Do we really know what is "Politically Correct"?


I remember a series of episodes in California a couple of years ago which brought home to me a different problem from that of Political correctness. In one case, a speaker was expressing his clear rejection of the notion of Israel; he was saying that Israel exists on stolen land and doesn't have a right to exist; he was also denying the historicity of the Holocaust. Jewish students circulated around the small crowd listening to this speaker with signs reading “Beware: Hate Speech Zone ahead”.


A couple of weeks later, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was invited to speak at UC Irvine. As soon as he got on the dais, he was greeted by hackling from members of the Muslim Students Union, one at a time, who were intent in preventing him from speaking. One by one, the students creating the disturbance were removed from the auditorium and eventually the Ambassador was able to talk. Few remember, however, what is that he said, since the main focus of the media was on the students who were put on probation for provoking a disturbance in Campus. The media was very sympathetic to the students and defended them on the basis of Freedom of Speech.


A couple of weeks later, the Hillel Students Union at Berkeley organized a pro-Israel program. A group of anti Israel students physically attacked them, forcing them to seek refuge inside a building waiting for a Ca,pus security that never came “because they were warned that their intervention could provoke a disturbance”.


I mentioned these events because I believe there is a pattern. In the first case, the speaker was allowed to present his opinion while those who disagreed with him expressed theirs without disturbing the event itself and without preventing the audience from hearing what the speaker had to say.


In the second case, a speaker was rudely prevented from speaking by people who disagreed with him. Campus Security intervened to defend the right of the speaker to express himself and removed the students from the auditorium. Yet the rights which were defended were the right of those who tried to prevent the speaker from expressing his opinion - and the defense of these students was based on the right to Freedom of Speech!


In the third case, a group of students was expressing their opinion and they were shut down by a group of students who disagreed with them, and Campus Security felt that they had to stay away from the confrontation, even when the Hillel students were being physically intimidated and attacked. After all, Campus Security did not want to be responsible for “provoking a disturbance”


The pattern I see is that Freedom of Speech is important, for some people, only to guarantee their own freedom of expression, which includes denying the same freedom to others.


I might be old fashioned for believing this, but in my opinion Universities have a role to help develop in their students critical thinking as well as professional skills. College professors are supposed to encourage their students to look at issues from as many perspectives as possible and make their own determinations as to what they believe. Yet in reality, the concept of “political correctness” is used to shut down whatever people disagree with. From there to the demonization and dehumanization of the other there is just a short step. Nazis dehumanized the Jews, the handicapped and the Roma (Gypsy) as a prelude to their internment in concentration camps. Without dehumanizing them they would not have been able to do it because they would not have had the support of the German people.


Those who would like to muzzle opposing opinions go even a step farther and demand that Israel be isolated academically and economically. Why do they fear so much what Israelis have to say? Why do they fear a perspective that collides with theirs? I can only conclude that their fear comes from ignorance. Ironically, the way to overcome their fears would be to listen to alternative perspectives and use their critical skills to analyze the perspectives and make up their minds based on factual information. Yet, in a twisted turn of events, it is their College professors who encourage them in many cases to refuse listening to the alternative perspective!


Political correctness is about recognizing the value of the individual and to not stereotype those individuals based on their race, religious beliefs or even political beliefs – or even their opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As opposed to the simpleminded version of reality which consider that there is only one valid interpretation, life has a way to remind us of the complexity of conflicts – or relationships of any kind, for that matter. If reality is complex, it follows that the same fact will be perceived by different people in different ways; there will be a multiplicity of perspectives of the same phenomenon or political reality. Denying this multiplicity is not only denying reality but even denying the very concept of Political Correctness.


How often do we ask somebody whether they read a book written by a specific author and the answer we receive is “He/She is a Neocon/heart bleeding Liberal”? How often do we find people who refuse to read a book or watch a movie based on what they believe to be the message, without ever looking at the content?


Again, I might be old fashioned, but when a few years back I was asked my opinion about “The Passion of the Christ” (the controversial Mel Gibson film), my first answer was “I haven't seen the movie”. After I watched it, I was able to define my opinion based on what I saw and based on the reactions of people in the audience which included the three Christian Ministers and the Reform Rabbi with whom I went to see it.


Political correctness is important because it speaks to the very foundation of individual rights in our society. We do, however, need to have a prior discussion about intellectual honesty and civility because without them, paraphrasing the XIX century British poet, political correctness becomes ...


“The words which you have spoken, twisted by knaves to make them a trap for fools”



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