Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 2010

In 2004 Rocco Buttiglioni, Minister of European Affairs in the Italian government, was selected by the president of the European Commission to be its commissioner of justice. When in his interview he acknowledged that he was a practising Roman Catholic and believed that homosexual activity was a sin but should not be criminalized, he was disqualified from taking office on the grounds that  his personal moral convictions were “in direct contravention of European law”.  Rocco rightly called his treatment “the new totalitarianism”.

The strange phenomenon known as “political correctness” first emerged in the 1990s in the US as a way of avoiding speech that is demeaning to others. In most cultures verbal etiquette and sensitive speech are honoured if not commonly practised. But, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes, PC which was “created to avoid stigmatizing speech” quickly became  “the supreme example of stigmatizing speech” in the Western world. It has been allied to a culture where everybody wants to see themselves as “victims”, easily offended and demanding “recognition” from others of their self-authored identities.

We can agree that shunning language that demeans, scorns and humiliates people is a mark of civility. It is a way of showing respect for the dignity of others. The use of “invalid” for people with physical or mental disabilities was a dreadful way of speaking (yet, ironically, the same societies that have dropped the term “invalid”- and even “handicapped”- are promoting a public ideology that regards foetuses and elderly people with disabilities as of no intrinsic value, thus demonstrating that language change alone does not alter our moral perceptions). Calling people visually challenged instead of blind or senior citizens instead of old, horizontally challenged instead of fat, and so on, are changes that are more amusing than substantial; and we accept them because they are relatively trivial.

But things took a sinister turn when the “political correctness” lobby stressed the political in the phrase and started using  naked power to outlaw any moral viewpoint other than their own. How being “sensitive in one’s speech” moved from being a matter of good manners, civility or politeness to becoming political marked a significant and interesting cultural shift. It highlights the decay of “civil society”- those associations that mediate between the state and the individual, in which men and women from diverse background can engage one another in conversation and collaborate in projects for the common good. Instead of strangers learning to deliberate with one another as neighbours, we have groups seeking to use the  power of institutions, including the state, to make enemies out of neighbours.

This was the culmination of changes in Western society that thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor have traced in some detail.  Moral languages which were once part of coherent intellectual traditions have broken down. All that is left are fragments of earlier beliefs. There is no shared set of moral values that holds societies together, only institutions such as governments, legal systems or markets. Words survive, but the beliefs that gave them meaning are forgotten. Most people are unaware of the moral underpinnings of political institutions, and so it is only a matter of time before such institutions too lose their credibility. And when moral truth itself is seen as merely a matter of personal taste, how can we engage in moral argument? We only talk past each other. And when we want our way to prevail we resort to the naked assertion of power. The loudest voice or the most airbrushed speaker wins. (Hence the power of rabid tabloid headlines, spin doctors and PR experts).

In such an environment, it is not the argument that is attacked but the arguer. Accuse someone of being “prejudiced” or “narrow-minded”- the only universal evils- and you feel justified in shutting out her viewpoint from discussion. This is the new repression behind what masquerades as “open mindedness” and “tolerance”. The tragedy, of course, is when it surfaces on university campuses which once held academic freedom to be indispensable in the quest for truth – the freedom to publish any opinion, however outlandish, provided one was willing to submit it to critical scrutiny and debate. It is seen when an outstanding Singaporean law professor had her invitation to speak at a prestigious American university revoked after intense pressure from the ”gay” political lobby, because of her views on homosexuality; or when some academics in the UK campaigned to exclude Israeli scholars from attending conferences because their views were considered Zionist.

John Stuart Mill, one of the architects of modern liberalism would be turning in his grave. In his famous  On Liberty, Mill argued that public opinion mattered as much as law. Our freedoms can be sabotaged by public ridicule and exclusion as much as by repressive legislations. He complained of the “peculiar evil of silencing an opinion”:

“The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.  To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed… unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them.”

Who will safeguard intellectual freedom and reasoned argument in the universities of the future?

