Giving courtesy a nasty name

When did ordinary courtesy – which includes not calling people by names offensive to them – become a bad thing?

I’m grateful to Steve Yeazell for pointing me to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. It’s an astounding document, though at approximately one page per three years also a rather intimidating one; so far, I’m flitting from topic to topic rather than trying read it sequentially. MacCulloch writes clearly without skimping on the technical details of church organization and theological reasoning, and I’m learning a great deal without great effort.

MacCulloch’s father was an East Anglian rector, and the book is marked by a cheerful courtesy and good humor that it’s hard not to see as the product of the best sort of manse upbringing. In discussing the terminological conventions he has chosen, MacCulloch writes:

I have tried to avoid names which are offensive to those to whom they have been applied, which means that readers may encounter unfamiliar usages, so I speak of “Miaphysites” and “Dyophysites” rather than “Monophysites” or “Nestorians,” or the “Apostolic Catholic Church” rather than “Irvingites.” Some may sneer at this as “political correctness.” When I was young my parents were insistent on the importance of being courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions and I am saddened that those undramatic virtues have now been relabeled in an unfriendly spirit.

The polemical assignment of nasty names to virtues has become a regular practice: we now have “elitism” to denigrate the love of excellence and “permissiveness” for to make freedom seem threatening. Whoever invented “political correctness” as a bad name for courtesy did a bad day’s work.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

24 thoughts on “Giving courtesy a nasty name”

  1. And all this time I thought monophysites were a throwaway one-liner from the Ionesco play. Little did I know he was aiming to offend. Epater les bourgeois indeed.

  2. Huh? How is “Monophysites” an ‘offensive’ term? Since the group in question argued there was ‘one’ and not ‘two’ natures for Christ? And since “Mia” means “one” anyway, how is this an improvement? Some argue these two words refer to two different views, and I suppose that would be therefore useful to use different names, but ‘offensive’?

  3. It sounds like a very interesting book, and one that tempts me.

    I don’t know about your final point, because I don’t think that “assigning nasty names to virtues” describes any of your examples. I should say that “assigning the names of vices to vaguely related virtues” is the problem. This has two bad effects instead of one: not only does it discourage general virtue by relabelling it as vice in every hostile context, but also it fosters vice by allowing it to defend itself as virtue slandered. So, to your main point – every outrageous rudeness can be recast as respectful peer-to-peer frankness with such a prefix as “I know it’s not PC, but…”; and this is partly because there really is a horrendously rude vice of trying to cop everybody’s speech to conform to one’s own ideological playbook, and it’s entirely capable of recasting any dissent from the playbook as intolerable discourtesy which violates the universal preconditions of civil discussion. Which is, circularly, fed by the fact that there really is a fair spot of clueless systematic rudeness around.

    My problem isn’t that terms such as “political correctness” exist; but that the vice which it names exists, and that some people can’t or won’t distinguish between it and one of the fundamental virtues of civilization.

  4. MacCulloch writes: “When I was young my parents were insistent on the importance of being courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions.” If MacCulloch’s parents had not taught him the importance of being courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions, it would nevertheless be the case. I bring up this quibble because people too often use the irrelevancy of what they were taught as children to justify their present beliefs. “I was raised to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” etc.

  5. “Political correctness” was, IIRC, originally not a dysphemism for “courtesy.” It referred to a weak response to a kind of discourtesy: always insisting that an interlocutor’s language was somehow offensive, with the goal of asserting dominance over the interlocutor. On the left, it ended with the Sistah Souljah moment. On the right, it became regnant.

    The term mutated (again IIRC) in the late 1980’s to its current meaning, as the right began to use it as a dysphemism for “courtesy.”

  6. I think I’d have to agree with Grey. There is such a thing as the love of excellence, but there is also such a thing as elitism. And while the former is sometimes wrongly labeled the latter, the latter sometimes pretends to be the former. That people confuse vices and related virtues does not mean that the vices don’t exist, any more than it does that the virtues don’t.

    And the Sistah Souljah moment was more of a reminder that PC was a weapon to be directed at the other guys, and never meant to be applied to fellow liberals, than it was any sort of abandonment of PC.

