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Pre-mortem: Double Standards and the Death of a Civilization

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Published Feb. 17, 2016

Pre-mortem: Double Standards and the Death of a Civilization
Good V. Evil Ideas from Bigstock

"Don't say what you're thinking."

"It doesn't matter how you feel."

"Honesty is not always the best policy."

It sounds terrible, doesn't it? And yet modern society has created an entire value system based on these axioms. It's called political correctness.

At the same time, however, there seems to be a freakish disconnect between the cultural extremes of political correctness and libertinism. On the one hand, the list of socially unacceptable words, phrases, and ideas keeps growing longer; on the other hand, regard for verbal filtering plummets in virtual free-fall.

At first blush, we might explain this away as an obvious consequence of competing ideologies and worldviews. Certainly, the popularity of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz can be understood as a natural reaction to the vacuous rhetoric of our elected officials, and to the farcical condemnation of benign comments and legitimate opinions as "hate speech" by the chattering classes. When a prominent university attempts to censor of words like mothering, fathering, and American as "microaggressions," the inevitable consequence will be an equal and opposite reaction from the other side of the ideological divide.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

But what is truly baffling are the offenses committed by proponents of political correctness themselves, as in the recent case of Don Harris, former president of the Maricopa County NAACP.

Last year, Mr. Harris declared that "once you lose credibility [then] your leadership fails." That's what we would expect from a man who spent his career fighting for fairness, equality, and human dignity. But how does he then turn 180 degrees by casually tossing out a gratuitous, sexually offensive remark in a professional setting? Even his apology, according to the Daily Caller, was laced with profanity.

Nor is this an isolated incident. As a mouthpiece of the far left (which fervently embraces political correctness), MSNBC would be expected to exercise the highest level of verbal deliberation in its on-air reportage. And yet, in the last few years, Chris Matthews compared the Republican Party to the Ku Klux Klan, Ed Schultz lofted a vulgar slur and conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, and Martin Bashir served up the most vile comments about Sarah Palin.

Over at ABC on The View, Michelle Collins mocked Miss America contestant Kelly Johnson for attempting to bring a bit of substance to the shallow spectacle with a monologue describing how nursing has defined her life. Better Miss Johnson should have tap-danced, it would seem. A couple of months later, the hosts mocked Republican candidate Carly Fiorina for, of all things, her smile.

So how do people who so passionately support a culture of political correctness justify applying it with such selectivity?

The answer begins here: political correctness is not really a new idea; it is simply the new label for an old, established moral postulate once accepted by all.

It used to be called civility.

ONCE UPON A TIME

The word civility shares its linguistic root with the world civilization. It means taking into consideration the comfort of others before expressing what I think or doing what I want. It means remembering that other people have rights before I assert my own. It means reflecting upon how my actions are going to affect my community and recognizing that I have a responsibility to a society that is more than the sum of autonomous individuals.

The way I speak, the way I dress, the courtesy I show others -- or lack thereof -- all of these enhance or erode the cohesion and refinement of my community, tilting the scales of human interaction either toward the side of civilized society or toward anarchy. In his insightful book Civility, Stephen L. Carter, who's column appears on JWR, articulates how saying please and thank you, smiling at and nodding to strangers, giving up my seat on the train, holding the door, and putting my napkin in my lap at supper all show a respect for the common values that strengthen the fabric of society -- even if I may not feel like observing them or personally don't think they are important.

So what was wrong with the term civility that the concept needed rebranding as political correctness? Most likely, it was the connotation of political ideology that spawned this illegitimate offspring of cultural nobility.

In short, civility is a personal guide that governs my conduct toward others; political correctness is a weapon I can wield to bully others into conforming with what is acceptable to me. It is the political dimension that was missing from the ethic of civility that needed to find expression in a new terminology.

Hence the contradictions and the double-standards. According to the new dogma of radical liberalism, hate-speech is a crime committed only by those who express politically incorrect ideas and hold politically incorrect positions. If my politics are sound, then I am incapable of being politically incorrect, no matter what my words sound like.

Of course, the ideological left hardly has a monopoly on double-standards. After months of slinging gratuitous, personal attacks at his fellow Republican candidates (among many, many others), Donald Trump failed to notice the irony when he reproved Ted Cruz for his "very insulting" remark about New York values. Sadly, his supporters didn't notice, either.

After the unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to block any vote for replacement from coming to the floor. This after Republicans railed for years against former Senate Leader Harry Reid -- justifiably -- for blocking any vote on bills he personally did not like.

Not to be outdone on the hypocrisy meter, Harry Reid denounced Mitch McConnell's position as "shameful." Senator Chuck Schumer added his voice to Mr. Reid's, forgetting -- or not caring -- that he had taken the same position as Senator McConnell back in 2007.

Then there was last October, when conservatives were lionizing Kim Davis for refusing to discharge her duties as county clerk as a matter of conscience, while simultaneously vilifying the mayor of San Francisco -- again, justifiably -- for harboring illegals in defiance of federal law.

When we believe that one set of rules applies to our side and a different set of rules applies to the other side then, ultimately, we believe in nothing at all.

The ideal of civility is what makes it possible for different people with different ideas to live together in a way the serves their common interests based on the shared common values of equality, justice, and personal responsibility. When self-interest and the politics of identity and personal advantage redefine social norms in a way that pits us against one another as combatants rather than allies, then civilization is truly doomed.

But civility does not require idealism or selflessness for its resurrection. It only requires that we recognize how much we all benefit by making respect for the truth and for one another our highest priorities.

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Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures. His new book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages is available on Amazon.

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