‘Sanctimonious but Not Moral:’ The Scourge of Political Correctness
By Neil Earle
I must confess, when I first heard the term and concept “political correctness” in the 1990s, I tended to laugh it off as an overreaction.
Not any more.
In the 1960s we had the New Morality, the idea perpetrated by more progressive and – sometimes – compassionate members of our Western society that it was time to loosen the tight moral standards of the past, especially, but not exclusively, in the sexual realm. “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation,” asserted Canada’s new Justice Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Even before then in the 1950s the Christian philosopher and writer C.S. Lewis had warned about what we were doing, however. In his best-selling Mere Christianity he wrote: “They tell you sex has become a mess because it has been hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still a mess.”
That was 1952. Think of how much distance we have travelled since then as a culture.
How well I remember. When I was at university in the early 1960s the big question was: Is pre-marital sex permissible? Oh, my, we have come a long long way since then in the era of more than 32 genders.
But are we any happier, united, at peace with ourselves and others?
Another wise man wrote that when men and women cease to believe in God they don’t just end up believing in nothing, they end up believing anything!!
The Passionate Religions
Western culture once had a central belief structure. It wasn’t always adhered to or practiced but it was there. The shorthand phrase for it was “Judaeo-Christian culture” leavened by legal and philosophical traditions handed down from ancient Rome and Greece. Central tenets were Law and Order, personal responsibility and opportunities for individual aspirations in many directions. Today it seems like in the absence of strong belief backed up by commitment to a Supreme Being people still believe, but they have made a religion out of the Environment, or Liberation in its various guises, or Tolerance, or Politics. The passion is there and it is real, like the rebels of 1968 who occupied the universities with the slogan, “Change the university or bring it down.”
This emotionalized sense of ethics overflows today in what has been called “principled violence” the idea, for example, that if you are against abortion it is OK to bomb an abortion clinic. Or if you feel your ethnic group has been discriminated against it is justifiable to buy a gun and start blasting away.
Zealotry in causes that were clouds no bigger than a man’s hand two generations back rockets our public discourse into overdrive. This perversion of free speech is fanned into flame by an often unprincipled, undiscriminating 24-hour media presence geared to sensationalism in the ratings wars. Outrage seems the order of the day. Have newly self-liberated advocates of “go with the flow” – the woke – have they become as fanatical and intolerant in their outlook as the practitioners of the abuse they were originally questioning? This seems to be happening.
We begin to see that our democratic constitutionally-based majority rule Western culture is under strain right now to keep everyone’s fevered beliefs from breaking the bounds. It is making what we used to call “civilized society” harder to function.
In May, 2016 the United States government seemed ready to move from “The State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation” to the dogmatic assertion regarding gender rights, “The state has every business in the bathrooms of the nation!”
Is this progress…or cultural vertigo?
I vividly remember an opinion article in Newsweek about 1977 titled “Cruel Lib” where amidst a decade where “liberation” was on everyone’s lips, the writer wondered semi-humorously if many of us didn't really have all these great talents and abilities the promoters of total freedom were pushing. Maybe we were just plain folks after all. Not only that but a society where everyone is pursuing their own liberation could end up being a pretty noisy, messy, and ultimately vicious place. “How dare you impose upon my freedom?” An ideological traffic jam we could say, but with no reasonable policeman in sight.
This is one reason America’s founders were wise to write that the Constitution as a form of social order only works for a moral people, a people who could be trusted with a wide range of freedoms.
Escape from Freedom?
It is peculiar but untrammeled freedom has a way of turning back on itself and devouring its advocates. This was a cardinal lesson of the French Revolution of 1789 wherein the quite reasonable desire to be free of some of the oppressive features of the prevailing order – where church and state hogged most of the benefits – was radically overthrown in a spasm of violence soon known as the Reign of Terror. For a brief while the Goddess of Reason was celebrated and worshipped in the cities of France.
This quickly evolved into a cry for stability that resulted in the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. This led to a twenty year period of wars and bloodshed only surpassed in our own times.
Most folks called “conservatives” know this story very well but a younger generation seems never to have been exposed to it. We’re now two or three generations since “history” has been replaced by “social studies” in school, a rather anemic substitute in many cases.
What Price Freedom?
Freedom is indeed heady wine. It has a habit of overreaching and tending towards anarchy which then begins to undercut its foundational principles. The reasonable-sounding declaration that women must have a major say in their own bodies and reproductive rights ends up with New York State endorsing what looks suspiciously like infanticide and writing it into their constitution. To a standing ovation. And other states are pushing in the same direction even as a strong backlash has begun. Up in Canada we have moved from the Church having too much say in societal matters – especially in Quebec until the 1960s – to the Prime Minister making sure that there are no serious believing Christians in his cabinet.
Can’t Escape the Spiritual
Christianity, so goes the story today, automatically smacks of oppression, social control and infringements on freedom. Some of this was regrettably true in too many cases and in some places today, but the untaught unrealized other side is that Biblical Christianity begins with two human beings in a splendid park setting being given the freedom to choose. “God has made the mind free” has been one of the revolutionary declarations from the 1700s that Christian statesmen derived from the Bible. Over and over the God of the Bible advised Israel, “Choose…”
Truly, as the President of Czechoslovakia said to the US Congress in the 1990s after escaping the yoke of Communism, the spiritual comes before the material.
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In my church history classes I sometimes conclude with the summary by a traditionalist historian Paul Johnson in his History of Christianity. Johnson himself began as a man of the left in the 1960s. He was an early foe of the cant and hypocrisy of political correctness whose three cardinal virtues seem to be not faith, hope and charity but endlessly decrying racism, sexism and homophobia. Woe betides the political leader who gets tarred with that descriptor today or from the little assassins who hide behind their keyboards.
Speaking of the Christian Church at its best across the centuries Johnson summarized:
“As an exercise in perfectionism, Christianity cannot succeed, even by its internal definitions; what it is designed to do is to set targets and standards, raise aspirations, to educate, stimulate and inspire…Certainly mankind without Christianity conjures up a dismal prospect. The record of mankind with Christianity is daunting enough…But without these restraints, bereft of these encouragements, how much more horrific the history of these last 2000 years must have been…
“Christianity has not made man secure or happy or even dignified. But it supplies a hope. It is a civilizing agent. It helps to cage the beast. It offers glimpses of real freedom, intimations of a calm and reasonable existence.”
And then he really drops the hammer on religion’s bigoted accusers:
“In the last generation, with public Christianity in headlong retreat, we have caught our first distant view of a de-Christianized world, and it is not encouraging.” Johnson quotes Francis Bacon, patron saint of the New Science thinkers in the 1600s: “They that deny God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is kin to the beasts by his body; and if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.”
The Judaeo-Christian ethic at its best has a superb moral code contained in the Ten Commandments (rightly interpreted) and the Sermon on the Mount. It sets forth a summons to human societies and individuals to live above the level of human frailty. Without that Code dominant in our societies where will we be? Alas, we may be starting to find out and the first “returns” are not good.