Probably as the result of the political correctness debate—well, perhaps not debate; more brouhaha—I hear or read frequent complaints about an expectation of courteous speech as though it’s an imposition. In order to cater to someone’s excessively fragile sensibilities, the argument goes, one is expected to deny the truth in favor of “political correctness.” In this case, political correctness is in quotes, because it tends to refer to even the mere suggestion that one might change one’s approach to presenting a viewpoint.
I do believe there is such a thing as political correctness. You identify it by taking note of the term political. It’s an officially imposed form of courtesy, carried out by policies such as speech codes. I’m vigorously opposed to speech codes in any sort of public institution. I think they are generally problematic in private institutions, though privately owned organizations should be able to make their own policies. As a publisher, I certainly maintain standards for what I will publish.
But the term “political correctness” has come to be applied to any expectation of courtesy, not just a code enforced by law or authority. Having hundreds or thousands of people disapprove of your speech does not censor you or deny you free speech. It merely means that those hundreds or thousands of people will disapprove of what you say. Which is their right.
Here’s an illustration of how to distinguish these ideas. Reasonably shortly after I turned 21 I realized that my driver’s license, by proving my birthday and thus my age, gave me the power to go see an X-rated movie. So, lacking good taste at the time, and apparently having money to waste, I found an “adult” cinema, showed my license, bought my ticket, and headed it to enjoy this privilege of age. Within five minutes I left again, never to return. I’m not totally prudish. I’ve watched some pretty hard “R” movies. I just insist on a story. One that the writers received more than pocket change to produce.
In that way I exercised an appropriate form of censorship on pornographic movies. I never again provided them with my hard-earned cash.
The alternative would be to go on a crusade to ban their product. I know many people who would do precisely that. I don’t plan to debate that issue in this post. What I want you to see is the difference.
An expectation of courtesy is not the same thing as a requirement that you be courteous. When a public university says that you must use certain terms in discussion, then that becomes a legal requirement. I call that political correctness. Why do I specify public? Because the university is taxpayer supported. I generally oppose speech codes in private schools as well, but in that case it is a matter of my support for genuine dialog, which requires genuine expression of a participant’s uncensored views, rather than an opposition to a public policy.
So what does this have to do with courtesy being for the other person?
Well, remember those hundreds, thousands, and I might add millions of people who may demand courtesy of you? The question for you is whether you prefer to just annoy them, or if you would like to get a hearing for your ideas. If you wish simply to annoy them, go ahead. Be my guest. You probably won’t be welcome as theirs. But if you have ideas that are important to you, ones you want to express truthfully and with vigor, you will need to consider your goal. If you want to get a hearing, you’ll need to combine “vigor” with “courtesy” or they will exercise their freedom and ignore you. Or, as often happens, abandon courtesy and treat you with the same contempt you show for them.
This applies to any discussion, including both religion and politics. Frequently I hear things that are claimed to be arguments for Christianity against atheism or some other viewpoint that are actually simply ways to make Christians feel better about themselves. Taunting atheists with “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God'” (Psalm 14:1) is a good, simple example. To you it is “truth” and you are just exercising your human freedom and “telling it like it is.” You can then slap the back of laughing fellow-Christians or fist-bump, or whatever you want, congratulating yourself on the point you’ve made by telling the truth.
But you have likely simply made it harder for the next Christian who would like to engage that atheist in actual dialog about matters of faith.
“But I’m just quoting the Bible,” you say.
“Out of context,” I reply. Nowhere does the Bible tell you to taunt unbelievers by calling them fools. In fact, it says something quite different (Matthew 5:22).
We taunt fellow-Christians in similar ways. I remember a class I led some years back. Some of the participants had been spoken of in a negative way by other members of their church. They went around the group talking about the unfairness and how inappropriate it was to treat them this way. I couldn’t resist asking this: “Have you treated any non-believers as you have been treated by fellow church members?” Many admitted that they had.
I hardly need to provide examples of how we taunt people who disagree with us politically. Then quite frequently we taunt them again if they don’t want to stay around and listen to us taunt them.
If you want to isolate your ideas and grow your contituency only by raising new members from infants (and beware of them leaving!), then by all means, treat courtesy as an imposition. Regard it as something that keeps you from letting people know how things really are.
But if you’d like your ideas to spread, learn how to express the truth in a courteous manner.
Oh, and a note to all. Disagreeing with you or thinking you’re wrong isn’t discourteous. It’s a matter of the way things are expressed.