The phrase “politically correct,” words we hear over and over again these days, has a history. Some of that history, far from definitive, is captured here.
The following quote, taken from this blog, resonates with me: “…maybe we should drop the phrase [politically correct] from our lexicon. Not because it doesn’t describe anything, but because it describes so many things that you can’t use it without worrying that people won’t understand what you’re talking about.” (I see it similarly to the word, God. I often find that in conversations about God, each participant has their own idea(s) about what God is or isn’t.)
Today, though, I’m interested in how Donald Trump uses the phrase “politically correct.” When he says, “I’m so tired of this politically correct crap,” what is he saying? What do we hear? I agree with Colby Itkowitz (“The Washington Post,” 12/09/15) that the phrase “politically correct” is often “used as a put-down, a way to brush off the offended person as being overly sensitive. So while Trump is asserting his right to free speech, he is at the same time calling into question the listener’s right to complain about what he’s saying.”
The issue seems to center on one’s ability to be seen, heard, and valued in the public discourse. Do Trump and those who find him “refreshing” feel threatened by those who think differently from him? Probably so, but I also think Trump is angry, even outraged, when one dares to question the “truth” of his perspective. Powerful people (usually men, but more broadly speaking, that patriarchal system that perpetuates itself through domination by force) not only dismiss a voice that is not in agreement with theirs, but make it appear as though you, the person disagreeing and raising questions, are the problem. After all, people should “know their place” (if not, Trump will direct you) and just accept it.
What has happened to that strain of thought in our society that not only puts value on understanding people who have perspectives different from our own, but believe people have a right (even duty) to express such? Rita Gross (1943-2015), an American Buddhist, feminist theologian, and author, was instrumental in broadening my understanding of the term empathy. In her book, Feminism and Religion, she offers a two-step approach to empathy while giving us a vision of what empathy looks like when put into practice. Even though she is speaking specifically about the study of religion in the academy, I think her two-step process works just as well in other settings.
First, temporarily “bracket” your own worldview, values, and preconceptions. Approach other worldviews with an open mind. An open mind allows for the possibility of coming out on the other side, after examining the matter, a changed person. Second, imaginatively enter into the phenomenon at hand. Attempt to understand why people hold a perspective different from your own and behave in ways that appear foreign. Trump values only one perspective—his own. Why should he bother looking at anything through another’s eyes?
Rita gives an example of one of her all-time favorite teaching evaluations. “The problem with her is that she teaches all those religions as if they were true!” Rita was successful, at least in the eyes of this one student, to enter into the point of view of the practitioners of each religion studied during that semester. Rita took this evaluation as a compliment although it was probably not intended that way.
Many of us today lack empathy or perhaps we don’t consider empathy a valuable enough factor to include in our interactions with one another. “We just CAN’T have those Syrian refugees coming here and compromising our country’s security.” As if it would be impossible to attend to both refugees and security properly. Trump and his supporters view the world from an all-encompassing, narrow perspective they believe to be right. They are unwilling (perhaps incapable?) of taking off their shoes and walking in another’s. The constraint they feel–you can’t say or do anything these days for fear of offending somebody–comes from a failure of empathy–being deaf to voices and perspectives other than their own. After all, those other viewpoints aren’t worth anything, anyway.
Because I’m convinced that everything on the face of the earth is interconnected, it was easy to integrate Rita’s concept of empathy with Jared Piazza’s article, “If Meat Could Talk, Would You Still Eat it?” (“The Conversation,” 2/10/16). The article has some flaws (from my perspective) yet it struck a chord. Do we really think that animals happily give up their lives in order to be our dinner?
[A]nimals do talk to us. Certainly they talk to us in ways that matter for our decision about how to treat them. There is not much difference in a crying frightened child and a crying frightened piglet. Dairy cows that have their calves stolen from them soon after birth are believed by some to bemoan the loss weeks afterwards with heart wrenching cries. The problem is that we often do not take the time to really listen.
I often return to Rita’s two-step process of empathy and apply it to various aspects of the world where we live, breathe, move, and have our being. If we put aside our own preconceived ideas (animals want to be eaten–that’s what they’re there for) and walk with bovine hooves through the abattoir (or even accompany an animal on their last walk to their “humane” death), wouldn’t that move us towards compassion? Jared writes, “[T]he whole notion of ‘humane’ killing is based on the idea that as long as you take efforts to minimize an animal’s suffering, it’s okay to take its life.”
Why don’t we heed the Syrian refugees’ cries, the political prisoners’ shouts, the frightened piglets’ squealing, and the dairy cows’ bellowing? Who goes willingly to their untimely death? How do we stand by and just watch?
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.