Courtesy, Truth, and Political Correctness

My previous post, “Who Gets to Say What Is Offensive?”, basically argued that it’s always appropriate to respect the opinions of those who say they are offended.  If you say something and someone is offended by it, you are generally violating a basic and important principle of human interaction—to respect other people. The argument that someone should not be offended because other people reveals a basic disrespect for the person who has expressed offense.  In most cases.

There are times when it is important to say things that offend people.  The search for knowledge and understanding can reveal things that offend people, but that search should not be limited by the attempt to avoid offending people. (Ironically, my attempt to write about this is hampered by my desire to avoid offending anyone.)

Many opponents of the theory of evolution were offended by the suggestion that humans were related to other primates. Nonetheless, we don’t want to stop researchers from discussing evolution, do we? The Copernican revolution—the notion that humans and the earth were not at the center of the universe—was offensive to many. All the same, we want to continue to pursue research based on the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. On a more personal level, many people with addictions will be offended if their illness is pointed out.

Some truths need to be stated, even if people get offended.  

Stating the “truth” can get treacherous because there are more than a few disagreements on what constitutes truth.

One principle to keep in mind as a writer is the intention: if your intention is to offend, truth is little excuse.  If you are trying to offend someone, that’s behavior outside the bounds of academic ethics. Writers in other fields may have more ethical leeway on whether they try to offend people, but trying to offend people certainly violates the moral precept captured in Christianity’s Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12).

A scholar or researcher ought not try to offend, but at the same time, the scholar cannot allow him or herself to be stopped by the possibility of offending others. Given the diversity of voices in any debate, and the fact that people often get offended when others disagree, any one message is likely to offend someone. If you say that TheoryX is bad, then some of the people who think that TheoryX is good will be offended. Research will not move forward productively if researchers are unable to challenge accepted ideas for fear of offending people.  This, in fact, is what tenure status in universities is about: providing scholars freedom from political pressures related to unpopular theories.

Speaking abstractly, a scholar/researcher (or other writer) is caught between two conflicting forces: on the one hand there is the abstract search for understanding, or “Truth,” and on the other there is the principle of courtesy.  There is, I think, a balance that can be found between these two forces.

There is an additional motivation relevant for writers/speakers, but it is a motivation that is typically backgrounded in academia, and that is the motivation of wanting speech/writing to change how people act. 

The question of motivation is, I think, part of what makes the idea of “political correctness” unpalatable to many.  The care for being “politically correct” can be interpreted not as courtesy or an attempt to care for others (or, from another perspective, an attempt to be treated with respect), but rather as a hypocritical attempt to gain some political advantage. If we think about the attempt to avoid offending from that perspective, it’s far less palatable. If my interest in avoiding offensive terms is that I am motivated to treat all people with respect, that is a very different thing than if I am merely trying to avoid offense to gain a political advantage.  And it is certainly the case that some people are concerned with gaining political advantage.

But are we all so jaded to assume that gaining political advantage is the only motivation that people have?  If someone shows concern to avoid offending others, it could be that they’re just trying to get the support of people they secretly hate (e.g., an anti-semite who courts Jews to get their votes), but couldn’t it also be true that the person actually respects others and tries to avoid offending out of respect? Or, from the other side, it is certainly true that someone might pretend to be offended in order to gain political advantage, but isn’t possible that the person is actually offended?

I have no simple summary here.  We all have to do the best we can, and life is complex. Despite our best intentions, we can err. Different principles may compete in the paths of action they suggest: the desire to respect others and avoid offending may be at odds with the desire to be truthful. The desire to persuade may be at odds with the desire to respect and the desire to be truthful.  And a variety of motivations that might lie hidden behind any action make it hard to interpret right and wrong. Maybe that concern for careful language is a reflection of a honest caring desire, or maybe it’s a reflection of insincere rhetorical manipulation.

It would be nice to have universal principles, but in the end, I suppose that even though principles like respect, caring, and honesty may be universal in the abstract, in reality they sometimes conflict leading to difficult choices.  It’s not good to offend, and it should be avoided, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially with emotionally charged issues, where people have strong opinions. Courtesy is sometimes at odds with truth, and sometimes its necessary to choose truth over courtesy (with the caveat that identifying “truth” is problematic, and it’s important not to jump to conclusions, and to be open to learning that what one has previously accepted as truth might be wrong).