  7. I suppose I’ve always felt PC a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is the summation of decades of real civil rights progress – an acknowledgement of human cognitive frailty, that we must always be on guard against our tendency towards bias. But on the other hand, and especially since bias is so difficult to diagnose properly, it is an overwrought self-censorship that can lead to dishonesty.

    What worries me now, especially among those who would easily decry PC, is that we are denying that the former is a problem – that unconscious bias is either not a problem or something to incautiously dismiss altogether. To the extent that PC was ever just about *thinking before you speak*, it will be missed.

  8. My problem isn’t that terms such as “political correctness” exist; but that the vice which it names exists,

    I’d be curious to see that vice identified with specific examples. When people gripe about political correctness nowadays, they are almost always complaining about the need to modify one’s language to accommodate the sensibilities of a less dominant group.

    And dominance really does seem to be the issue. An atheist might complain about being required to honor the sensibilities of the religious, but those complaints (in my experience) aren’t typically framed as complaints about political correctness.

  9. politicalfootball, you’re right on. It is absolutely about dominance.

    When the War on Christmas heats up every year, I’m always struck by how the people who take offense to the phrase “Happy Holidays” decry it as political correctness, when they’re the ones trying to dictate how other people should use language on account of their sensitive feelings. The “political correctness” charge is entirely about the dominant group’s right to step on whoever they want, but they can’t even handle their own medicine.

  10. Way back in the early eighties, when I heard the term “politically correct” for the first time, it was an in-joke on the left. It wasn’t exclusively about how to refer to one or another group, though you might very well hear someone say, “Hey, it’s not politically correct to call those folks Gypsies.” You might also hear, “Supporting The Shining Path is not politically correct because they’re murderous thugs, if you didn’t know.”

    The joke aspect was that we were spoofing the pompous authoritarianism we were resisting. It was funny to say, “That’s not politically correct” instead of “I disagree.”

  11. It is weird that someone would need to clarify that in an academic work they give people the labels that groups have chosen for themselves rather than labels others would use to smear.

    For example in our current political discourse on abortion the two opposing camps label themselves “pro-life” and “pro-choice”, though their detractors label them “anti-choice” and “abortionettes”. These sorts of ad hominem polemicals play to a base that already agrees with the thesis without the help of examples. It does nothing to further the intellectual discourse. And isn’t intellectual discourse the point of academia?

  12. I read the whole book and it’s extremely good. I have to admit though that I would have preferred had he used the standard nomenclature though for two reasons.

    First, I don’t think there’s much gain in politeness. I’m skeptical that these names are objectively offensive. Lots of religious movements have common names that were originally insults but no longer taken as such. For instance, “Quaker” was originally a sneering reference to the Society of Friends’ rhetoric but nowadays is neither meant not understood an insult. Similarly, I don’t see why it’s necessarily offensive to refer to a theological movement by reference its founder or prominent early adherent (a common naming convention both for ancient theological factions and for modern Catholic religious orders). Frankly, if modern day Nestorians (for example) take offense at being referred to with a name that simply means “the people who adhere to the doctrines promulgated by Nestorius of Constantinople” then I strongly suspect it can only be an underlying sense of grievance and dispossession makes someone seek out the euphemism treadmill rather than there actually being anything offensive about the word “Nestorian.”

    Second, I think there’s a big cost in clarity. It is hard enough to keep the parties straight when reading about factional disputes 1500 years ago over very finely parsed distinctions of Christology and other technical matters of theology. Changing to a novel set of nomenclature only adds to the confusion. I can honestly say that MacCullough’s nomenclature interfered with my own comprehension and retention.

    That said I remain a big fan of the book.

  13. I read MacCulloch’s tome on the Reformation, and now I am rereading it. It somehow manages to provide an amazing amount of truly interesting and relevant information and yet still be a pleasure to read. Three years per page sounds like a reading bargain. The Reformation has close to 700 pages and, broadly, spans the period between 1450 and 1700: That’s almost three pages per year! It contains its own fairly thorough history of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as well as an entire chapter on the religious themes that attended the settlement of North America and that, alas, still infect our polticial life.

    I was going to buy the new book for my daughter. It’s definitely the kind of book that is best read in a non-electronic format.

  14. Clark, my recollection of this is very similar to yours – that “political correctness” started as an in-joke on the left. But in my memory, it was a liberal response to radical-left orthodoxies, so I’d turn this example around:

    You might also hear, “Supporting The Shining Path is not politically correct because they’re murderous thugs, if you didn’t know.”

