On March 13th there is going to be a training session in
Most of you know that one of my jobs is to help Unitarian Universalist congregations in the
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
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
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.