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Political correctness: Swallowing hard

August 28, 2015
Father Ron 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.

I served on a priests’ council, an advisory board to the bishop in a Roman Catholic diocese. The bishop, while strongly conservative by temperament, was a deeply principled man. His decisions he made on principle, and sometimes that meant he had to swallow hard.

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 political correctness. This didn’t make things easy for the bishop, given his conservative temperament and conservative friends.

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. The priests told him that they would not bow to political correctness and voted against it. A month later, the bishop came back to the priest’s council and asked the priests again for their support, and should they vote against it again, he would do it on his own. 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 at having to bow to something that was presented as politically correct. Principle trumped feeling.

And principle needs to trump feeling: 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 to reject it.

Teaching in some pretty sensitive classrooms through the years, I remember once, frustrated with the hypersensitivity of some students, 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 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.

Among other things, political correctness, as a check on our language, helps keep civil discourse civil. 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.

Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas.

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