I’ve always said that the most important thing in politics is to not be cruel to other persons. Perhaps the second most important rule is to always be open to new ideas and perspectives, not being beholden to ideology above pragmatism. However, this responsibility of being accepting to new ideas comes with an equal responsibility to those spreading the new ideas: do not be offended by ignorance. Ignorance, all too often, is mistaken for malice. Those with malevolent viewpoints on a topic of discussion are mixed in with those who have few viewpoints at all, or naive ones. This is particularly troubling on Social Issues and others involving complex ideas and prerequisite knowledge.
I consider myself an openly left-wing person on most Social Issues, and yet –until college– I was ignorant on some of the fancier nuances. To the best of my ability, I always sought to believe in the equality of the sexes throughout my upbringing, although I did not know what fancy buzz words such as “patriarchy” or “rape culture” meant until college. I have been a strong supporter of same-sex marriage since before I could remember, though I called the broader issue “gay rights” and not the more inclusive “LGBT rights.” Sometimes, there are even more letters included. Heck, it was not until fairly recently that I heard the term “cisgendered,” specifically in regard to the rights of transgendered people (for what it’s worth, my spellcheck still does not recognize the word).
Make no mistake, I do not think that any of my core beliefs have shifted over this time. I believe in the political equal rights of all, I reject discrimination in any form and I certainly believe that rape on college campuses (or anywhere else, for that matter) is no one’s fault except the rapist’s. Perhaps I could not have articulated those core beliefs so well when I was 18, but I certainly believed them. However, I was ignorant of most of the more complex material included.
The point of this article is not to confess the time that I was some sort of wayward bigot; far from it. Rather, it is about the responsibility that those who seek to educate others on social issues have. Not to toot my own horn, but I truly consider myself a non-prejudiced person on many of these matters. Accordingly, being incessantly bombarded by the political correctness police in response to a slip-up of ignorance is not only wrong, but it is actively harmful.
Take “heteronormativity,” for example. The idea is that it is harmful to always assume the notions affiliated with being a heterosexual are normal, merely because the sexual orientation exists in the majority. One does not need to look any further than race to understand this principle. Indeed, it would obviously be harmful to equate something commonly exclusively affiliated with White people, or Christians, is the “normal” way to go about things.
So it was obviously wrong when I made a heteronormative comment a little over a year ago, when I distinguished gay marriage with so-called “normal marriage.” It was incorrect, but it did not make me a bigot; it made me ignorant. Uber-politically correct words like heteronormativity are not in excessive use outside the Ivory Tower of college campuses. It is a little bit silly to assume that an 18-year old Texan, even a liberal one, would innately be born and raised with all of the lingo in common usage at Brandeis University, one of the most liberal institutions in the country.
Accordingly, what was even more wrong was the outpouring of condemnations that I received for the small gaffe. “Small-minded,” “bigoted” and “insensitive” were common denominator. Also, there was the obligatory retort to “check my privilege” by reciting every allegedly-preferable trait of mine. I generally have pretty thick skin, so I didn’t really mind, and since my first rule in politics is to not be cruel to others, I updated my lingo. My concerns, however, are with people far less altruistic than myself.
Large groups of people cannot be shamed into changing their ways. People are not eager to admit their faults, so they will firm up and become defensive far sooner than acquiescing and uttering “mea culpa.”
If someone is ignorant of the issue, given that they do not possess any type of malice, it is misplaced to criticize them or castigate their alleged lack of correct morality. Rather, seek to educate someone on the issue in a constructive and cooperative way. I contrast my experience with complex nuances on LGBT issues with that of more complex feminist issues. In that setting, I have been lucky enough to have some close friends who have explained most of these conventions to me.
The vast world of political correctness is far less nebulous and confusing when it is explained by friend and not foe. The underlying themes, namely equality, are not inherently controversial. But people clam up when they are told that they are bigoted, insensitive or prejudiced on a complex issue that they know little about. Furthermore, irrespective of what one actually does, most people think –deep down– that they are good, decent people. Being told otherwise in a rather combative manner is good way to firm up one’s behavior.
Yes, do not be cruel to other people. Yes, be receptive to changing ideas. But if you are one of those people trying to spread the gospel of said changing ideas, no, do not assume everyone you encounter is a bigot.