Political Correctness Vs. Civility
by Bruce Riley Ashford
(as found inĀ Letters to an American Christian)


Welcome to the big leagues! You got hammered from the Left when you wrote your pro-life opinion piece. And now you're being hammered from the fever swamps of the distant Right because you dared to mention the reality of racial injustice. It seems you've violated the PC norms of two different special interest groups. Take heart: even though the bulldogs of both sides won't rest, they'll soon find some other fresh meat to gnaw on.

Let's take some time to talk about political correctness itself -- how it started, where it's headed, and how we should respond.

In order to address the politically correct norms that govern public discourse today, we have to return to a subject we discussed already -- free speech. You're not old enough to remember the birth of the Free Speech Movement, so you wouldn't know that it was born on the campus of the University of California at Berkley in 1964. Come to think of it, I'm not old enough to remember it either.

Anyway, back in the sixties, one of Berkley's graduate students, Jack Weinberg, defied a campus-wide ban on political activism by setting up a table with political information. When police detained him, a group of approximately three thousand students surrounded the police car in which Weinberg was held, preventing it from moving for thirty-six hours. That event was the first mass civil disobedience of its sort on a college campus, and it led to similar protests across the country.

Berkley has every right to be proud of the Free Speech Movement. But now, fifty years later, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement has become a hotbed for the suppression of speech. It turns out that the children and grandchildren of the original campus protestors aren't enamored with free speech unless it's speech they agree with. As I mentioned in an earlier letter, several speakers have been harassed and threatened for attempting to speak at the school. The Free Speech Movement has morphed into something a bit more insidious -- political correctness. Cross one of the lines this crew deems important, and you'll know it. Do it consistently, and you may want to adopt a pseudonym or write from a secure and undisclosed location.

Now don't get me wrong. I said it earlier, and I'll say it again. We've got to disagree with bad ideas. We've got to confront the proponents of bad ideas by refuting their ideas. In short, we've got to do everything in our power to make bad ideas look bad. But we shouldn't oppose bad ideas by gagging the people who have those ideas. It's neither effective nor democratic.

In a 1906 book, The Friends of Voltaire, the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall put it this way: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." [1] And for decades this view reigned among conservatives and liberals. In 1978, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defended a small group of neo-Nazis who had planned a rally in Skokie, Illinois. The ACLU, in case you aren't aware, does not have much sympathy for neo-Nazis. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine two more different groups. But they defended the neo-Nazis' right to articulate their ideas. Today, however, many powerful progressive organizations have done a U-turn. They defend free speech in certain instances but not in others.

This brings us to a related topic -- tolerance. Christian, you were right to ask how a Bible-believing Christian should view tolerance and whether we should be tolerant of hateful people. Sorta. I suspect that tolerance, which used to have an obvious and helpful meaning, is becoming nearly nonsensical. So I try to use different terms these days. I often say we should show Christian love toward people at the same time we refute their errant views. Love and refutation are better than toleration, whatever that means at the current hour.

I would love to see a reasonable definition of tolerance make a comeback. Tolerance itself is built on the foundation of a historic and Christian view of the relationship between truth and personal identity. In the online journal Public Discourse, Ben Crenshaw put it this way:

The traditional understanding of tolerance reflects a certain epistemology: namely, that there is such a thing as truth, it can be known, and the best way to discover the truth is through debate, reflection, and investigation. The pursuit of truth requires mutual cooperation, serious consideration of opposing beliefs, and persuasion through the use of reason. Coercion, exclusion, slander, and threats of force have no place in the search for truth. [2]

Today, however, many Americans reject this historic view. Instead they think truth is subjective and equated with personal identity. And if their beliefs are equated with their personal identity, any person who criticizes their beliefs is, in fact, criticizing them and should be considered a hateful person. It used to be that you could only tolerate a person you disagreed with. But these days, to disagree is to hate.

