Thursday, November 27, 2008

politically correct

Nowadays, the term politically correct is usually used as part of an attempt to make one's obnoxiousness seem daring, or even heroic. "Oh I guess that wasn't terribly PC of me," we say with a mock-sheepish grin, as though using a slur was akin to insisting that the Earth does move, and to hell with the consequences. To be sure, it's only brave when it's someone else being poked; when you're the one being insulted, the other person isn't non-PC, just offensive.
But there was a time before PC was a pejorative term for "polite when I don't wanna be," when it meant being in thrall to some ideological orthodoxy. The poster boy for this was a man named Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko (1898-1976), a Soviet agronomist, rejected the bourgeois doctrine of genetics in favor of an idea that acquired characteristics could be inherited. This so delighted the Soviet hierarchy as being in line with Communist teaching that the classical Mendelian approach was banished. The only problem was that Lysenko was completely wrong, and the insistence on a politically correct science - instead of a scientifically correct science - set Soviet biology back by a generation.
The problem with politically correct science is that sometimes it kills people. A new study estimates (conservatively) that 365,000 people whose lives could have been prolonged by proper medication died prematurely in South Africa. Why? Because the president of South Africa insisted that AIDS was not caused by HIV, and that claims to the contrary were the work of racist Westerners.
Real racism would be to assume that the suppression of science for the sake of a doctrine could only happen in someplace truly backwards these days, like Africa. But those in search of true Politically Correct science need go no further than the White House. In areas ranging from earth science to medicine to developmental psychology, the Bush regime has replaced scholars and scientists with commissars. One of the many characteristics of Obama that give cause for hope is that he seems to genuinely believe that knowledge is a good thing, that, in fact, it should precede policy.
The stance of honestly wanting to know of accepting - even seeking - surprise, is not only a good scientific, or even policy stance, but it is fundamentally moral. Ethics begins with the idea that the other is a subject, self-defining and self-validating. That means my approach to an other is from a place of humility. I come to you aware of the fact that I don't (yet) know you, that you will confound my expectations. I must come to you looking to be surprised.
Which brings us to an interesting twist. If in modern discourse "PC" just indicates consideration or respect, it turns out that the most "PC" science is also the least politically correct.

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