Morally Correct: or, Rebuke of Politically Correct

confederate-battle-flagSeveral times, this week, the term, politically correct kept popping up in the news; mostly around the question of the Confederate flag outside the South Carolina statehouse. A South Carolina state legislator used the term in opposing the flags removal; as did pro-Confederate Battle flag demonstrators outside the statehouse. A firefighter in Minnesota used the term in justifying why he mounted the Confederate Battle flag to the back of his fire engine for the Independence Day parade. It’s also implied in numerous memes circulating online social networks. Those calling opposition to the official display of the Confederate Battle flag politically correct are suggesting that their rights are being impinged by overly-authoritarian, politically-doctrinaire liberals. The implication is that displaying the Confederate Battle flag is an innocent expression of a common identity; and that taking a position against the flag is an assault on free expression, and on the common identity of those making the expression.
But look at all the things that right-wing politicos and their minions call, politically correct. In the vast majority of cases, what are called politically correct are the assertions that language or behavior that are demeaning, dehumanizing or dis-empowering to minority races, women or lgbt are wrong. In other words, calling an assertion politically correct is an effort to diffuse the moral quality of the assertion, rather than take responsibility for analyzing whether the moral assertion is correct. In other words, “I’m going to do or say whatever I want, no matter who it hurts, convincing myself it doesn’t hurt anyone at all, and you’re just being politically correct if you tell me I can’t.”
So it would be more accurate to say that what those on the right refer to as politically correct assertions are actually morally correct assertions. Morally correct because it is never morally okay to intentionally inflict harm on another person just to assert a personal liberty of your own; even if that liberty legally or politically exists. Everyone (except sociopaths) knows that instinctively. Where the equivocation is, in these cases, is in what constitutes a harm. It would behoove those who self-identify as conservatives, then, to step back and assess what moral quality might actually lie behind so-called politically correct assertions. Seriously ask yourself, “What harm to whom might actually be caused by my language or behavior that somebody is telling me is wrong?” If you don’t do that, then you’re being hypocritical when you confess a personal commitment to morality.
Along the lines of morals and liberties, let’s chat for a minute about the claim that legalizing same-sex marriage somehow impinges on the religious liberty of those who oppose it. That’s been in the news a lot the last few weeks as well.
Most people who oppose the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling are religious people, some deeply so. I understand that. I also understand that the ruling was a shock to your sense of the world; because you get your sense of the world through the prism of your own faith, which says marriage solemnizes a covenant between a man and a woman. So what seems to be an attack on your sense of the world comes across, also, as a direct assault on your faith. As a consequence, you perceive that your religious liberty is under assault. Right-wing politicians, and politically-motivated right-wing faith leaders, are playing on that anxiety, suggesting that the State is going to come in and direct what your faith community believes or does: old-fashioned fear mongering.
What you’re forgetting is the very subjective nature of faith. While you, in your particular faith community, might have a particular worldview and understanding of what marriage is, individuals in other faith communities have other world views. Are you right and those who hold differing worldviews wrong? Maybe so. We’ll find out in the afterlife, I guess. But keep in mind that others believe they’re right and you’re wrong.

Who is to be the arbiter of that? In the case of same-sex marriage, those of you who oppose it acted as the arbiter. In declaring same-sex marriage a constitutionally-protected right, the Supreme Court effectively said you can’t be the arbiter for everyone. In other words, while you do have the right to believe what you want to and personally act on that belief within the confines of your faith community, you do not have a right to impose on others your own worldview. Others have their religious liberty too. So step back and stop hyperventilating over your religious liberty. Those entering same-sex marriages are not harming you or your liberty; but you asserting their marriages have no value harms them. You cannot assume moral power over those whose lives you disagree with for the same reason you cannot dismiss moral assertions about language or behave that does harm others as politically correct: doing either merely asserts your right to power over others. Period. And, by the way, desiring power over others while feeling vulnerable and claiming victim-hood when those you desire power over push back is usually a trait of a schoolyard bully.