    Liberals (in my recollection) would be vexed at times because political correctness would require them to withhold criticism of Marxists or Maoists. “I wanted to point out that Castro’s human rights record is horrible, but that wouldn’t have been politically correct.”

    A modern analog would be if conservatives complained humorously about being shouted down by Tea Partiers.

    Such is my recollection, anyway, which like yours, dates from the early ’80s.

  15. It’s odd that many Christians in America want Christianity to be the dominant religion, and believe that it is and should be, but also savor the idea of being persecuted, and enjoy taking refuge in their being on the outs with the world.

    How can one mind aspire to being “in the world and not of it” and yet also seek official, governmental, societal compliance with one’s own religious practices and expectations?

    I know, I think it’s called having one’s cake and eating it too … or, to use New Testament language, being a hypocrite.

  16. (I meant to say, the above remark is intended to follow the ‘dominance’ thread introduced by politicalfootball and ACLS)

  17. The charge of political correctness from the right is about dominance, but it is also about justifying racist (or other discriminatory) attitudes. The assumed or overt statement is that you think the same way, but are afraid to say it.

  18. As I understand it, this is Professor Kleiman’s heavily coded way of saying that he will no longer refer to his opponents as “Teahadis.”

  19. @clark, @politicalfootball–I remember “politically correct” from even earlier, when the hard left used it perfectly seriously (for views and behavior generally, not just terminology). It was the left’s own “pompous authoritarianism” that later, more relaxed lefties were spoofing, as clark suggests.

  20. Student,

    I think it depends on how offensive the term is. Obviously hateful slurs like “Monophysite” and “Nestorian” have no place in polite society (and I find it painful even to type them) whereas only the cynical or the hyper-sensitive could possibly object to good plain English like “teabagger,” “wingnuts,” or “Taliban” (as applied to American politicians).

  21. The Great Monophysite/Miaphysite PC Problem is nice because you have to analyse the ethics of sensitivity without having a clue about the content of the words, or whether they have any clear meaning.

    According to Wikipedia:
    “Miaphysitism, the christology of the Oriental Orthodox churches, is considered by Chalcedonian churches as a variant of monophysitism, but these churches view their theology as distinct from monophysitism and anathematize Eutyches.”

    So Western Christian theologian to Oriental Christian theologian: “You are a monophysite!”
    Eastern Christian theologian: “No I’m not. Monophysitism is defined by Eutyches and he’s wrong. We believe something different and call it miaphysitism.”

    If you are inside or close to this debate, then I’d say: as a courtesy, the Chalcedonian should accept the miaphysite labelling in polemic and then try to show that the positions are not distinct.

    If you are remote from this debate, stick to the familiar words. Monophysite rings a (pretty faint) bell, miaphysite doesn’t. The chance of amateurs accidentally offending Eastern Christian theologians in general-interest blogging is negligible.

  22. “Obviously hateful slurs like “Monophysite” and “Nestorian” have no place in polite society (and I find it painful even to type them) ”

    And your exquisite sensitivity and oh so wonderful preciousness is duly noted. By one upping us all in the sensitivity debate, by being offended by two more things than anyone else, you win!

    This is what liberalism to often has decayed down to: a never ending quest to invent even more things to be offended at, while, of course, not doing a thing about improving the lives of anyone. It is “obvious” that this is “hateful”? Careful, you not only claim that a large group is offended at this, but now your claiming intent to offend, and intent to hate. And what, pray tell, do you have to back that up? Well, your opinion, I guess.

    But get busy, you’ve got a lot of library books to burn. Better start with that well known hater Jaroslav Pelikan, and from there you can move on to Kallistos Ware and also get rid of John Meyendorff and the historian Leo Davis, among others.

  23. JohnN,

    That was sarcasm, as is a bit more apparent if you read the second half of the sentence. I was picking up on Student’s point that it is ironic that Mark praises MacCullough’s principle of “courtesy” when he is quite willing to use terms like “lunatic” and “teabagger” to describe his political rivals.

    As seen in an earlier comment, I actually agree with you that taking umbrage at terms like “Nestorian” and “Monophysite” is silly.

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