Enriching Universities as Christian Academics in a Politically Correct World
30th November 2019, LSE, London. Conference summary
I found this conference, on the theme of political correctness (PC), particularly rewarding, gaining insights from every speaker. In the morning Tim Brown gave reflections on John 17:13-19, when Jesus prays for his followers “in the world but not of the world”, and then John Wyatt (JW) and Ron Beadle (RB) discussed PC in general from Christian theoretical perspectives, each with opportunity for questions. The afternoon was devoted to a number of shorter presentations of experience, followed by group discussion. The afternoon contributors included Ros Turner (RT), Rachel Owusu-Amhokan (RO), Jenny Crawley (JC), George Crimble (GC) and Nick Megoran (NM). Mark Surey explained why these contributors had been there: they are examples of engagement with the issue.
How can I offer an overview of such diverse material? Instead of just summarising the contributions, I will mix them together as they helped us address three world-view questions;
- What is there?
- What’s the problem?
- What’s the solution?
The majority of the material was about the third, whereas about the other two, questions remain.
1. What is there? What is the situation around PC?
1a. Fact 1. There is political correctness (PC), and were given a number of examples of it. However, we did not discuss, nor come up with, a definitive view on what is included in PC. There are two sides to this, which raise questions that still need addressing:
- What is included in PC? Which things should we include and which, not? For example, environmental concern has sometimes been dubbed PC [by Ann Widdecombe, November 2019], but should it be. Why has it been? What kinds of PC are there? Feminism? Abortion? LGB? Trans? BAME? Disabled? Climate concern? There are nine “protected characteristics” in Equality & Diversity [RT]. What is the ‘spirit’ behind PC?
- PC instead of what? RB gave an overall answer, in the Biblical approach. However, maybe we need to answer this for each PC, not all together. Can Christians support some more than others?
Answers to those questions help determine how we act (third World-view quesiion, below). Coming up with a definitive view might not have been appropriate today, but it is a question that Christian academics still need to address (perhaps on behalf of the academic community).
1b. Fact 2. Christianity is growing worldwide, with two exceptions, (a) Western Europe, (b) Academia. It is in those that PC has taken hold, so Christian academics therefore are specially challenged. It is Christendom, not Christianity, which is on the decline here [JW]. Why has God allowed Christendom to collapse? Someone pointed out that this is the first time in history where Christians are part of something declining rather than growing. We are still learning how to live with it. [AB: This may be compared with why God took Judah into exile. Jeremiah 45.] (Maybe this conference might contribute to that learning? [AB])
1c. Observation. PC breaks down distinctions, especially via social media, reverting back to a high-shame culture. The Internet never forgets; what we said years ago is dragged up today.
1c. Fact 3. We are made in the image of God [NM], to represent God, saved by Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This has implications for what we do, as described later.
2. What is the problem? What actually is wrong with PC?
2a. It was taken for granted that PC is a problem. But why? Are all its types problematic? In what way is each problematic? What kind of problem should we stress in those we oppose? Example: Is the problem with Gender-reassignment that it go against Genesis 1:27, or that it fails to solve the deeper problem that it was supposed to solve, and it has not reduced suicide [RO-A]? [AB: Personally, I feel that using Genesis 1:27 against GRA is misusing Scripture, and prefer to argue from creational rather than theological perspectives, so I found RO-A’s contribution helpful.] Maybe addressing these questions for each type of PC separately can help make our responses to PC more “wise” (see below).
2b. (The spirit of) PC is very different from the Biblical view of shalom and practical concern [JW] (though some PCs echo Biblical views). It turns genuine virtue into virtue-signalling, which Jesus condemned. The unforgetting Internet, coupled with an unmerciful attitude, removes any possibility of forgiveness and repentance. PC is based on Nietzschean power rather than agape [JW].
2c. PC as a whole seems internally contradictory (e.g. feminists v trans). (Another reason for taking each PC separately?)
2d. We need a clearer view of what is wrong with each type of PC, and why, or the way in which, it’s wrong.
