The evolution of political correctness

I think it's fair to say that as the term is ordinarily used by leftists, I'm very far from being "politically correct." (Most people who know me -- especially liberals -- considered me to be a rather extreme and irreverent specimen of politically incorrectness.)

But I am starting to see clear evidence that even these terms are losing their meaning.

Bear in mind that the term "politically correct" once referred to left wing party line thinking, and more recently as a backlash against it.

Here's a brief history of the term:

Use of the term became popular in the early 1990s as part of a conservative challenge to curriculum and teaching methods on college campuses in the United States (D'Souza 1991; Berman 1992; Schultz 1993; Messer Davidow 1993, 1994; Scatamburlo 1998.) The word was taken from Marxist-Leninist vocabulary following the Russian revolution, when it was used to describe the Party Line.

The term was transformed and used jokingly within the left by the early 1980s, possibly earlier, to describe either an over-commitment to various left-wing political causes, especially within Marxism or the feminist movement; or a tendency by some of those dedicated to these causes to be more concerned with rhetoric and vocabulary than with substance. So on the left the term was primaraily used to mockingly dismiss their own more doctrinaire and zealous allies.

In the 1990s conservatives picked up and once again transformed the term "Political Correctness" to claim that a left-wing movement based in liberal academic circles was attempting to create a new doctrinaire political orthodoxy by using a form of social engineering that included changing words and phrases some groups claimed were offensive.

But now I see "political correctness" being used to describe evolution -- with political incorrectness being used to describe opposition to evolution. A new book by evolution opponent Tom Bethell -- The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science -- does just that. Among the book's points highlighted in the ad:
  • Why, quite independently of Intelligent Design, fewer informed people than ever believe in evolution now
  • Evolution from the primordial soup: not a scientific truth but a highly questionable philosophical worldview, whose real premises have been carefully concealed
  • How boosters of the evolutionary theory systematically stifle debate on the premises of Intelligent Design, and shamelessly silence challenges to evolution
  • How evolutionists twist any outcome in nature as a "confirmation" of Darwin's theory
  • The famous (and non-believing) philosopher who admitted that "It's easier to believe in God" than in evolution
  • The materialist superstition: how, having (they think) disposed of God, some scientists are eager to fill the void themselves
  • Charles Darwin: not merely a detached agnostic (his public pose) but a determined antagonist of Christianity
  • I don't doubt that many advocates of evolution use tactics bordering on out and out Stalinism, but that doesn't make evolution a form of political correctness. Nor does the theory of life arising from primordial soup -- regardless of whether it's called a "philosophy" (something I don't think it is, regardless of its truth). As to Darwin's beliefs, Bethell makes much of a letter he wrote expressing horror over the supposedly Christian doctrine that non-believers would be punished eternally. What that has to do with evolutionary theory or how it renders it politically correct escapes me.

    Elsewhere, Bethell has elucidated his views on evolution, but without devoting much time to refuting Darwinian theory itself. Instead, he sets forth arguments against what he deems the harmful social consequences of Darwinian theory:
    If the Neo-Darwinian claim is true and all creatures great and small are here on earth as a result of a long chain of improbable accidents, then we have little reason to believe that God exists or that life has any meaning whatever.
    He sounds frightened not so much by evolution as by what it represents to his own way of thinking:
    Our reasons for believing in God in the first place are derived from our own consciousness and being, from our powers of reason and our appreciation of the beauty, design and purpose that are so evidently built into the world around us. But if all of these things arose by blind chance, as so many scientists in the last hundred years have claimed that they did, what reason was there for believing in God in the first place? Very little, as far as I can see. If the blind interplay of forces (as it was sometimes called) could account for everything, what need was there for any heavenly or spiritual hypothesis?
    These are not arguments against evolution at all, but Bethell's own assertions that evolution is fatal to any belief in God. I disagree with him, although I'd note (quite ironically) that many atheists would agree with him, and many do misuse evolution to their own ends. Many don't, however. And regarding morality, the following remark would preclude atheists from having any at all:
    If God does not exist - and most Darwinians believe that He does not - then anything that is mechanically possible becomes morally permissible.
    By his view, all moral restraint comes from a belief in God -- a logical fallacy too absurd to require extensive comment. (Except to those believing in the circular argument that all non-believers are evil because all non-belief is evil.) And again, an argument having nothing to do with the validity of a scientific theory.

    None of this is to suggest that there aren't things like major gaps in the fossil record, and a number of particular instances where scientists got it wrong. Nor do I suggest that there isn't such a thing as politically correct science. But calling evolution itself politically correct would seem to torture the whole idea of political correctness.

