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Political correctness… swallowing hard

Fr Ronald Rolheiser

JUST because something is politically-correct doesn’t mean that it might not also be correct. Sometimes we have to swallow hard to accept truth.

Some council, an advisory board to the bishop in a Catholic diocese. The bishop, while strongly conservative by temperament, was a deeply-principled man who did not let his natural temperament or his spontaneous feelings dictate his decisions. His decisions he made on principle, and sometimes that meant he had to swallow hard.

At one point, for example, he found himself under strong pressure to raise the salaries of lay employees in the diocese. The pressure was coming from a very vocal group of social-justice advocates who were quoting the Church’s social doctrines in the face of protests that the diocese could not afford to pay the kind of wages they were demanding.  Their cause also leaned on politically-correctness. This didn’t make things easy for the bishop, given his conservative temperament and conservative friends. But he was, as I said, a man of principle. He came one morning to the priests’ council and asked the priests to give him a mandate to give the diocesan employees the wage increase they are demanding. The priests’ council told him that they would not bow to political-correctness and voted against it. A month later, the bishop came back to the priests’ council and asked the priests again for their support, prefacing his request by telling the priests that, should they vote against it again, he would do it on his own, invoking executive privilege. One of the priests, a close personal friend of his, said: “You’re only asking us to do this because it’s politically correct.” The bishop answered him: “No, we’re not doing this because it’s politically correct. We’re doing it because it is correct! We can’t preach the Gospel with integrity if we don’t live it out ourselves. We need to pay a living-wage because that’s what the Gospel and Catholic social doctrine demands—not because it’s politically correct.” In saying this, the bishop was swallowing hard, swallowing his own temperament, swallowing his friend’s irritation, and swallowing his own irritation at having to bow to something that was presented as politically-correct. But principle trumped feeling.

And principle needs to trump feeling because, so often, when something comes at us with the label that this must be accepted because it is politically-correct, our spontaneous reaction is negative and we are tempted, out of emotional spite, to reject it simply because of the cloak it’s wearing and the voices who are advocating for it.  I’ve had my own share of experiences with this, in dealing with my emotions in the face of political-correctness. Teaching in some pretty sensitive classrooms through the years, where sometimes every word is a potential landmine that might blow up in your face, it’s easy to fall into an unhealthy sensitivity-fatigue. I remember once, frustrated with the hypersensitivity of some students (and the pompousness evident inside that sensitivity), I told a student to ‘lighten up.’He immediately accused me of being a racist on the basis of that remark.

It’s easy then to react with spite rather than empathy. But, like the bishop, whose story I cited earlier, we need to be principled and mature enough to not let emotion and temperament sway our perspective and our decisions. Just because a truth comes cloaked in political correctness and we hear it voiced in self-righteousness doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t the truth. Sometimes we just have to swallow hard, eat our pride and irritation, and accept the truth of what is being presented. Political correctness is normally irritating, exaggerated, unbalanced, pompous, and lacking in nuance, but it serves an important purpose. We need this mirror: How we spontaneously speak about others flushes out a lot of our blind-spots.

Among other things, political correctness, as a check on our language, helps keep civil discourse civil, something in short supply today. Talk-radio, cable-television, blogs, tweets, and editorials are today more and more being characterized by a language that’s rude, insensitive, and flat-out disrespectful and, in its very disdain for political correctness, is, ironically, the strongest argument for political correctness. Politics, church, and community at every level today need to be much more careful about language, careful about being politically-correct, because the violence in our culture very much mirrors the violence in our language.

Moreover, attentiveness to language helps, long-term, to shape our interior attitudes and widen our empathy. Words work strongly to shape attitudes and if we allow our words to chip away at elementary courtesy and respect and allow them to offend others we help spawn a culture of disrespect.

Political correctness comes to us from both the left and the right. Both liberals and conservatives help dictate it and both can be equally self-righteous and bullying. We must always be conscious that just because something is politically-correct doesn’t mean that it also might not be correct. Sometimes we just need to swallow hard and accept the truth.

—Fr Ronald Rolheiser is a Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Visit his website at www.ronrolheiser.com 

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