ogy.  In general courses they have some­times included second-rate works or trivial in­cidents simply because the authors or actors were black and/or female.  Women and black people have been systematically ex­cluded from education and from powerful roles in history.  For that very reason their contributions have been much smaller than their numbers and abilities would other­wise allow one to expect.  But that is the whole point!  To include the second-raters and the trivial is to deny the very reality that we are trying to change.   


Of course, part of political correctness is to deny the value of traditional western culture.  Things are considered worthy or unworthy not because of their truth or their literary value, but because of their inclu­siveness.  However, in my attempt to be a good feminist, I’ve read a lot of women’s lit­erature, herstory (that word is one of my major embarrassments in itself) and theal­ogy, and most of it that hasn’t made it into mainstream culture is pretty awful. The politically correct history and anthropol­ogy is usually scholastically appalling, with facts chosen and manipulated to prove a previously deter­mined idea.  It doesn’t matter if it’s right, so long as it’s correct.


At the Service of the Living Tradition at the UUA General Assembly, a divinity student has some­times been asked to give the closing prayer.  A few years ago it was given by a young black woman in a wheelchair.  I sadly found myself wondering if they chose her to give the prayer because she was es­pecially talented, or because of the number of minority groups to which she belonged?  I am not saying either that she should not have been chosen or that it would be wrong to have chosen her for those reasons, merely that it is very sad that the situation is such that it was immediately assumed that her ability had nothing to do with it.  In fact, her prayer was terrible, but that had nothing to do with her sex, her color or her confinement to a wheelchair.  She simply made the common mistake of many young theologues of spending an inordinate time on instructing God in his obviously ne­glected duties, from the plight of the homeless and oppressed to the weather in the Sahara.  It was lengthy and incredibly pre­sumptuous.  One can only hope that with longer experience and more reflection her praying will improve.  Another problem, however, is that it is not easy to criticize her skill in prayer because of her particular characteristics.  Am I being racist? sexist? or worse than all not giving due weight to the skills of someone who is physically handicapped?


Before I close, I’d like to go back to the incident with which I opened this sermon.  Perhaps the sit­ting duck of the politically correct is their insistence that people are not disabled but differently abled.  I yield to no one in my respect for those who succeed in spite of their disabilities, whose skills or power or personalities are enhanced rather than destroyed.  I admire their courage and their talents.  Nevertheless, I don’t know one person in the world who would choose to lose his or her eyesight in order to enhance their other senses.  Nor do I know anyone who would choose to be crippled (and why is that word insulting to the politically correct?) in order to enhance his or her mental powers.  Nor do I know anyone who would choose to be retarded in order to have the sweet and loving personality which frequently goes along with Downs Syndrome babies.  No matter how well the individual succeeds I still would argue that such added and unde­served burdens are a perfect sign of the irrelevance of the concept of justice in the natural order.


We are adjured to sensitivity.  It seems to me that there are two kinds of it.  There is the sensitiv­ity which cares for and tries to understand those who are burdened or oppressed or unhappy and does the best it can within the limitations of human frailty to alleviate those pains.  Then there is the sen­sitivity that screams or weeps at a touch, that sees insult everywhere, that insists that others change to keep from distressing it.  The second kind may be unavoidable, but it should cer­tainly neither be encouraged nor sought.  The first kind is one of the high­est virtues.  As well as recognizing and try­ing to alleviate inequities it may also need to try to recognize when people’s motiva­tions are honorable even when their execu­tion blunders, and the other kind of sensi­tive self is hurt.  That sensitivity will have the toughness of humor and of common sense.  It will be as po­litically correct as it can within the limits of truth and ability but without self-righteousness and without judging others.  It will not answer oppres­sion with oppression, hatred with hatred, fear with fear, but will overcome using its own weapons of honor and justice and love. Maybe then we can even begin to talk to one another.