Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 16th, 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?



July 2010