A spectre is haunting Western societies- the spectre of Political Incorrectness. All the Powers of old Western liberal societies have entered into a holy alliance to exorcize this spectre: multicultural liberals (for whose agenda is to create a space of inclusiveness through advocating the of ‘tolerance’ of the Other), proponents of cultural pluralism/relativism, various members of the ‘rainbow coalition’ (different groups which all advocate one single agenda: Gender equality; race equality; religious equality, etc). Despite their differences, they all unite against their common enemy: Political Incorrectness.
Got your attention, didn’t it? Good. Let me elaborate.
As a fourth-year undergraduate University student in North America (Canada to be specific), I have had my share of ‘Sensitivity training’ lectures for a part-time job at a Residence on campus, ‘Anti-Oppression training’ for Orientation Week, and so on, a service provided by my institution (which will remain anonymous). All of these training sessions and lectures all basically convey the same message: You must be politically correct! We have all heard this term before. It refers to “…language, ideas, policies, or behaviour seen as seeking to minimize offense to gender, racial, cultural, disabled, aged or other identity groups.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_correctness)
Ah, yes. The notion that somehow through training, lectures and power-point presentations we can regulate and control, Nay! that we can police people. How liberating.
Why is it that for Western liberal multiculturalists, the issues of racism, sexism, class inequality, exploitation, etc are no longer about human emancipation or struggle, but about cultural difference and toleration? It is because they all undoubtedly accept the existing socioeconomic system as the best social order. Francis Fukuyama claimed the End of History at the fall of the Soviet Union, meaning that the formula to the best possible society was no longer a race between liberal democratic Western Capitalism and ideal socialism with a human face, but with the ‘triumph’ of capitalism, it had the formula. Effectively all the liberal multiculturalists seek to do is to include all marginalized minority groups into the bosom of liberal democratic capitalism. With the acceptance of the current system, they aim to create capitalism with ‘a human face’ i.e. one that is accepting, tolerant of all cultures, etc. They do this by emphasizing difference amongst peoples rather than our commonalities. The idea is simple, in order to establish harmony amongst various groups of people with different ethnic, religious, political, racial, etc backgrounds we must, as a society, ensure that offense is limited. It is not sufficient to purport that everyone is equal, because that is not the case (racism and sexism still exist, etc) and thus the only way to overcome these barriers is to emphasize the differences amongst us. That is, it is only by recognizing the differences within race, gender, religion, and ethnicity that a multicultural society can eventually live harmoniously. It is not about achieving equality amongst human beings, rather it is about learning to tolerate the Other and recognize the Other’s cultural identity. There are problems with this, both theoretically and practically.
Theoretical problems. It becomes politically incorrect for an individual who does not belong to a minority category to empathize with said group (i.e. it is politically incorrect for me to fight for women’s rights, when I am of the opposite sex), and each colour of the rainbow so to speak, needs to fight for its recognition. People, human beings, are categorized and recognized by the Other according to a particular attribute. That is, instead of emphasizing the commonalities we all share despite what makes us different from one another, the liberal multiculturalist stresses only differentiating identifiers such as race, gender, ethnicity, religion, culture and creed. All values and cultures must be respected and adhered to, regardless of what said values are. This sort of cultural relativism is inherently racist: it presupposes that an individual will automatically indentify with their culture, and must be recognized as such. But people are much more complex then that. What if I cannot be boxed in to any single, recognizable culture? What if I don’t like my culture? What if I just merely happen to have been born in the Middle East, but don’t necessarily ascribe to the assumed religion of that culture (i.e. Islam)? The multiculturalist simply generalizes people into assumed cultural, ethnic, religious categorizations. Another problem with demanding mutual respect for all cultures is that some cultural traditions and values are not worthy of respect. What if respect for all cultures regardless of values conflicts with human rights? Here’s an example: Take modern Evangelical Christianity in America, which considers gay men and lesbian women to be abominations merely because they ‘go against the word of god’. This is a specific religious tradition, and according to the multiculturalist ideology, must be respected and upheld. The paradox is that if we respect the religious idea that gays and lesbians are abominations, we infringe on the rights of gays and lesbians to merely exist and have equal recognition. The contradiction with ‘respecting all cultural values’ is that in a pluralist society with a plurality of values, more often then not, values will conflict with one another. It is the human individual who must be treated as equal and with respect, not their contingent values, religions, beliefs or cultures. Human equality is more crucial than cultural equality. What’s more instead of championing equality among all human beings regardless of their differences, the advocates of political correctness merely seek to reverse power roles. That is, those groups which have been historically oppressed in (Western liberal) society, are now to be given the status if authority and those who have historically been in power, must now be subjected. This post-colonial notion is plain racist. Again, it presupposes that just because you happen to appear as if you are from a minority group (i.e.colour of skin, religion, etc) then you immediate are from said group and thus identify yourself as a minority who has been oppressed. This assumption is fallacious and it generalizes people into categories. The multiculturalist position asserts that any criticism of other cultures, etc are immediately seen as politically incorrect and wrong because they are merely a product of ‘Western notion of objective truth’ which does not necessarily hold for other cultures. The problem with Cultural Relativism of this kind is that it sees its own position as neutral/natural, and not a product of Western liberal Capitalism. Their advocating of tolerance also comes into conflict. The idea is to tolerate all cultures and backgrounds, yet again if a certain religious or cultural value does not return the favour and incites hatred instead the whole project of tolerance crumbles. Every value/perspective is contingent upon a specific culture except its own position except the liberal multiculturalist/relativist position which sees itself as ‘outside of culture’, and every cultural value religion and belief is to be tolerated, except intolerance and criticism.
