Last week, I read two essays. One was by a columnist in a trendy urban magazine, writing against teaching Intelligent Design as science in public schools. One was by a conservative academic, writing against the demand that public speech and conduct should be sensitive or “politically correct”.
Why Intelligent Design Has to be Stopped, written by Kurt Anderson, published in the Imperial City Column in the magazine New York argues against teaching Intelligent Design as science in public schools. The essay respects science, emphasizes the neutral values of a secular public order, and disrespects the wishes and beliefs of fundamentalist Christians to see Intelligent Design or any other religiously inspired explanation for the existence of the world, as it presently exists, presented to public school students.
It also mentions, in a critical way, the role of a conservative religious think-tank, The Discovery Institute in driving the program of getting the Christian creation story into the science curriculum. The Discovery Institute is not related to Discover magazine, or the Discovery Channel. Anderson says, as a matter of interest that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been providing funding to the Discovery Institute for other projects. The Discovery Institute carries out commercially oriented research projects relating to the Puget sound area, or a region it calls Cascadia, and the Gates Foundation has provided major funding.
Anderson makes a point about the kinds of arguments that appear to be permissible in American political discourse today:
For several decades the philosophical ground has been softened up by the relativism and political correctness of the secular left, which succeeded in undermining the very idea of objective reality and of calling a spade a spade—so now, in the resulting marsh, fantasies like intelligent design (or Scientology or feng shui or 9/11 as a CIA plot) take root and spread like weeds. Liberals pioneered squishy-minded indulgence of their key constituencies’ unfortunate new ideas, like reparations and criminalized hate speech; now it’s the right’s turn.
Anderson recognizes the ironies of the history of modern ideas. Relativism is logically inconsistent with the political correctness movement, which places certain values beyond comment and debate, to the point of restricting speech and discourse. Relativism was one of the critical tools, used by progressive academics over the last 50 years to challenge prevailing values. It is a philosophical tool, not necessarily an important one in most disciplines. While the academic community values intellectual innovation, it respects methology, evidence, logic and reason. The academic community is less relativistic than pluralistic. It accepts diversity of interpretation and the continuing revision of theories, and therefore tolerates unorthodox and occasionally deviant theories. However academic culture is fundamentally dedicated to the idea that human beings can know understand physical, biological, psychological and social events and explain them to one another. It isn’t surprizing, as much as interesting, that a new orthodoxy of political correctness has taken hold in academic life, and in popular culture.
Harvey Mansfield, reviewing Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, by Donald Alexander Downs in the Weekly Standard in an article called The Cost of Free Speech, provides a history of political correctness in American Universities. His approach, writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, is not necessarily conservative, but he is writing for a right wing audience. He emphasized the the repression of conservatives by liberals in American Universities. His analysis of the movement starts with Herbert Marcuse, a figure of scorn to neoconservatives. The article still provides an interesting look at the history of political correctness.
Political correctness which started as a critical awareness of the vulnerability of minority views, has been transformed into a set of rules protecting the beliefs of some groups from discussion and criticism. The process started with the critical awareness that valid and interesting ideas were not being recognized because academic culture, like the rest of society, was conscious of status and power, and deferential to the opinions of certain dominant individuals and groups. This idea has a great deal of force in the arts and humanities and the social sciences. It should have less force in the hard sciences but it has been used to criticize the scientific method in the hard sciences and the processes of language and rational analyis.
The language of relativism created the false idea that all ideas have equal validity. The language of equality created the false idea that all voices should be respected. Mansfield and Downs identify the core value of modern political correctness as sensitivity. They believe that the values of political correctness have been influenced by a therapeutic model which has a powerful hold on popular culture. (I agree and I have mentioned this, particularly in my entry on Therapeutic Individualism). A sensitive person empathisizes with the speaker, listens uncritically, and supports the speaker. As Mansfield notes, this changes the ideas of free speech and academic discourse:
…the idea of sensitivity erodes the difference between speaking and doing. The function of speech comes to be preserving the self-esteem of those spoken to, rather than addressing them…
A sensitive person is not supposed to disagree or criticize. Political correctness has inspired expectations that have become culturally privileged – we have to value everything, no matter how illogical, uncreative or banal. The untalented expecting to be acclaimed and applauded for trivial achievements, are able to blame the own emotional distress for their disappointments on an uncaring, insensitive world.
One of the implications of this development is the resurgence of religious ideas. Under political correctness, we are required to respect religion in order to respect the wishes and beliefs of religious believers, to respect their psycho-social needs, to respect their culture, to support their right to self-esteem. We have seen “follow your bliss” become the New Age slogan for religious freedom. We have seen a great increase in public discourse based on sensitivity and feelings, at the expense of science and reason. We have seen this kind of thinking, as Anderson recognized, embraced by conservative fundamentalists.
If this is sounding familiar, I have written entries about books by Wendy Kaminer and Francis Wheen, and several other events and issues which make the same point. It is frequently discussed at Butterflies and Wheels.
All human beings – even the ones who trust in their own mystical insights – follow common sense in their daily lives. Everyone trusts their own observations about the world. We seem to be able to describe and discuss our own findings with other people. This suggests that we should be able to have objectively valid knowledge about physics, chemistry, geology, biology, astronomy, mathematics and logic – the intellectual disciplines which observe events, induce rules from events and describe the relationships between events in mathematical, logical and linguistic symbols. Knowledge comes in the form of verified scientific theories
For many people, the intellectual disciplines have no meaning or resonance in their daily lives. Their daily lives are bound up in rules and rituals of working, consuming, and socializing. Theirfeelings matter. Once they learn a system, theory or story, particularly one that is emotionally rich, and accepted by their peers, they know what they need to know to live through the day. Scientific theories, in this frame of reference, are irrelevant or even disruptive.
Modern civilization is a complex venture. Government offers protection against non-governmental violence and abuse, protects the ownership of property and creates a framework for economic and social relations. Certain institutions – private corporations and semi-public academic institutions – allow certain individuals to study and teach science and other disciplines. Knowledge allows for technical processes that produce goods and services which alter the quality of life. A scientific consensus about the real and hard facts of the world would seem to be a neutral good, but the scientific process has become contentious in several ways. Scientific knowledge is rejected by many people because it conflicts with what they already believe. It causes emotional dissonance, which is a fancy way of saying it bothers them.
It is ironic and revealing that the religious right has appropriated the language of sensitivity, respect and political correctness to advance its agenda. The religious right, in its own churches, denounces relativism and modernity. The religious right is advancing its claims on the basis of a supposed right to have religious ideas heard and publicly applauded by the rest of a godless secular society.