Our Politically Incorrect Heritage

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Nina and the Pinta sailed into our marina last week. Okay, so they are just replicas, but they were interesting all the same.

They also got me thinking about Christopher Columbus and other men and women who put their mark on this country. And about how different it would have been if those men and women had been politically correct.

Before I go there, I'd better define what I mean by "politically correct." I found dozens of definitions on the web, and they differ substantially. The one I'm using is from Encarta's online dictionary:
deliberately avoiding offense: relating to or supporting the use of language or conduct that deliberately avoids giving offense, e.g., on the basis of ethnic origin or sexual orientation.
Notice that the reference to ethnic origin or sexual orientation is just an example. The definition itself is much broader than those two contexts.

Under this definition, our nation's heroes were not politically correct. They knew they couldn't change the world without offending someone in the process, but they went ahead anyway.

Although born in Genoa (now a part of Italy), the adult Columbus lived and worked in Portugal, which was a bitter rival of Spain. So it wasn't politically correct for Columbus to sail under Spain's flag and claim the New World for Spain. But Portugal wouldn't fund the voyage and Spain would, so what was he to do? Give up? Someone else would have made the trip eventually, but it would have changed the course of history.

It wasn't politically correct for the founding fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence and participate in a revolt against the country that ruled the colonies. The loyalists in the colonies and many people in England must have been greatly offended. But the founding fathers thought the existing government was tyrannical, so they made a conscious choice to do something they knew would offend. If they had been unwilling to make that choice, we might be living in a monarchy.

It wasn't politically correct (at least among the Southern slave holders) for a woman named Harriett Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. In spite of the current controversy over stereotyping, the novel was meant to help black people by depicting the horrors of slavery, and it fueled abolitionist sentiment. We'll never know for sure, but slavery might not have ended as quickly if Stowe had worried about offending members of her own race.

It wasn't politically correct for Susan B. Anthony to organize women to fight for the right to vote. Some members of both sexes were offended at the time. Anthony died before her dream became a reality, but if she hadn't been willing to offend those who favored the status quo, would my mother have been able to vote when she came of age? And would the U.S. Supreme Court have any female members today?

It wasn't politically correct for Martin Luther King, Jr. to march through the streets and protest laws that treated blacks as second-class citizens. He offended many whites and even broke some laws in the process. Yet, looking back, how many of my readers wish he had been politically correct? Probably not many.

It is impossible to live a life that offends no one, and the person who tries will never be an agent of social change. I'm not advocating prejudice or speaking without thinking or insensitivity to other people's feelings. Those things have always been wrong and always will be. (See Titus 3:2, for example.) But given the choice between being politically correct or changing the world, I know which one I'd choose.

How about you?

1 comment:

Caroline said...

Oh, oh, oh, what a tho't provoking, and in my humble opinion, great post. Thanks for sharing, Kathryn. I loved it.

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