Political correctness gets a bad rap
There, I said it.
I think being politically correct, if we define it as avoiding language and actions that exclude and marginalize disadvantaged and discriminated groups of people, is an essential practice for a civil and compassionate society. Really, it’s the least we could do. The problem is that many people decry attempts at political correctness as weak, spineless attempts at not offending anyone.
“You need to grow a backbone,” some say.
“Tell it like it is,” they demand.
That phrase always frustrates me, “Tell it like it is.” I always wonder, “according to who?” Who’s “it” should I tell it like? That’s the issue. We assume there is some objective place from which we can make pronouncements about “it,” and that everyone should just accept our opinion or understanding. This, by the way, is where so much of the persecution narrative many Christians are holding comes from. They want to “tell it like it is,” meaning saying whatever they want about a particular group of people or issue, and they don’t want anyone to push back or criticize them for it. Too often, deriding political correctness is simply a smokescreen for people who want to say rude, unChristlike things to others.
Beyond that, the “tell it like it is” crowd aren’t as interested in truth as much as they are just being in-your-face. This is especially true among religious people who think that it’s our calling to offend people. After all, Paul talks about the “offense of the cross.”
Yet there’s a difference in the offense of the cross and just being offensive.
The offense of the cross challenges our categories of insider/outsider, of who’s acceptable. Being offensive seeks to further distance others by reinforcing such categories.
The offense of the cross insists that the world won’t be put back together and healed through perpetuating violence and injustice. Being offensive seeks to perpetuate shame and exacerbates pain.
The offense of the cross declares that self-giving love is the greatest value, and the path to transformation. Being offensive seeks to make us feel more superior and correct than those who are on the receiving end of our “telling it like it is.”
Caring about the feelings of others, and seeking to minimize discrimination and marginalization aren’t bad things. Actually, they are values that should matter to Christians, because they are part of the DNA of our tradition.
There’s this beautiful line in Colossians that reads like this:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. [Colossians 4v5-6, NIV]
Let your conversation be full of grace. What is grace? Grace is gift. Unmerited, unearned gift. And salt. In the ancient world salt was known for its medicinal, preservative, and healing properties. Let your conversation be full of grace and seasoned with salt. This can’t happen when our goal is to hurl insults, to wound, or to make others feel small. When our conversations aren’t marked by grace and salt, they tend to be full of unchecked anger and dehumanization.
Sure, I’m all for telling unpopular and inconvenient truths.
I’m for straight talk and rocking all boats that need rocking.
But I’m not for sinking them
If there are breathing human beings aboard.
Words have consequences, political consequences,
So consider the consequences when you detonate your words.
Our words have power. We can use them to destroy and tear down, or to build up and heal. We can use them to give life and encouragement, or to take life and create despair.
This reminds me of the line from Ephesians 4 about “speaking truth in love.” Notice that. Truth doesn’t have to be divorced from love. Yet, many are speaking their truths today without a hint of love. It seems that, for some, truth and love are polar opposites. Perhaps, however, we can’t have one without the other: when love isn’t present, truth isn’t either.
Miroslav Volf recently posted the following on Twitter:
Freedom to offend doesn’t somehow transmute the vice of hurling insults at others into a virtue.
Political correctness, if it’s the best we can do, is necessary.
Yet, I wonder, is it really the best we can do?
Could we seek to be even more gracious?
Could those of us who are part of the Christian tradition seek to speak our truths in love, seasoned with salt and marked by grace, so that our words bring hope and not despair, healing and not wounding, freedom and not shame?
We not only can, we must.