Monday, May 29, 2017
Editors' Note: This is the second part of Professor Jeremiah Ho's three part series on Civility.
It’s been over a month since my last blog posting here—(see “Civility Matters”). That posting was the first in a three-part installment on civil discourse in this seemingly new age of political and cultural rhetoric. I say “seemingly” because this new age could all just be temporary—just a detour in our collective political consciousness. Nevertheless, with this posting, I usher in the second installment on civility, which focuses on political correctness as a strawman for getting rid of civility in public discourse.
In a way, the phrase “political correctness” was created to represent a biased take on the practice of civility and has, since the early 1990s, been used repeatedly by some to displace civility in the sphere of public discourse. Arguably as a product of post-modern rhetoric, the idea of “political correctness” has been expanded into a hyperbolic threat to free expression. The treatment is post-modern in the sense that “political correctness” is one of those ideas that looks great from a distance, but the closer you get and the more obsessively you scrutinize it, the more unrealizable it gets. The idea breaks apart. So that now, eyes roll at the sound of the phrase. It signals a mode of forced inauthenticity—that people must behave in a muted, less truthful way if they abide by the codes of political correctness, a way that is claimed to be stifling to individual thought. As a result, the logic would be that we all must eschew political correctness. We must put it in “air quotes” when we mention it aloud. We must believe that it is an evil, rather than a good.
Of course, to this end, it has been civility that has been eroded and displaced, as a result of eschewing “political correctness.” The “authenticity” that was preserved has produced speech that is free but also has been revealed to be emotional and reactionary. And what does it show when people who are trying to be “authentic” have to go through the trouble of reshaping the idea of civility into “political correctness” in order to say what they want to say? This move itself is inauthentic.
And there lies a solution to bringing ourselves back to civility. We must start calling out that move. I would harken that political correctness is a fiction with a dangerous purpose, a strawman set up to elude true and productive public discourse. It’s time to pull down that charade.
In this regard, there was an example of a missed opportunity a few weeks ago when Ann Coulter pulled herself out of a scheduled speaking engagement at U.C. Berkeley after protestors threatened violence on the campus. In response, Coulter remarked that “it was a sad day for free speech.” Coulter’s ideas generally abandons “political correctness”—calling her “politically incorrect” according to the standards of those problematic definitions of political correctness is likely not inaccurate. But outraged protestors silenced her before she was even able to speak, allowing her the opportunity to wave a broken badge of free expression, which she did. Instead, what could have occurred was the Coulter speech itself—perhaps incendiary to many on the left, including to yours truly—followed by reasoned opportunities for us all to investigate her views and ideas. To let her speak and see if what she says pass muster. If what she says do not pass muster, then her authenticity comes into question. In other words, we allow truth to gauge our civil discourse.
Our free speech rights are not absolute (remember fighting words?) and to believe that it gives us carte blanche to say whatever we may think without consequence is an outright abuse of that right. I spent part of my childhood in a country that was then governed by martial law and I recall an incident when my parents admonished me for asking, “Why does the president looks so old and scary on television?,” because of fear that our neighbors in the next flat might have overheard and mistaken this as ridiculing the government. Hateful speech may be permitted and there’s a lot of that these days, but what does that seek to accomplish except to delay actual purposeful discourse on the important issues in our present and future times. Hateful, uncivil speech can and will incite high emotion. But ideas also affect emotional behavior as well. And the ideas that affect us politically and socially must be backed by truth and reason. They must be authentic in that way.
It’s time to redirect toward civility. At a mildly dangerous effect, the hateful speech of our current political climate extends the emotional dwelling of an isolated, left-behind sensibility, but at its most dangerous, it encourages fake news, nationalism, unethical behavior, hypocrisy, subordination, and violence. It makes us an immoral society unable to respect each other’s dignity. On issues of political and cultural importance—e.g., immigration, human rights, economic inequality, health care, etc.—if being uncivil is the mode, than we are not just in political gridlock but a cultural one. We will be unable to take human beings (and human rights) seriously. We will not function as a healthy democratic society.