Mal Fletcher
Political Correctness - Can You Legislate Tolerance?

Hardly a week goes by anywhere in the developed world without us reading in the press something or other about the forces of political correctness.

In many places, just saying the words 'political correctness' can get you into some frightful debates, inspiring some really passionate reactions even from normally placid people!

Nobody is too sure where the term "political correctness" came from, though there are versions of it in the early Communist rhetoric of both Russia and China. It referred to something that was politically "on message". Later it found its way into left-leaning publications in the West, particularly in the 1970s and 80s.

In some places today political correctness has become an umbrella term that's used to justify everything from banning Punch and Judy shows, for fear that they might encourage domestic violence, to outlawing Christmas decorations in city streets, so as not to offend people of other faiths.

With examples like these, it's easy to see why some journalists have taken to calling political correctness "bureaucracy gone mad".

If you were trying to see it in its best light, you might say that political correctness is an attempt to come to terms with the complexities of life in a pluralistic society.

It tries to keep the peace by removing the likelihood of misunderstanding between groups of people who live close together and have very different views and lifestyles. The problem is that it often sees an offence where no offence was intended or taken.

Political correctness may also be a way of dealing with the fallout from moral relativism.

It seems that many of us want the freedoms relativism offers -- to do what we want, when we want -- but we are horrified by its social and emotional consequences.

"Do your own thing" and situation ethic sounded so attractive when they first seeped into popular culture in the 1960s.

But relativism has left us with unprecedented levels of divorce, and crime. And many of our young people try to find joy in a bottle, while some others take to the violence of gang culture just to find a family.

For some people, political correctness represents a new vehicle for social transformation. With the failure of communism and hardcore socialism, many people on the radical left of politics needed a new way to bring about their vision, of an equitable society based on purely secular principles.

Two of the most powerful social forces in the Western world today are pluralism and secularism.

Pluralism says that all notions of truth are equally true; all lifestyles and belief systems are equally valid; all roads lead to the same destination.

Secularism removes the sacred from society; it insists that religious principles should play no part in shaping public policy.

It's the marriage of pluralism and secularism that's given birth to political correctness. Some social commentators are saying that this marriage is also weakening our ability to think critically, to apply reason in problem situations.

Critical thinking involves being able to see the principles behind an argument and to decipher whether it is consistent or not.

Pluralism, when it is divorced from absolute boundaries or spiritual values, leads to a form of cultural schizophrenia.

If we're not careful, we end up saying, with great conviction, that we believe two totally contradictory things at the same time. It's as if we're trying to map society's future with a compass that says north is in two completely different directions. This can tear a society apart.

Political correctness is in part, I think, an attempt to give secularised Western society the values of tolerance, courtesy and respect that were traditionally provided by its religious cultural heritage.

But political correctness tries to legislate tolerance, ignoring the fact that compassion and respect for others begin in the heart - they often come out of deeply held spiritual values.

Before societies can change for the better, we must change. The biggest problems of our time are problems of the human heart.

We won't bring lasting change to global warming without a fundamental change to human greed.

We can't end racism without a change to human distrust and fear. We'll never make poverty history unless there's a fundamental change to human selfishness.

None of these problems can be solved by passing laws alone.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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