For example, if a Bible-believing Christian expresses the historic Christian view of marriage and sexual morality and if he articulates biblical restrictions on sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman, the Christian is viewed as a "hateful bigot." The politically correct tolerance regime is incredibly intolerant; it wishes to crush all dissent by calling it "hate" or "bigotry."

We shouldn't tolerate this backwards view of tolerance. We should always show Christian love to members of the tolerance regime, but we should refute their flawed view of truth and identity. We should "speak the truth, each one to his neighbor" (Eph. 4:25) and refute ideas or beliefs that contradict the Word of God (1 Tim. 6:3), all while respecting them and showing Christian love to them. We have the opportunity to show people how to disagree without despising our ideological opponent, a combination many today think impossible.

The free speech and tolerance controversies relate directly to "political correctness," or, as it is often put, "the PC agenda." Many Americans enforce their intolerant toleration on society by creating and enforcing codes of political correctness.

You might be interested to know that the notion of political correctness first came into use among communists in the 1930s. The phrase was a (sometimes) humorous reminder that the party's interest is to be treated as a reality that ranks above reality itself. ("Comrade, your statement is factually incorrect." "Yes, it is. But it is politically correct.") [3]

What started out as a subversive Soviet joke has become a humorless American reality. In the United States to be politically correct means to avoid any type of speech or action that dissents from secular orthodoxy, particularly in regards to the beliefs or lifestyles of persons who may be considered disadvantaged or socially marginalized. To exacerbate matters, the rise of identity politics has caused nearly every group in society to identify as socially disadvantaged or discriminated against in some way. Being aggrieved is the new cool.

I know you're busy, but I suggest you take the time to read a great little article, "On Political Correctness" by Professor William Deresiewicz. In it he describes his experience teaching at a small college in California:

I had one student, from a Chinese-American family, who informed me that the first thing she learned when she got to college was to keep quiet about her Christian faith and her non-feminist views about marriage. I had another student, a self-described "strong feminist," who told me that she tends to keep quiet about everything, because she never knows when she might say something that you're not supposed to. I had a third student, a junior, who wrote about a friend whom she had known since the beginning of college and who, she'd just discovered, went to church every Sunday. My student hadn't even been aware that her friend was religious. When she asked her why she had concealed this essential fact about herself, her friend replied, "Because I don't feel comfortable being out as a religious person here." [4]

Based on experiences such as this, Deresiewicz argues that most of America's elite schools function like seminaries. The only difference is that the dogma they are passing along is not a historic world religion but a contemporary code of permissions and prohibitions. We are told what we should be thinking and talking about and the right way to talk and think about those things. We are told what we should always do and what we must never do.

At the dead center of the moral code are issues of identity: Issues of identity -- principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality -- occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise -- questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community -- are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude. [5]

These cultural elites set up a standard for orthodox belief and excommunicate anyone who advocates "heretical" beliefs that are outside the accepted politically correct doctrine. Berkeley may not think of itself as a religious school. But you'd probably have a better time of it dealing with the Spanish Inquisition.

For me, the bottom line is this: today's codes of political correctness usually demand obeisance to progressive social norms that often conflict with our religious and political beliefs. For Bible-believing Christians, today's political correctness often demands social conformity at the expense of personal beliefs. It causes us either to be hypocrites about what we believe or to change certain aspects of our belief system, which, in turn, undercuts our ability to put our true beliefs to work for the common good.

What we need is not the dogmatic virulence of political correctness but the respect and decency of public civility. Civility encourages us to articulate our beliefs but to do so in a way that respects the dignity and decency of other persons. In his fine little book Uncommon Decency, Richard Mouw describes civility as "public politeness. It means that we display tact, moderation, refinement and good manners toward people who are different from us." [6] In other words, a civil person refuses the PC demand to hypocritically suppress our convictions. We keep our convictions because they are based in truth and relevant to the common good. Yet out of love for our neighbor and concern for our Christian witness, we express our convictions in a kind and thoughtful manner. To put it in biblical language, we combine what the apostle John said was true of Jesus' ministry -- truth and grace (cf. John 1:14).

