The Fire Barrel

How Political Correctness Threatens to Deprive Us of the Intimacy of Rational Dialogue

When we philosophers argue with you, it means we like you. It means we believe that you are worth reasoning with, that you are able to appreciate the difference between strong arguments and weak ones. Instead of being a sign of disrespect, for us, argument is a sign of respect. I should be clear about which sense of “argument” I am employing here, since it may be the second most frequently used one. The most frequently used sense is something like “heated exchange of words.” What I have in mind means something like “rational discourse.” It is related to the sense in which the following is called an argument: Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal. Two people engaged in argument offer bits of reasoning to one another, to evaluate and perhaps accept. But whether or not anyone’s views actually get changed, usually both parties learn from the encounter. They learn about the issues, but they also learn about one another, and this often fosters a special kind of closeness between them.

One can discern two competing strategies for dealing with diverse views on college campuses today. One strategy is to assert that all views are equally correct. Everyone is right. The other view is that this cannot be right. After all, when I say x, and you say not x, we contradict one another. How can we both be right? If we are both right, then reason itself is impossible. Contradiction is the Kryptonite of all reason. But the other side has a response to this. “Reason” is not something real, but merely an idea that has been forced on us by those in power in order to make us accept their views. Similarly, “truth” is merely the opinion of those in power. This view itself contains a huge contradiction, though: Those who hold it are taking power to be a real, objective thing, while denying that there is an objective reality, something for claims to be true of. The classroom is perhaps the only place where one can get away with this, because of its artificial nature. Imagine people anywhere else, the board room, the court room, the market, anywhere, espousing the notions that everyone is right in all her beliefs, and that conflicts don’t matter.

I suspect that those who reject reason do not really appreciate its real force because they haven’t sensitized themselves to be able to make fine discernments between good and bad reasoning. When I get bored enough to watch golf on TV, all the golfers’ swings look the same to me. Yet the announcers are always pointing out differences in knee bend, hip angle, wrist inclination, set up and alignment. I believe that there really are differences and that the announcers are not merely filling up air time. One thing that helps is today’s technology, that allows for fine comparisons using super slow-motion video that can allow even me to see the difference. I think something like this happens with reason, in that people who have better abilities of discernment in matters of reason might be thought by people who do not have such abilities to be simply making things up, in order to win the argument.

When we reject reason and truth, anything resembling justice goes with it. Justice requires discerning what actually happened, who was wronged, who suffered, who gained, who lost. If we cannot objectively assess these, then we cannot administer justice. To understand the importance of reason to justice, you need only imagine that you have been falsely accused of something. How can you possibly defend yourself, except to argue that the accusation is false? In those colleges in which this anti-reason politically correct mindset has taken over at all levels, what results is a horror in which justice is impossible. In the way in which colleges are microcosms of societies it has the effect of creating a sort of fascism in which only power and authority carry any sway. How sad that institutions of higher learning, where reason should be respected more than anywhere else, have become enclaves of unreason.

Another part of this attempt to replace truth and reason is the idea that only some people can speak about a given issue. Only women can speak about abortion. Only members of minority races can speak about discrimination. The emphasis is moved from what people say to who they are. But in the world of truth and reason, everyone is allowed to speak about every topic. Of course there is such a thing as being more qualified than another person to speak about a certain topic. I accept that the average woman knows more about the issues involved in abortion than the average man, and that the average member of a minority knows more about discrimination and its effects than the average white person. But notice that this does not imply that men’s opinions on the topic of abortion are worthless, and that a man cannot come up with an interesting new idea on this topic, or that a white person could not become an expert on the topic of discrimination.  A bit of bad reasoning is behind this idea: People with property x tend to know more about y, therefore someone who lacks property x knows nothing about y. That does not follow.