Walter Moseley is a contemporary African-American writer whose detective novels, set in the ghettos of ‘50s and ‘60s Los Angeles, are also acute social commentaries and poignant evocations of the vicious racism of that world.

“There weren’t many people out in the street. In the early sixties nearly everybody was working. On the bus there were mainly old people and young mothers and teenagers coming in late to school. Most of them were black people. Dark-skinned with generous features.  Women with eyes so deep that most men can never know them.  Women like Betty who’d lost too much to be silly or kind. And there were the children… with futures so bleak that it could make you cry just to hear them laugh. Because behind the music of their laughter you knew there was the rattle of chains. Chains we wore for no crime; chains we wore for so long that they melded with our bones. We all carry them but nobody can see it- not even most of us. All the way home I thought about freedom coming for us at last.  But what about all those centuries in chains? Where do they go when you get free?” [Black Betty (New York: Pocket Books, 1995) pp.267-8]

Our histories don’t necessarily imprison us. But nor do they instantly disappear with the signing of treaties and changes in legislation. It has often amazed me that more black people are not as angry as they should be. Not only in the US but- much more so- in societies like India and Brazil where dark skin is identified pervasively with inferiority. African and African-American friends of mine are generally good-humoured, gentle and tolerant. But whenever they express anger or indignation at a Christian gathering, the response of well-to-do whites is to complain – at the supposedly “unChristian tone” of their language. This then becomes an excuse to ignore altogether the substance of what they say and the reasons for their anger.

The same goes for women. Intelligent women who protest angrily at the hypocritical way they are treated in many churches are pilloried as “feminists” (a strange swear-word in some evangelical circles). They end up channeling their gifts outside the church or voting with their feet. But others live double lives: exercising leadership in the secular world, but passively fitting into the sex roles defined in the church by male pastors. It is a well-documented fact that many oppressed peoples internalize the view of themselves that the dominant group perpetuates. This is what Antonio Gramsci in the 1930s famously called hegemony: it is not only through coercion that ruling groups rule, but by controlling the discourses that permeate the media and educational system. And, we should add, “church theology”. Unquestioning docility is engineered not by police forces but by intellectuals in the service of the ruling powers.

The anger of God ripples through the entire biblical narrative. “That is how we know we matter to God,” wrote the 4th-century Christian apologist Lanctantius, “He gets angry when we sin.” The anger of Jesus would be well-worth studying, but I haven’t heard any talks on the subject. Hypocrisy and hard-heartedness on the part of religious leaders are what mostly elicited the anger of Jesus- not sexual sins! I don’t find him calling to repentance the prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves or the “unspiritual” of his society but, rather, the rich, the religious and the respectable. Both in his teaching and his lifestyle he is provocative, controversial, disturbing and dangerous. “White-washed tombstones” is what he called the Pharisees who were the “Bible-believing” Jews of his day. They venerated dead prophets but couldn’t recognize the prophet in their midst. To those who were sure that their seats were booked in heaven, he warned that they would be in for a shock at the Final Judgment. Those outside the church were closer to the Kingdom of God than many leaders within.

This Jesus would not be welcome in most churches today. Nor would he be invited to address the Lausanne Congress or other big evangelical conferences. He would be too much of a social embarrassment. He would upset the big donors, the money would dry up. His “tone” would be all wrong, too provocative and unpolished. He would be withering in his scorn for the personality-cults that build up around popular preachers. He would be angry at the divisions and competition that evangelicals take for granted. He would denounce the individualisation and privatization of the Gospel. He would ask uncomfortable questions: are homogeneous churches simply religious clubs? why is an incompetent man preferred as a pastor or leader to a gifted and godly woman? how come there are so many SUVs in the church parking lot? what proportion of the church’s budget is spent on buildings and music equipment compared to what is spent on serving the poor?…..

“It was the Church, not the world, which crucified Christ.” (Karl Barth)



July 2010