Why I, a White Man, Value Post-Modernism & Political Correctness.
I was first introduced to Jordan Peterson through a recommendation by YouTube. I had recently watched a lot of church history videos, so I was seeing a lot of Christian-related clips. Unbeknownst to me, Peterson was becoming a popular figure and, therefore, trending. I noticed some of his reflections on Biblical stories and liked what I saw. I noticed that he has a new book coming out called 12 Rules for Life and thought that I might pick it up. Then, I noticed that white supremacist groups were claiming Peterson as a thought-leader and hero. I hesitated.
I think the reason for the support Peterson received was because he affirms masculinity and advocates for the necessary place of hierarchy in society. So, white men who want to maintain their power and privilege had support from academia in the person of Jordan Peterson. “Being a man is good. Someone needs to be on top. So, why not us white guys? Here’s proof!” so they say of Peterson’s theories (though they seem to miss that Peterson’s hierarchy is meant to be defined by competence and not race or gender). Needless to say, I passed on Jordan Peterson.
But recently I have had him recommended to me on two occasions. In neither instance was it by a white guy who wants to affirm his place atop the social hierarchy. I haven’t read 12 Rules for Life, but I have taken to watching some of his videos again. He’s a smart guy. I trust that he means well. I bristle at the broad assumptions he drops in his speeches. I don’t like the way he uses Scripture. And, there are some topics on which I just don’t agree with him at all. Namely: post-modernism and political correctness.
Post-modernism is a way of thinking that developed in reaction to modernism. Basically (which is all I really know), modernism taught that history was generally progressing in the right direction. Modernism held that the forces of good were going to conquer the forces of evil and that the development of technology (i.e. modernization) was going to make all of our lives better. Then we had the 20th Century with two world wars, genocide, and economic collapse. It wasn’t looking good.
Post-modernists saw history as a struggle for power. There isn’t any general progress. There isn’t any one thing that’s going to make our lives better. We are all vying for power and privilege in the world. Our ideas compete with one another and those who are strongest get to tell the story. That means that the story often told isn’t necessarily true. It’s just someone’s version of the story. Truth is relative to the position from which you view it.
Political correctness has developed with post-modernism. To be politically correct, or PC, is to use language that avoids offence or that will disadvantage a group of people. Identity politics is a related topic in that people view their politics and form their policies from the perspective of their identity (i.e. subjective; see very post-modern). To be PC is to acknowledge and validate the identity of every social group as a participant in the process of making laws and policies for society. To be PC is to participate in politics without insulting, dehumanizing, or marginalizing any one because of who they are as a person.
Of course, all ways of thinking and acting can be taken to extremes. The same is true for post-modernism and political correctness. Post-modernism, in the extreme, will say not only that all truth is subjective, but that there is no objective truth whatsoever. In other words, there is no single object, religion, or philosophy that is ultimately true. Post-modernists, in the extreme, are either relativists (i.e. everything is equally true) or nihilists (i.e. there is nothing that is true). I don’t value post-modernism in the extreme.
Political correctness and identity politics can suffer from the same. In the extreme, we are left with what is now labeled “call out culture.” As identities have increased and the defense has mounted, it has become more and more difficult to say anything without being “called out” for being insensitive or ignorant. Not an article can be written or a speech given or a show made without some critic pointing out how it falls short or isn’t as “woke” as the one offering a critique (who will also be criticized by someone who is even more woke). Alliances are difficult to come by, and easily dissolve, because purity of language is demanded and little grace is offered. In the extreme, political correctness thrives on being able to point out how others don’t “get it” and “calling them out” for it. I don’t value political correctness in the extreme.
However, I do value them both and I value them because of the Christian faith that guides me. I value post-modernism for the ways it asks us to reckon with the notion that our views our limited. It forces us to a more humble position as we acknowledge that we hold only a portion of the truth. So, it’s not that there is no truth that exists or that every truth is equally true. The reality is that we will only find the object of Truth if we seek it together, particularly with people from different perspectives.
I value political correctness because it asks us to recognize the humanity in other people. It forces us to a more loving position as we acknowledge that we have succumbed to prejudice and been seduced by easy stereotypes. So, being PC is not a weapon we use to exact revenge on the privileged. Rather, it is a call to widen the circle of human concern so that society can be a more fair and inclusive place, one that we can only discover together.