2e. Maybe we can reconceive PC around Biblical ideas of agape, truth, sin, forgiveness? We might recognise that PC is rooted in an awareness of sin, of something that has been wrong, coupled with a desire to correct it [JW]. For example feminist PC might derive from injustices done to women throughout the centuries, especially in attitude. (Added idea by AB: Might the attempts to shut down “free speech” be recognition of the evil that what James calls “the tongue” can do, and an echo of a recognition of the need for repentance of the heart attitude?) To the extent that various PCs are expressions of awareness of sin, then PC derives most deeply from a Biblical idea, rather than humanist idea that humanity is OK. But this deep root may be hidden.
3. What’s the Solution? What should we, as Christians, do?
3a. Three people at least gave the overall answer: We should neither react with anger nor acquiesce. A third option offered by one is to set up communities (e.g. universities) of our own where PC does not operate [RB], but some did not find that helpful.
3b. Instead, MS (and several others) prefer a fourth option: Engage. Several speakers, especially during the afternoon session, gave many examples of engagement. (Note: This kind of engagement is what CAN tries to foster, with its ‘Shaping our Disciplines for Christ’ and ‘lACE: Listen, Affirm, Critique, Enrich’. [AB])
3c. As we engage, remember that we and others are human beings made in the Image of God, that Christ brings salvation and that the Holy Spirit is at work in us. In the light of that, how should we engage?
3d. On overall approach: Do not “rush in” [RO-A] with morals or Bible passages. However, the reason why we should heed that advice needs to be clearly elucidated. RO-A suggests Ephesian 4:6 “be wise toward outsiders”, but what does “wise” mean? (FWIW: Are we meant by the Lord to engage at the creational level of being human together, rather than either moral superiority and imposition, or theological level?) Daniel said Yes to three things his captors demanded before he said No [JW]. JC, as head of Equality & Diversity, offered some useful points, for instance questioning that which is taken for granted (e.g. under-representation is not discrimination).
3e. Be bold. Use the tools available. RT urged us to respond positively to Equality and Diversity, on the grounds that faith is one of the nine protected characteristics that come under it. RT and JC offered examples.
3f. Be gracious. Respect the views of the others. Listen. Learn what it is like to live as an oppressed minority. “Witness by behaviour and attitude” [GC].
- A thought on respecting the views of others: Several examples of seeming illogicality of some PC views came up today, at some of which giggles occurred. A point to consider is: how do we respect such views? Maybe at least by listening. Maybe, if we listen, we might hear an echo of concern over some previously-unrecognised sin. And their attempts to shut down language might be a veiled call for repentance, a change of attitude of heart.
3g. One question was: I have heard a lot of strategy? What about tactics? What can we actually do? Some answers: Make relationships. Take them out for coffee [RT]. Invite them to do good with you. We can say Yes to some things, but have red lines to which we say No (c.f. Daniel [JW]).
3h. Someone reminded us: Do not forget personal holiness and attitude. If we do, we might become too task-oriented. “Get into the position of not actually caring” (e.g. about how people might plot against us) [GC] – because God is active with us.
3i. Overheard: Despite our failures, God still blesses.
So, in the questions of what there is and what’s the problem, there are still questions that need addressing, and Christian academics are well placed to address them ‘without fear nor favour’, and contribute to the wider community’s understanding of PC, for the good of all.
However, that is an academic exercise. As JW pointed out, the academic attitude especially based on critical theory and postmodernism is an ‘outlier’ and a ‘dinosaur’. (There was some disagreement about the detail around postmodernism, but not about academia being a dinosaur.) Real life is more important. So maybe the main thing I take away from today is our excellent dsicussion and examples about “What should we do?” and “What approach and attitude should we adopt?”
This links closely with the John 17:13-19 passage that Tim Brown read at the start. Jesus said his disciples were to be kept in the world but not of the world. In this world of PC, maybe today has thrown light on how this might operate.
1 December 2019