04/06/2015 06:25 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2015

Forget the Politics. Is It Correct?

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When somebody starts with, "this may not be politically correct, but. . . " it seems they inevitably go on to say something I find absolutely reprehensible. "This may not be politically correct, but those people bring hatred on themselves." "This may not be politically correct, but that religion condones violence." Political correctness becomes a catch-all derisive for a showing of respect for whomever the speaker wishes to belittle at the moment.

Make no mistake. There have been times that I have been politically incorrect. During the war on drugs of the late 80s, political correctness had comics going on stage stoned and coked up and saying, "Don't do drugs, kids!" I, on the other hand, was going on stage and speaking of my desire to see marijuana legalized for medical, industrial and recreational purposes. It was politically incorrect at the time for me to take a counter-cultural view. I did not announce that it was politically incorrect. I simply stated my belief and then backed it up with jokes. There were times that I was asked not to do that particular material and there were times that I readily buckled to the censorship. I would like to claim that I was being sensitive to regional sensibilities, but in fact I never felt financially secure enough to cancel a paid gig. It may not be politically correct to say so, but altering one's artistic vision for a paycheck is not responsible adult behavior, it's merely selling out. I have done that, and I find it reprehensible.

You see, there are times when it is appropriate to say that which is not politically correct, but we can only break rules when we fully understand them. The danger in political correctness emerges when topics become so taboo that our self-censorship flies under our own radar. When "support our troops" becomes code for, "speak no ill of the military," and so we stop questioning the system that funnels young men and women into the line of fire in far off lands, political correctness silences needed voices. When viable and revolutionary economic ideas like Socialism and Communism become conflated not only with one another but with clearly despicable political structures like totalitarianism and oligarchy, political correctness creates a default assumption that unregulated capitalism is a good and necessary companion to representative democracy.

I believe all ideas should be on the table for discussion and that political correctness should not still the flow of intellectual debate. In the past 30 years or so, the very phrase "political correctness" has been hijacked, coopted by the forces of anti-intellectualism. Political correctness is decried by the bigots of the world who wish to justify their throwback notions of racial superiority, pious exclusion, homophobia and misogyny. A breach of political correctness becomes a sort of shibboleth, identifying one as cutting edge and rebellious regardless of how traditionalist and regressive the actual opinions expressed may be. The opening gambit, "I realize this may not be politically correct," becomes a preemptive shield, suggesting that disagreement is an admission of indoctrination.

If what you intend to say is about something you believe to be true of a group or class of people, that's not political incorrectness, it's generalization, it's stereotyping. I once heard someone say that, while it might be politically incorrect to say so, every stereotype starts somewhere. His point was something horribly racist. If I set aside his racist point, though, he was kind of right. Every stereotype does start somewhere. It starts in the part of the human mind that seeks comfort in pattern, even if that pattern is built from insufficient information. If one sees primarily white faces in one's environment, a pattern becomes apparent. When a darker skinned face breaks that pattern it causes discomfort not because dark skinned people create discomfort by their nature, but because breaks in pattern cause discomfort. Feeling discomfort, the unenlightened would say, "I'm not a bigot but those people make me uncomfortable."

They would check around to see if any of those people were in earshot first, and they might preface the thought with a disclaimer about political correctness. Similarly, unfamiliar religious garb might trigger the discomfort that comes from a break in pattern. Facial hair. A casual use of power or speech by someone of an oppressed gender or a disenfranchised orientation. The desire to cause those around us to conform to our normative bias is completely natural. It is also wholly wrong-headed.

We must challenge ourselves to overcome our own discomfort, to embrace and accustom ourselves to the vast disparities in human experience, human expression and human appearance. This is the path to enlightenment which, I am quite certain, is merely human decency extended beyond our small social groups to an ever widening pool of recipients. First we learn to be decent to our families, then the neighbors who look like us, then the neighbors who don't. Our decency expands to include those who look nothing like us and live far away, to animals, to plants, to a world that needs as much decency as it can hold.

I am an atheist. I am so thoroughly an atheist that when people tell me they believe in God, I don't entirely believe them. Yet I feel that people should be allowed to believe whatever bat shat crazy superstitious nonsense strikes them as probable. Unseen sky daddy who wants them to eat fish on Fridays and eat crackers fed to them by a guy in a dress on Sundays? Fine. Invisible friend who thinks men should never shave and women should hide their ankles? Fine. Return from death as another animal in hope of getting something right that one has gotten wrong before? Fine. Believe it if you like. Discuss it. Talk about it. Don't kill people over it and don't insist that other people believe it and we're all good.

Here's an easy litmus test for you. If you would not be comfortable saying a thing without first announcing that it is not politically correct, it's not the politics that bother you; it's an awareness that it is inherently incorrect. Be decent to one another. Whether you believe in the words in a really old book or a more recent legal document or only in your own value as a human being, make your first point of reference your conscience. In a time of war and conflict and orchestrated outrage it becomes increasingly important that we not only speak our minds, but that we learn to use them.