Practical. So why tolerance? As noted above this perspective presupposes that problems such as racism and sexism within our society can only be solved by way of tolerating the Other (race, sex, etc) and the way to go about advocating tolerance is to instill them in the minds of our growing youth. As stated earlier, I have been to many ‘Sensitivity training’ sessions and Anti-Oppression lectures where the acolytes of liberal multiculturalism try to instill the politics of recognition and tolerance onto unsuspecting students. What happened to secularism and not imposing your belief system onto others? Well, as we have seen, the multiculturalist does not see his/her own position as a belief system, but as the truth. We have a name for this kind of thinking, it is called ideology. Is not the liberal multiculturalist position very definition of ideology? That of asserting your own position as somehow the truth of the situation while all other positions are seen as either relative or not as true, and any objection to this truth is seen as incorrect. Political incorrectness is seen as any language, behaviour or notion which ‘gives offense to other cultures, etc’ but the problem is with the offense principle itself. How do we measure offense? How do we distinguish between what is offensive and not offensive? Sure, there are hate speech codes and such, but they are regularly abused by religious groups who consider any critique of their belief system as hate speech, so the notion of regulating language is very, very problematic. The answer to the offense principle is that there is no way to account for what actually offends some and not others. There is no way to predict what will be considered offensive because we cannot know what past experiences people have had that may make some things offensive. For example your haircut might offend me merely because my grandfather was beaten to death by someone with the same exact haircut. Does me being offended justify creating a policy to ensure my protection? Of course not. What’s more, trying to protect individuals from being offended is ridiculous. People have a right to be offended, it’s a natural part of life, it’s how we as human beings learn to develop and grow. The idea of a society where no one is offended, ever, rings of Huxley’s Brave New World and dystopia. Nevertheless, by way of lectures, training, and presentations and not to mention instituting certain ‘equity’ policies which prohibit certain liberties, the multiculturalist/relativists are trying to churn out more sensitive, tolerant students. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an admirable intention, but their practical implementation is skewed to say the least. Oh, and it’s not working. Take it form someone who has been through their attempts at indoctrination more than once, people see through it. The notion that you can instill your perspective onto others via power-point and expect everyone to adhere to it is something which negates critical thought. As a philosophy major, it is rather insulting to my intelligence when I am told that my perspective is wrong simply because it runs contrary to their politics. It is politically incorrect to even criticize political correctness, and during these presentations if you raise an objection they dismiss it as simply ‘wrong’. They advocate tolerance yet when a perspective is intolerant of their politics of tolerance, they do not tolerant it. Or to put it more poetically, they tolerate everything except intolerance. The only way for this politics of recognition to ensure that its agenda is furthered, is by having annual Sensitivity Training sessions, lectures and presentations where the ideology is yet again dogmatically instituted. It seems that the only way for them to stop political incorrect behaviour is to couple these ‘information sessions’ with a perpetual politically correct watchdog mentality. That is, those who take up the cause of pluralism and multiculturalism make it their personal goal to correct any forms of language, behaviour or act which is not considered politically correct. No matter what the occasion. In short, the only way to stop people from ever being politically incorrect is to employ Politically Correct Thought Police who will fight you teeth and nail if you so much as hint at flirting with politically incorrect jokes. I don’t know about you, but the idea of living in a pseudo-Orwellean/1984 world is rather disturbing. Yet, the best definition of ideology is perhaps found in Marx’s Capital: ‘They do not know it but they are doing it.’
Given all the problems outlined in this piece, I would just like to add that with the current global economic crisis, the Fukuyama notion of ‘End of history’ goes out the window. As our economies continue to plunge in what has been described as the worst crisis since the Great Depression, it becomes all the more evident that certain social change is necessary in order to avoid frequent economic instability. Everyone is now uniting to see through these difficult times, we are once again reminded of what struggles we all have in common-something which slaps the politics of recognition in the face. So what is to be done? At the least a rethinking of the current dominant Western liberal multiculturaist mindset is needed. If the politically correct programs currently in place in our institutions at the moment can be considered the ‘second wave’, it’s clear that like its counterparts (feminism, anti-racist movements, etc) that we need a third wave. We need to rethink the politics of recognition and perhaps opt for a more universal politics of social change.