    You want genuine politically correct science? Try Stalinist genetics!

    At the risk of sounding like a flaming liberal, there's something about a claim which places H.L. Mencken into the politically correct camp which doesn't pass my smell test -- any more than it would to label William Jennings Bryan (or Savonarola, for that matter) "politically incorrect" .

    And if Mencken is to be PC, what about Galileo? Is the Inquisition, then, "politically incorrect"?

    Parenthetically, in the Intelligent Design debate, the irony has (according to liberal William Saletan) been compounded by the fact that the ID crowd had already committed the politically correct sin of conceding geologic time (presumably an evolutionary domino which will lead to the anti-evolutionists' undoing):

    Essentially, ID proponents are gambling that they can concede evolutionist earth science without conceding evolutionist life science. But they can't. They already acknowledge microevolution—mutation and natural selection within a species. Once you accept conventional fossil dating and four billion years of life, the sequential kinship of species loses its implausibility. You can't fall back on the Bible; you've already admitted it can't always be taken literally. All you're left with is an assortment of gaps in evolutionary theory—how did DNA emerge, what happened between this and that fossil—and the vague default assumption that an "intelligence" might fill in those gaps. Calvert and Harris call this assumption a big tent. But guess what happens to a tent without poles.

    Perversely, evolutionists refuse to facilitate this collapse. They prefer to dismiss ID proponents as dead-end Neanderthals. They complain, legitimately, that Calvert and Harris are trying to expand the definition of science beyond "natural explanations." But have you read the definition Calvert and Harris propose? It would define science as a continuous process of "observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena." Abstract creationism can't qualify for such scrutiny. Substantive creationism can't survive it. Or if it can, it should.

    It's too bad liberals and scientists don't welcome this test. It's too bad they go around sneering, as censors of science often have, that the new theory is too radical, offensive, or embarrassing to be taken seriously. It's too bad they think good science consists of believing the right things. In the long view—the evolutionary view—good science consists of using evidence and experiment to find out whether what we thought was right is wrong. If they do that in Kansas, by whatever name, that's all that matters.

    I guess we'll see.

    But the point here is not whether evolutionary theory is right, or how right it is in all its particulars. Any arguments which can be made against evolution should be made, because it's the nature of scientific theory to be tested. That is how knowledge itself, um, evolves.

    What I don't like is seeing labels like "politically incorrect" being used to describe moralistic arguments being used where they don't belong. Whatever the flaws of conventional Darwinian theory, calling it "PC" makes about as much sense as saying it's wrong because it undermines "authority." (And that the need for latter justifies belief in God.)

    Pretty soon, "politically correct" will have no meaning.

    And that's a paradox. That's because it's already "politically correct" for words and expressions to have no meaning (which means it has no meaning to have no meaning).

    Political incorrectness is thus politically correct.

    Evolution is Creation!

    God has evolved!

    posted by Eric on 10.18.05 at 08:08 PM


    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The evolution of political correctness:

    » "Politically Correct" a now meaningless term? from The Radical Centrist
    Wonderful post from Eric Scheie at Classical Values. Ostensibly its about the how the term :Politically Correct: has been tossed about so as to become meaningless. In truth the post is also much about Intelligent Design which I would normally [Read More]
    Tracked on October 19, 2005 3:00 AM
    » The Evolution of Political Correctness from LIBERTY BELLES
    From the Classical Values blog: Pretty soon, “politically correct” will have no meaning. …one hopes. ... [Read More]
    Tracked on October 20, 2005 10:03 AM


    In my comment in the last post I ventured from the judicial into the theological realm. Since this is a theological post, I shall re-post my theological statement here:

    Extremely interesting. No, the Catholic church has never believed in sola scriptura as the basis of authority. But for those Protestants who do believe in the Bible as the God-breathed truth of Heaven, here is something to ponder -- John 6:43-58. The holy dogma of Transubstantiation.

    In 1854, Pope Pius IX defined as holy dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and then in 1950, Pope Pius XII defined as holy dogma the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

    "Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith."

    Absolutely. For 'twould be blasphemy. These are the only times, by the way, that the Popes have so spoken ex cathedra. The Catholic church refers to Her also as the Queen of Heaven and, at this pace, we can expect that sometime around 2050, Her Coronation will be explicitly defined as holy dogma. Catholic theologians have written of Her as the Co-Redemptrix with the Christ. At some point, this, too, will be dogma also, most holy dogma. The higher She is exalted, the higher and holier is the Catholic church, the nearer to my Most High Goddess.

