Friday, March 29, 2013

Political Correctness and Crushable Adults

I saw a bumper sticker recently on a car that proclaimed Baby On Board and I've been pondering it for several days now. What exactly is the driver trying to say? That because they are transporting a baby, drivers should be careful not to smash into their vehicle? And is the implication that adults not carrying children in the car are expendable? I find myself wondering if perhaps it would be better to just remember that all moving vehicles have precious human lives on board.

This seems to be the latest incarnation of political correctness-the ugly attitude that some humans are more valuable than others. The corollary that follows from making one kind of person more valuable is that people who are not in that group are less valuable. With all the concern for more courteous discourse in America, I would think that making some people less valuable than others would be a problem.

Look at the latest idea being advanced in public schools-that students should be taught to respect the LGBT community. On the surface, that sounds like a great idea. No one should be bullied because of their orientation. Certainly I don't think any fault could be found with teaching that the word "gay" should not be used as an insult. But wouldn't it be more productive to have zero tolerance for bullying of ANY students, regardless of their orientation? If LGBT students are accorded extra rights and protections, does that make the heterosexual students more acceptable to bully? What about tall kids, short kids, kids who climb on rocks, fat kids, skinny kids, and even kids with chicken pox? If we teach children that one group is off-limits, does that send a message that anyone not in that group is fair game? It could be possible that the youth of today would be better served by the simple idea, consistently enforced, that all people are of equal value and that bullying any of them will not be tolerated. It would certainly save time in the classroom, time that could be put to use teaching children to read and write and do arithmetic. And it would give them a rule that is a lot easier to remember than trying to keep track of all the "special" groups they are supposed to be extra-sensitive to.

Come to think of it, looking at how gay marriage is up before the Supreme Court, what if we were to advance the idea that marriage is simply a contract entered into between two sane adults? Just take the government AND the church out of the equation as far as defining marriage goes, have a civil ceremony that allows couples in any state of the union to enter into a contract according them the benefits and responsibilities traditionally accorded marriage, and leave it at that. If they want to get married in a church, let them. If some couples want to call their marriages "traditional" or "Biblical" that would be okay too. After all, there was a time that marriage was not regulated by the government. The institution of marriage pre-dates recorded history, and exactly what constitutes a marriage has as many different definitions as there have been cultures to define it. Some cultures allow a man to have more than one wife, or more rarely, a woman to have more than one husband. Other cultures insist on monogamy being the cornerstone of marriage. The ancient Greeks didn't even have a specific ceremony for marriage-just a verbal agreement between the two parties. In Britain, marriage wasn't regulated until the Marriage Acts of 1754 and 1835. And in America, common-law unions have always been recognized as a sort of marriage, with some of the obligations and benefits of marriage being held by each person. Think of all the time and energy we could save, not to mention the animus we could defuse, by making marriage a simple contract between two people and not concerning ourselves with what orientation or sex the people were.

I often think of an article I read a number of years ago, written by a blind woman whose name I do not remember. What I do recall, vividly, is her musing about how she was born blind, then she was called handicapped, then disabled, and finally visually challenged, yet no matter what term was used to describe her condition, she still couldn't see. Does language really control our thought to this extent? Or is it possible that we've tried to control our language to the point where it's difficult to think? It would seem so. In February, 1999, Amelia Rideau, an English major, complained that a professor used the word "niggardly" while discussing Chaucer. It's an archaic word, it hasn't been in general use for at least a hundred years, and it does sound too close to the N-word to be appropriate in general conversation. However, one expects better thinking skills from a university student in a class about Chaucer. One would not expect the student to tell the professor that she was offended by this word, which she should know, or be willing to learn, has nothing to do with the N-word and was in common usage in England at the time Chaucer was writing. This story had a happy ending-the student's complaint was intended to support the school's speech code, but wound up destroying it. An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal thanked Miss Rideau for clarifying precisely why speech codes have a chilling effect on academic freedom by reinforcing defensiveness among students who ought to be more open to learning.

The Wisconsin incident is just one example of how people are looking for reasons to be offended. The right to be offended seems to be the most sacred cow of political correctness, and it seems to be a given that the offended is never misunderstanding what was said, or taking it out of context, or just plain wrong. Nor is it in good taste to ponder whether the offended is acting under some personal or political agenda. All that counts is that something has been said that someone found offensive, and whoever spoke is automatically guilty. A real offense and an imaginary offense become virtually indistinguishable under these criteria. Wasn't this how the Salem witch trials were run? Accusations, no matter how wild, being taken as solid evidence of egregious offenses? I seem to recall this being the case, and that this event in our history had sad consequences for all involved and left a legacy of shame in its wake.

Amelia Rideau is an old story but current examples of the chilling effect of political correctness are readily available. This week, Dr Ben Carson, a noted pediatric neurosurgeon, became the subject of a petition to remove him as the commencement speaker to the graduating class of 2013 at Johns Hopkins. Why don't the students want him? Well, he questioned Obamacare and progressive taxation and said that he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman. He also said that no group, be they gays, members of NAMBLA, or practicing beastiality, should expand marriage rights. Were his examples troubling? Perhaps. If they were, people should have been troubled when the references to NAMBLA and beastiality were first raised by Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor. But then Sotomayor is not held to the same standard as Carson-she's a liberal and in the hall of political correctness, free speech is acceptable coming from liberals, much like when Nina Totenberg made her infamous remark about how Jesse Helms should get AIDS.

It may be that we can learn to be kind towards one another without having to walk on eggshells, and that we can foster intelligent discussion without being worried that every word is being weighed and measured on a scale that could only make sense to a listener who is looking for trouble. It may be that pigs will fly-the one seems as likely as the other. Like most people these days, I am careful about what I say, but eternal optimist that I am, I continue to hope that when I open my mouth, I will not encounter someone who is determined to accuse me of putting my foot in it. And that I won't be seen as crushable.