Intellectual Freedom and Political Correctness

Posted: August 25, 2016 in Culture and Faith, Hermeneutics

Today I read an article announcing that the University of Chicago (read full article here)
alex_maclean_2005_campus_with_cityscapehad issued a letter to new students that it will not heed trigger warnings. It state
d that due to its long standing commitment to intellectual freedom that students can expect to be exposed to opinions that they may not only disagree with but sometimes find offensive. In my opinion this is a bold stance by a large university in the midst of a culture which finds itself dee
ply divided.

With the growing socio-political divide in this country, hypersensitivity to language and social topics has reached levels that have created a difficult environment in which to explore socio-political topics. What seem to be contributing factors of this hostile environment are (in my humble opinion) threefold. First, due to the politicization of particularly difficult topics, an extreme dichotomy is created. Unfortunately in a culture still struggling to shed its cloak of modernity such topics are most often boiled down to merely two sides. When this occurs it ignores the complex reality in which we live as well as silencing the multiple narratives living with the topic. In political language this occurs by categorizing the topic with “either, or” language with the popular labels of “progressive (liberal)” and “conservative.”[1]

Secondly, in as much as the culture has framed conversations surrounding social topics as simply two-sided (most often attempting to forcefully push people into one or the other category), the two culturally dominant groups have conscripted the language used in these conversations. On the one hand particular words or phrases become off limits labelled as too offensive for public discourse (and sometimes loading particular words with extenuating meaning thus minimizing the original sense of the word)[2] while the other side chides and intentionally pushes the limits of language directed sarcastically at the other side. While the original intent of sanitizing language was meritorious, it has contributed to the divided society. Both sides are championing (even though in distorted ways) values held by liberal culture.[3] On the one hand striving to solve social problems and on the other protesting the reactionary oppression censorship (even if only imagined) of language at least seems to cause.

Finally, the current climate of deep division finds its essence expressed by the illusionary environment it is creating and the painfully oppressive consequences of this embodied modern culture in the U.S. psyche. This is illustrated on the one hand by the conservative embrace of symbols and systems that have been used to perpetuate longstanding prejudices and violence. Again on the other hand it is illustrated by the use of the same oppressive behaviors toward those who have been characterized as being part of the privileged class, race, and gender. In both cases the same oppressive behaviors are used and embraced. One becomes the reactionary reflection of the other only labelling it in language of justice against the effects of the other. This becomes especially problematic when a primarily punitive understanding of justice is embraced instead of a reconciliatory one (which also includes aspects of compensation).

I’m not sure why it is, but it seems that the mainstream of U.S. culture wants to cling to the simple yes or no framing of modern perception rather than acknowledging the complex reality that we all experience. In a recent educational trip I took to Palestine, our guides highlighted the reality that too often the Palestinian/Isrit-is-impossible-to-stand-for-intellectual-freedom-without-grappling-with-censorship-frances-m-jonesaeli conflict is framed in an either or context. In reality it is a multi-narrative conflict consisting of a complex set of narratives and underlying socio-political, physiological, psychological and geo-political extenuating realities. The culture(s) in our part of North America share the reality of the Middle East that it is made up of multi-competing narratives with complex extenuating contexts. Until we begin to acknowledge and appropriate the complex reality in which we live, pushing aside our modern sensibilities and their aptitude toward boiling everything down to yes or no questions, we will never be able to appropriately engage the challenges our shared future holds on this small green planet.

So all of this is to say that I applaud the University of Chicago for their willingness to at least have a space where such conversations in all their complexities can take place. This may be so only in theory at this point, we’ll have to see how it works in practice.

[1] I consistently try to avoid using liberal in this sense in that it confuses the reality that both conservative and progressive are part of the liberal culture. Liberalism is nothing more than the political expression of modernity with its dichotomizing tendencies.

[2] Two examples are the use of terms such as “open and affirming” by the progressive groups and “pro-life” (those who identify as such politically are actually anti-abortion) by conservative groups. In both cases the conscription of the word fails to accurately express the fullness of the symbols and add implied meanings that characteristically and politically dichotomize the positions to yes or no votes.

[3] What I find most important in the University of Chicago letter are the qualifications for the freedom of such conversations being done with “civility and mutual respect.”

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