    The Goddess against the Godless. The Catholic church has thus always stood as a bulwark against Godless Communism.

    I absolutely agree that we are free to choose Whom we will worship, the freedom of the soul, the root of all other freedoms. As for me, I know where I stand theologically. I can do no other.

    Tying in with that, I wrote this in Dean's World this morning:

    Two "myths" that I like to refute are:

    1) That Europeans before Columbus believed that the Earth was flat. False. Ever since Eratosthenes, the Greeks knew not only that the Earth is round but even its approximate size. This was transmitted to us through the Romans and then through the Catholic church. All educated Europeans had this knowledge. E.g., see Dante's cosmology in The Divine Comedy. Columbus actually underestimated the size of the Earth and, had it not been for the New World (which he initially thought was India -- hence "Indians"), he would all too soon have run out of provisions for his men. He was a bold explorer, and I'm glad he discovered America, but he was a bit erroneous in his thinking. The Catholic church turned out to be right.

    2) That a myth is a popular belief that turns out to be false. False. A myth is a story about the deeds of Gods and/or Goddesses. It is from myth that holy dogma is derived and all theology. Myth, therefore, is absolute truth.

    E.g., it is a myth that you should not throw a hone across the floor, and it is nonetheless true. Not only might you give Thor a headache, but -- even if you're an atheist or don't believe in Thor -- you might break something. Be careful. Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw hones.

    Forgive my bit of persiflage there. The duel between Thor and Hrungnir is the archetypal duel between Good and Evil that runs through every mythology. Right now, I'm reading a book on the history of Zoroastrianism.

    Here is the holy myth of Isis and Osiris. Which exactly parallels the holy myth of Inanna. Which exactly parallels that other holy myth to which I alluded in a previous comment in another thread, that myth which, more than any other, has shaped our Western high culture. I hold this supreme archetypal myth of the Queen of Heaven as absolute holy dogma.

    Myth, in its original sense, is not false, but is the highest truth of all. "Myth is the language in which the Gods speak to us," as Stephen A. McNallen (founder of the Asatru Free Assembly) put it so well.

    I am Politically Incorrect in every sense I can think of. And I am also a Creationist. I believe in the myth of Divine Creation. I do not believe in evolution except to the degree, and only to the degree, that it is consistent with the dogma of Divine Creation.

    I'm never quite sure what to make of Bethell or anyone associated with the American Spectator. They sometimes speak a great deal of sense and sometimes don't. And I don't mean in terms of my agreeing or disagreeing either, just strange logical leaps.

    I have seen thundering political correctness since venturing into the ID debate. I'm an atheistic agnostic and a humanist, but I'm utterly un-hostile to religion. I'm also committed to the truth, wherever it takes me. When I've tried pointing out that some of what the ID people say makes sense and should be conceded and that a debate on these issues would be terrific in the nation's science classes, the thundering denunciation, snearing condescension, outright insults, and mischaracterization of my words left me genuinely stunned (although after four years of blogging you'd think that would be hard to do).

    There is no doubt in my mind that there is a fervent religious conviction of some who defend Darwin and evolution with fire-breathing intensity. I would say that it's fair to characterize some of it as politically correct if by that term we mean a tendency to quash dissent by determining what is and is not an allowable line of inquiry; if I have one more blowhard bellow "It's not science!" at me when discussing the subject I think I'll hit him with a baseball bat.

    Dean Esmay   ·  October 20, 2005 4:20 AM

    I see no contradiction between evolution and a belief in God, and I know that many of the evolution advocates are so PC as to border on outright Stalinists. I just think labeling evolution itself as PC because of them is a cheap shot. (Understandable in context, perhaps, but still a cheap shot.)

    If the goal of the ID people was to maintain that there's no contradiction between evolution and God, I wouldn't be concerned. What irks me is that they're setting up an either/or dichotomy, and in so doing, they're agreeing with the ardent atheists. If this escalates, reason will suffer. So will education.

    Eric Scheie   ·  October 20, 2005 7:23 AM

    "If God does not exist - and most Darwinians believe that He does not - then ..."

    Huh? Maybe the loudest, maybe even "many" (though I doubt it), but surely not "most." Darwin himself was a strong believer, and one reason he held off publishing for so long was his fear that his work would be misinterpreted in just this way. Evolution is no more anti-religious than Einsteinian physics, nor are "most" believers of either necessarily anti-religious.

    As to being PC - nope, don't see it, in the sense that being PC is a decision to be so - evolution doesn't care one way or the other.

    John Anderson   ·  October 20, 2005 5:17 PM

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