Civility is a lost virtue today. The people who are most passionate about an issue seem to think they have to be uncivil when expressing their views on it. In the mind of most people, politics is "nothing but war," which means, in their mind, that anything goes. If you're in a war, fight dirty. Lie about your opponent. Misrepresent him. Degrade him. Paint him as a thoroughly reprehensible person in whom nothing good can be found.

This approach is beneath us as citizens and especially as Christians. This sort of incivility is not only distasteful but sinful. As Christians, our lives must be characterized by conviction and civility.

Now, before we go any further, let me answer the objection that civility betrays weakness. This is almost too absurd to require a reply, but as I'm long-winded and already rolling, I'll indulge it.

If you want to be weak, just conform to the PC regime. Pretend to believe what you are told to believe. Act as you are told to act. Capitulate. Shoot, go ahead and buy into their hype. Shout down everyone who crosses the PC lines. But realize that as you do this, you're more like a toddler throwing a tantrum than the strong warrior you imagine yourself to be.

If you want to be strong, be civil. Show the strength that few possess -- the power of self-control. Civility, in a phrase, is strength under control. It is the ability to resist our worst impulses, the capacity to honor people (1 Pet. 2:17) and live peaceably with them (Rom. 12:18) even when we find ourselves at odds. Anyone can fly into a rage. It takes true strength to be slow to anger.

What does civility look like? First, it necessitates a genuinely civil approach to life. It involves practicing empathy toward other people and being curious about their experiences and perspectives. It includes listening to our opponents' arguments not merely to counter them but also to understand. It means being genuinely open to correction, admitting the possibility that our current views are wrong. Biblical convictions aren't wrong, but our particular interpretations and applications of the Bible often are. It is a mark of strength, not weakness, to admit when we are wrong. I've heard it said that no one should ever be afraid to admit when they're wrong because it only proves they're wiser today than yesterday.

Second, it entails civil speech. These days the "American way" is to represent our opponents as stupid or bad or both. When engaging in public debate, we are not content to disagree with people but prefer to disparage them also. I've been guilty of succumbing to this temptation plenty of times over the course of my life, Christian. It is not easy to stand there in the moment and react civilly when another person is misrepresenting your views, unfairly questioning your motives, or stereotyping you.

Easy or not, we must be convictional and civil. Verbal incivility signals to the world that we are self-centered ideologues whose goal is to make ourselves look good or gain power at any cost. It also signals that we feel threatened by or afraid of our opponents' views; we don't think we can win a fair fight, so we have to play dirty. It says less about our beliefs and more about our character. But if we express our views fairly and out of genuine Christian love and concern, we signal to the world that Christians are both a strange people and a good people who want the best for our nation.

We Christians, after all, are the ones the apostle Paul instructed to be "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). If we conform to the PC regime, we fail to be truthful or loving. But if we determine to be convictional and civil, we have the opportunity to display both truth and love.

So, let's resist the temptation to ignore either part of that command: the truth speaking or the genuine concern for the other person. If we speak the truth in love, and if that becomes a hallmark of Christian political activism, we can play a more significant role in making politics healthy again. Wouldn't that be something?




1. "I Disapprove of What You Say, but I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It." Quote Investigator, accessed August 24, 2017. |BackToText|

2. Ben R. Crenshaw, "Shut Up, Bigot!: The Intolerance of Tolerance," Public Discourse, August 12, 2015, accessed August 24, 2017. |BackToText|

3. Angelo M. Codevilla, "The Rise of Political Correctness," Claremont Review of Books, November 8, 2016, accessed August 24, 2017. |BackToText|

4. William Deresiewicz, "On Political Correctness," The American Scholar, March 6, 2017, accessed August 24, 2017. |BackToText|

5. Ibid. |BackToText|

6. Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010), 14. |BackToText|