Both post-modernism and political correctness seem to me to be secular ways to talk about the sacred call into the body of Christ. If you’re familiar with the term, then you know it’s one of the images that the Bible uses to talk about the community of people who make up the church. One of the common attributes of this body is that it is diverse. It is male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free; all of whom are united in the body of Christ. Something we might take for granted today was radical then. Women and slaves who had been considered property were now to be seen as brothers and sisters. Ethnic hostilities were to be replaced by love and sharing at the same table.
If the object that is the body of Christ is to be fully known, it will be done so when the individual members come together and share life with one another. The subjective experience of these diverse peoples, willing to share a life of mutuality and solidarity, will reveal the objective Truth of the body. This is what makes the body of Christ sound so post-modern. It requires us to recognize that people with different perspectives from our own hold some necessary aspect of the Truth that we are all seeking. What’s more, this may be particularly true of those whose identities have been marginalized or dehumanized. That last sentence is what brings in political correctness to the conversation.
The Bible says things like “has not God chosen the poor to be rich in faith?” Jesus says that he can be found in the “least of these.” In a discussion of the body of Christ found in I Corinthians you’ll find written: “the members of the body that seem weaker are indispensable” and “God has so arranged the body, giving greater honor to the inferior member.” This no doubt means that greater care must be shown to those whose lives were previously minimized and marginalized in the world; particularly women, children and slaves. The church community was offering a correction to the politics of the day.
Political correctness, at its best, is simply asking us to recognize the humanity in every person. Because history and politics tend to discriminate and exclude. Great care should be given to those who have been left on the outside. More so, they should be considered to be those with a richer perspective, indispensable, and worthy of greater honor. In other words, because the world has excluded them, the body of Christ should go to extra lengths to embrace, include, honor and learn from those whose voices have been silenced. The promise of the body of Christ is that the presence of God will be more full if we do.
So, I value post-modernism and political correctness because I see in them a common desire to value others and learn from them; to show a deep care and honor toward one another. I don’t see in them the same threat to society, America, or the moral fabric that folks like Jordan Peterson do. In fact, I see just the opposite and it is because of my faith in Jesus and desire to see his body grow.
I recognize that this message is particularly difficult for some people, especially white people, particularly white men. If there is a group of particular people who are missing from the pews and are falling away from the church it has been white men. It’s understandable. More and more, white people, particularly white men, are having their version of the story questioned. We no longer own the truth. We no longer get to decide which version of the story matters. In the extreme, white men are pushed aside and excluded as a reaction to history. I don’t agree with that. But, I do agree that white men hold only a slice of the truth and too often are blind or deaf to those other aspects of the truth because of their privilege.
It is also the case, more and more, the people are being asked to be careful with the language we use, the jokes we tell, and the labels we place on others. White people, particularly white men, have not had to work so hard to express so much care. It is hard work. It takes listening and learning, a willingness to make mistakes and ask for help. It also takes a relinquishing of power. The fact of the matter is that white men have not been very good at sharing, and this is the important part: even with each other! The call to express care toward women and people of color and those who identify as LGBT and share power with them feels threatening because white men have been formed to compete as individuals. We white men too often assume that everyone is like us when in reality the political advocacy of women and people of color, especially women of color, include policies that would improve all of our lives.
One of the many show-stopping, jaw-dropping quotes from James Baldwin includes, “The American delusion is not only that his brothers are all white but that whites are all brothers.” The rapid increase of “deaths of despair” is a reflection of this truth and the changing world we live in. White men are struggling to find meaning because they are refusing to give up on the modernist myth and relinquish political power that has really only been profitable to a very few. Those white men who have not “won” feel like failures.
Writing from the Caribbean, I realize that this is the legacy of our history. Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, English, and French competed for resources that they raced to “discover.” Though we all became White over time, we never left behind the race. We’re wearing out. So, I’m not trying to be insensitive to white men. But, I am suggesting that we are experiencing the pain of the world that we’ve created. I know that Jesus offers salvation.
Men of privilege and power have always struggled with Jesus and it’s why they continue to struggle with the church. The disciples were scolded for grabbing at power. A rich, young man walked away dejected, unwilling to part with his possessions. The religious rulers had Jesus killed because they did not want to sacrifice their privilege (while believing that they had society’s best interests in mind). Jesus and his kingdom offered a politically correct view of identity and our common humanity. We might say that Paul, with his description of the body of Christ, was the first post-modern philosopher/theologian. In them both we find a path to a more fulfilling and enjoyable life. The fullness of that life is found in partnership with those of different ethnicities, races, and genders who can share different ways of being and different layers of meaning, a community in which God is pleased to dwell.