Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Reclaiming Political Correctness

Reclaiming Political Correctness

Our students have, for many years, complained that our curriculum is too Eurocentric, too Western, that our White students (by their own admission) are not prepared to deal with racial and ethnic difference in the world “out there.” So the faculty has advanced a proposal for additional graduation requirements to address this. Big deal, right? Every college in the country has requirements for diversity or multiethnicity in the curriculum. The '90's were the decade of multiculturalism, globalism and diversity, and we’re all on board now.

Not here.

Here at Wheaton, where jazz music was prohibited until the early 1980's, the notion of multicultural education remains difficult at best. But, to our credit, there is a great deal of concern that we address this now. Money, intellectual energy and discussion has taken quite an uptick in the last 10 years, all directed at "celebrating diversity" at Wheaton. The thing that can derail it all, however, is the ugly specter of Political Correctness.

Political Correctness (PC) looms over every discussion we have like a cloud. Red flag words such as "otherness" or "marginality" set various members of the community off like a rocket on the Fourth of July. But it doesn't even take such "extreme" jargon to get people going. Words like "power" and "oppression" do the job just as well. Calling something or someone "politically correct" is a conversation stopper, a rhetorical trump card that cuts off any possible discussion. After all, what could be worse that political correctness?

I think I can claim to have come of age, intellectually speaking, at Ground Zero of Political Correctness. In 1987, I began my freshman year at Wesleyan University - "Diversity University" - where the 60's never died and the Acid Trips keep on trippin'. One of my first memories was before classes began, the girlfriend - sorry, significant other - of my resident assistant told me (in no uncertain terms) that she and her female cohort are not "girls." Girls, I was instructed, are 8-year-old prepubescent females who lack social and political power to make autonomous decisions and assert their agency. Instead, my female peers were always "women," or more appropriately, "womyn." I further learned that first year students are "Frosh," not freshmen, Black students went from Afro-American to African-American, and references to Gay and Lesbian students would be expanded to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Undesignated. There were our own fun pokes at the linguistic conventions (our dorm's "Secret Santa" gift exchange known as the "Secret Nonsectarian Snowperson" exchange), but mostly it was serious business. Linguistic gaffs could be met with hostility, violence and, worst of all, sit-ins.

Of course, as with any war, there were casualties. White heterosexual males had little to contribute to the conversation, but we knew where we stood. We could participate in rituals of self-flagellation, but little beyond that. Institutions of Western society implicated in the past oppression of "Others" were beyond redemption, in most cases. Foremost among them, the Christian Church.

Christianity (along with heteronormativity, patriarchy, Free Market Capitalism, and Republicanism) was an irredemable other, beyond the pale for the new, sensitive Politically Correct humyn.

I also recall when the term "PC" went from normative, proper admonition to fall in line, to an unqualified put-down. Time magazine picked up a story in 1990, highlighting the (many) abuses of politically correct speech maintenance on college campuses. Thankfully, Brown University caught most of the flak, but Wesleyan could have been right in there. In one year, to call someone Politically Correct went from accepted social norm, to become, well, un-Politically Correct.

It is no wonder to me that among my colleagues there are many who can't stomach words like "power" being used in any context other than "electrical," and find the notion of Political Correctness to be anathema to all things Christian, Godly, and Holy. The problem comes when we are left without a way to talk about oppression, power, domination and exclusion without setting off the PC radar. In the U.S., it is (or should be) simply obvious that race, gender and class really do matter and really do have something to do with oppression and domination. But even with that sentence, I'm sure someone just perked up, feeling that the PC stormclouds are a-gatherin'. Christians, more than anyone, must be able to talk about these things without being shut down by the showstopping declaration, "That's just Political Correctness." I say we need to reclaim what's been stolen from us.

Political Correctness, for all its crazy abuses, was born out of a recognition that some people have suffered because the ways others talked about them, made choices about who they were or were supposed to be, and kept them out of important areas of social life in material and symbolic ways. Women have been diminished by the term girl, just as to call a Black man a "boy" clearly communicates racial hierarchies. The term "Oriental," as opposed to Asian, carry a clear point of reference (Oriental means East. East of What?) These are real concerns about real people. If Christians want to be concerned about real people and the suffering they (and we) experience, where can we find the language that hasn't been poisoned by Political Correctness?

The answer, of course, is Scripture. The concerns of the Politically Correct - power, domination, exclusion, oppression - are not new. Jesus spoke of these very concerns with almost constant regularity. He spoke of Power and Oppression, but he did not call for Tolerance and the Exercise of Agency, he called for Justice, and for the Powerful to work on behalf of the Powerless. The Old Testament is rife with language for us to speak of the Stranger (i.e., the "Other"), the Alien (Undocumented Worker), and the oppressed (the Economically Margianlized.) But this language only becomes relevant to our faith as we take it up again, and actually use it.

The specter of Political Correctness has kept some of the favorite topics of the Left away from the Christian community. Race, economic oppression and social power have been shunned as theological or ecclesiological categories, left entirely to "the world." Christians have very little voice in the questions of Diversity (to use the language of our school) because they won't go near the real issues anymore.

We need not, and should not, become thought police by bringing a new language to bear on the questions of justice, race, oppression, gender and so forth. But we must reclaim the territory taken from us. Those on the Right should not be afraid; these are not issues of the Left. These are issues of the Lord.

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