Anglican Church Letter
Keith examines some of the less pleasant parts of Political Correctness.
October 2006 Anglican Church Letter
I have been very exercised of late by the difficulties we all face when we try to communicate. 'PC' is a dirty word in my vocabulary, but I am probably being unfair. It's like everything else - anything in excess is by definition bad, almost anything in moderation is actually OK. I have to say 'almost' because there are some things that are deathly in even minute doses. By the same token, anything (which here means everything) in real excess is deathly.
So, my objections, which I imagine are widely shared, are with the way every description of an unfortunate state of affairs becomes derisory or even insulting over time. I don't think this was always so, but it certainly is now. So people who were neutrally described as 'disabled' years ago are now no longer allowed to be so described, because the word gives offence. Even to describe someone as 'blind' is now apparently not PC, although that baffles me.
This tendency has, of course, gone beyond mere words. I think I have complained in these columns before about our current inability to comprehend that accidents sometime happen. Anything bad that happens is now regarded as someone's fault. If you can only identify who, you can then claim compensation. But that is a distraction from my theme.
I can do little about the way we have to keep changing our vocabulary, but I can do something about the way I speak and choose my words in order to avoid giving gratuitous offence. If it is now a fact (however regrettable) that a word that had one meaning when I was young (eg 'disabled' or 'gay') has a different one now, then I should recognise that and avoid pedantically hanging on to the old, where there is any chance that I could thereby give offence. There is a limit (ie beyond which is giving in to 'excess') to how careful we have to be. People who have suffered terrible disappointments or losses should be handled with kid gloves, but not for ever. At some stage, they have to face up to bruising, casual comments and allow the scars to harden over, so that they get on with their own lives.
Drawing the lines between being over careful and too careless is awfully difficult. One has to get on with it eventually and not be silenced by not knowing which way to lean. All these thoughts have been triggered by the furore over the Pope's references in mid September to some anti-Islamic words of a 14th century Holy Roman Emperor. He was presenting a paper on the need to avoid violence in the propagation of one's faith. In the Western world where free speech is regarded as more important than people's susceptibilities, religious or otherwise, the talk was unexceptional and the reference merely an academic expedient. In many Islamic areas, sensitivities were irritated and unfortunately much violence (including death) erupted.
If, however, writers like Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian are right in saying that the Pope's argument was that 'reason is intrinsic to Christianity, yet merely a contingent part of Islam', then he (that is to say the Pope) can rightly be criticised for making an attack. The fact that none of this comes remotely close to justifying the ridiculous reactions of so many Muslims is not the point. He should have been more alive to the sensitivities of some of his hearers.
We do live in a remarkably sensitive age, when robust, honest comment is almost always ill-advised, but for most of us we have to recognise this and get on with it. It will change when enough courageous people defy the constraints often enough, but it will be painful for them and we cannot all be revolutionaries.
It is interesting that Jesus himself was prepared to be mealy-mouthed himself if appropriate. When he asked his disciples who they thought he was, Saint Peter replied that he was The Christ, The Messiah, Jesus then strictly enjoined them NOT to let anyone know! He was starting his ministry on the basis that those to whom he preached should not know who he was, from whence he drew his authority. He was acutely aware of how misunderstood by the Jews he would have been if he had publicly claimed to be the Messiah at that time in history. The full revelation of who he was, the revelation of what it had all meant had to wait until after the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension.
So, as Christians, we need to be prepared to hold our tongues when it would be unhelpful or hurtful to speak out. However when we do speak out, we have to be honest and truthful - in the real philosophical meaning of those words - not seeking to give facts and accuracy, but seeking to tell the truth, to lead people forward in love, not to mislead and gratuitously hurt.
Licensed Lay Minister