January 20, 2008

Obama and Political Correctness

Barack Obama's speech to the congregation of a church in Atlanta provided in full by Andrew Sullivan here are very inspiring. He says in that speech something that is very important to say- that the basis for the way that we treat other people lies in empathising with them, in creating community with them. One of the most illustrative and interesting examples he draws upon in the speech is right at the end, in describing a campaign meeting, he describes how one of his workers Ashley got everyone who joined the campaign to sit down and describe why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

So Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

That speech explains why Obama is a viable candidate but it also explains exactly what politics ought to be based on- the sense that it isn't my greivance that matters but yours. Politics can often and does often become a matter of shouting insults at each other- trading blows. Indeed when for instance politicians ramble on about the threat from x social group- often what they are doing is encouraging the rest of us to join the mob and start throwing blows- you can see it in discussions of immigration particularly. Obama's principle is more interesting and more important- because it encourages in us a truly moral ideal of politics, not morality in terms of codification of a set of principles for others to follow, but morality in terms of an outward looking benificence.

This struck me today as I read Jonah Goldberg's recent comments on political correctness. Goldberg rebukes both conservatives and liberals when it comes to political correctness- and made the crucial point in an earlier article that

The reality is that much of political correctness — the successful part — is a necessary attempt to redefine good manners in a sexually and racially integrated society.

Goldberg is entirely right. The problem for conservatives on the issue is that they are paranoid about the Orwellian dimensions of political correctness- and that they become interested in their ability to be rude to others. For liberals its the other way round, attempting to catch others out in conversation is the classic nit picking academic parlour game (you see a different specimen of the same thing on blogs when people take others up for their spelling and typos.) History afterall has nothing to do with the male possessive noun- but refers to the Greek word for story historia and when academic idiots start writing about herstory all you observe is their ignorance! The point is that political correctness ought to be something that we do voluntarily in order to make others feel comfortable- its a code of politeness, intended as the original codes of politeness were partly for political reasons to bind society together and partly for purely social reasons, to make civilised conversation possible.

It is a real sign of hope that two such individuals as far away from each other as Obama and Goldberg though get this central point- that a key part of politics is other regarding action. And that whether its a call to moral rearmanent based on charitable impulse or a call for good manners and political correctness, the point is that that political society is based upon empathy and the more we think about that, the better.


Verlin Martin said...

In no way, shape, form or country is the viability of a candidate for the highest office determined by the empathy they have in a speech.

The 'grievance' of you or others shouldn't be the controlling fact of your life.