This sort of jumping to conclusions characterizes the politically correct mindset. For instance, we are all different, we have different feelings and thoughts. We react differently to the same situation. But does this imply that all of our reactions and all of our feelings are equally valid, and that all of our opinions are some equal? The politically correct sometimes like to say, “The perception is the reality.” But notice the horror behind this. Suppose I perceive that you stole something from me.  Then literally speaking, you did steal something from me, and you need to be put in jail. No sense having a trial, because literally, you are guilty. And again notice the contradiction: The politically correct want to have a notion of reality, while denying that this is possible.

Perhaps the most harmful thing about the politically correct mindset is that it wants to deprive us of what can be some of the most significant and intimate relationships in our lives: the connection between two people engaged in rational dialogue. After I graduated from college, in 1980, Ronald Reagan began implementing his “trickle down” economic policies. These involved cutting government aid to poor people, including people with health problems who couldn’t afford treatment, while cutting taxes to the richest people, in the hopes that this would stimulate the economy and create jobs. What it in fact amounted to was a massive money grab by the richest Americans, and it created a deficit that would not be remedied until Clinton’s presidency. Huge numbers of mentally ill and poor people were disconnected from government sources of support, and set adrift to wander the cruel streets. This was one reason why, at the urging of a radical friend who was already a member, I joined a far-left group called the All-Peoples’ Congress. They were based in New York, and I travelled up there on a couple of occasions to help print silkscreen protest banners, and take part in small demonstrations. On one occasion, they sent organizers down to my home town of Norfolk, Virginia to set up a protest against a planned massive layoff at a local Ford Motor Company truck assembly plant. Their position, which is still a radical one, was that huge corporations do not actually have the right to lay off people whenever they choose, that they have a responsibilty to their workers and to the larger community to find alternatives to this.

We organized a petition drive, and set about going to shopping malls, sports arenas, and other places to gather signatures. Someone came up with the idea of going to one of the large African-American churches in town, and so on a cold, sunny mid-winter Sunday morning we spread out around the church to gather signatures. As the service ended, I began to get signatures from the churchgoers, who were a bit perturbed at being roped into political activity right after a Sunday service, but in general willing to sign. Near the church was an empty lot, though, and there, standing around a fire burning in a steel barrel, stood several African American people who obviously were not church goers. “Those are heroin addicts,” said one of my compatriots, in a “Stay away from them” tone. It occurred to me, though, that while some of them may have been heroin addicts, they were probably just the very same displaced people we aimed to help, but I continued to focus on the churchgoers. The gap between me and those people around the barrel seemed too great.

At one point, though, I ventured too near the empty lot and a woman among those standing around the barrel called out to me, “What are ya’ll doing here?” I cautiously walked toward them, and said something like, “We’re trying to get signatures to stop the layoffs at Ford.” When I got nearer to them, but still outside the circle of people around the barrel, the woman, who was small and thin, wearing a denim jacket and dark blue wool cap, said, “Ya’ll don’t come down here unless there’s something you want.” I then took a deep breath because I wanted to say a couple things. First I wanted to acknowledge that she was right, we were here because we wanted something. But second, I wanted to say that this was an issue that concerned all of us. But as I began to talk, the woman, who later identified herself as Beverly, reached toward me, grabbed me by the forearm, and pulled me closer, saying, “Come near the barrel.” I’ll never forget this simple gesture of respect. It was a way of saying, although we are disagreeing, I still see you as a person, worth talking to, and worthy of sharing this fire.

Two people engaged in argument share a kind of closeness, a special kind of intimacy that no other form of human relating quite captures. The refusal to argue, the refusal to engage, that the politically correct encourage deprives us of this, and sends the two parties away unsatisfied and unfulfilled, because their voices, their concerns and worries, have not been respectfully heard, and they have not been given the chance to respond to our thoughts about their views. Whether they admit it or not, everyone believes in truth, and that some views are better than others because they are more true. To speak a language at all is to commit oneself to the notion of truth. If you do not know, for instance, under which circumstances a given sentence is true, they you do not know the meaning of that sentence. All language use assumes that meaning is something real, that can be communicated and understood.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *