Being politically in/correct

By Kathy Berken

Remember when comedian and political commentator Bill Maher hosted a show on Comedy Central called “Politically Incorrect”? During the show’s 10-year run, Maher had late-night conversations with celebrities with a wide variety of opinions on current events. The premise was that nothing is exempt from discussion. “Let’s talk about whatever you want and be honest about how we feel.” The notion of “political correctness” was considered an impediment to good communication. So, to be politically incorrect meant — at least to Maher & Co. — that they could say whatever they thought with impunity. The show gave permission to viewers to feel safe in expressing opinions they might otherwise have considered taboo.

However, there’s an inherent danger in all of this political in/correctness (PC or PI), and it’s not about foundational First Amendment free speech. I’m all for our right to express our opinions without fear of recrimination, but I am also for our responsibility as Christians to respect differing views with compassion and understanding.

The danger of political correctness is that it may hide our true thoughts and feelings so as not to offend. But we don’t have to march lock-step to PC police in order to be honest. We just have to be kind and care about the people we disagree with because we are all on the same journey to heaven together. The danger of political incorrectness is that it may cover abusiveness and disrespect in the name of honesty.

I began to be conscious of this after my high school alumni Facebook page posted a comment about the school board wanting to change our mascot name “Indians.” The general argument in favor of change is that Native Americans have a rich and diverse history and should not be stereotyped. This issue has increasingly divided us, but a common phrase I often read is the notion of political correctness. Whenever someone puts “PC” in their arguments (as in, “I’m not going to be politically correct about this, so . . .”), the talk often veers uncomfortably to name-calling and a serious take-sides attitude that, frankly, gets us nowhere.

From my perspective — whether we deem ourselves PC or PI — every seemingly justified argument comes from a place inside of us that is vulnerable and we constantly try to protect ourselves from being wounded. So, in terms of mascots, those who want the name to stay usually say, “We are proud of our Native Americans and want to honor their place in history by giving them this respect.” Noble as it sounds, it’s a cover story for something much deeper. I think it says this: “I loved my school experiences, including going to or participating in sports. I felt that I belonged and had a sense of identity. I made good friends and have fond memories. Changing our name and image/mascot makes me sad because it cuts out part of my personal history. I grieve that and I hate the feeling of loss that comes with it.”

People who want the mascot name to change commonly say, “We need to respect and honor Native Americans but in the way they want to be honored, not in the way we think is right or best.” But even that is a cover story for something deeper that says, “I’ve had many painful experiences in my life, and so I’m willing to give up my nostalgic feelings so that a group of people isn’t angry with me because that would cause me to feel the painful feeling of rejection.”

For me, once I discover the deepest truth about my beliefs and behaviors, I sense clarity and feel more at peace. After all, Jesus told us “. . . and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch.)

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