It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

I’m watching a strong reaction to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion to the Court’s ruling opinion on the question of gay marriage. The strongest reactions revolved around Scalia’s assertion that the government allowing slavery did not deprive the slave of his or her dignity. I understand the reaction. ARE YOU SERIOUS? Justice Scalia said that dignity is innate. He chose the wrong word. Scalia was responding to a Catholic philosophical/theological principle, one aggressively promoted by Saint John Paul II, that the human condition has an intrinsic dignity.
Saint John Paul II’s choice of wording is much more careful than Justice Scalia’s wording. There is a difference between saying something is “intrinsic” and saying something is “innate.” “Intrinsic” is a metaphysical term in justiposition to “extrinsic.” Intrinsic dignity means I have dignity simply because of who I am. Extrinsic dignity means that the source of my dignity comes from outside of me. Innate, the word Justice Scalia used in his dissent to the opinion declaring gay marriage a Constitutional right, on the other hand, is language deriving from the scientific community. “Innate” looks for the scientific source of conditions or behaviors. “Dignity” is not something science can explore, so “intrinsic” vs. “extrinsic,” studied from a philosophical approach, is the correct way to ask the question of dignity.
I’m certain that, when Justice Scalia argued that dignity is “innate,” and that the governent can neither grant nor take away that dignity, he meant dignity is “intrinsic” to the person. To that point, I cannot disagree. I absolutely believe that the human person has an intrinsic dignity that nobody can take away.
Where I disagree with Justice Scalia is on the question of whether the government can choose to honor or dishonor the intrinsic dignity of a human person; and, by extesion, the relationship a human person is driven to enter into. While Justice Scalia seems to have gotten the Catholic philosophical/theological position down, he proved very ineffective in communicating that position in his dissenting opinion in this ruling.
There is another misuse of language that affects debate about gay people I want to use to exemplify this problem. In the lat 90’s, the Catholic Church can out with a universal “Catechism of the Catholic Church” – the first since the Catechism of the Council of Trent – in order to clarify to Catholics what we believe. At the time, a number of bishops in the United States opposed its publication because the Catechism employed philosophical language not easily assimulated into popular thought. The American bishops who opposed its publication at the time have since been proven right. So much of the language is rooted in classical philosophical/language that is not easily accessible through contemporary thought. I’m not saying the Catechism is wrong, I’m saying it doesn’t communicate meaningfully. That is specifically true on the assertion when the Catechism asserts that the incliniation to same-sex attraction is “objectively disordered.”
Early on, after the Catechism was published, I was arguing with gays who were upset that the Catechism was calling them mentally ill. At the same time, I was arguing with homophobes who were using that same assertion from the Catechism to assert gays were mentally ill. I quickly gave up arguing with either group. Neither understood what the Catechism meant by “objectively disordered” because neither had any background in Catholic philosophy/theology.
When the Catholic Church says the “tendency to homosexuality” is “objectively disordered” the Church is drawing on an ontological argument proposed by Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. In that argument, the Church wants to know not only whether something exists, but why. Applying the argument to ethics, the Church is asking, “What is the purpose of a particular act?” The Church had long ago decided the purpose of sex is to produce children (later, the Church decided it’s to deepen relations and produce children). To say the inclination is “disordered,” then, is to say it’s an inclination to engage in sexual activity not aimed at what is believed to be the natural purpose of sex: to produce children.
I think we can debate that onotological purpose of sex; but only if we understand what it is we’re actually debating.
At the same time, I think we can debate what Supreme Court Antonin Scalia meant when he said human dignity is innate and can neither be granted nor taken away by the State. But first we have to understand and respect what he meant when he wrote that. By the way, I have a low opinion of Scalia that he could attach himself to that philosophical tradition, but not think to translate that into a meaningful legal reasoning.