Rabbis Without Borders
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There are few things as irritating as people nattering on about “Political correctness.” Generally, as soon as someone mentions that phrase, it’s a good bet that it will be followed by a story of questionable provenance where an individual – who in the story will represent some wider class of person, such as women, African-Americans, and so on – will have made some sort of over-the-top complaint about a perfectly normal behavior.
On further examination, the story will turn out to have been rather more complicated. The joke that prompted the over-the-top response will turn out to have been egregiously racist, making the exit from the room significantly less over-the-top-looking. Or the door was held while the holder ogled the holdee’s body, making the demand to “Stop it,” significantly more understandable. And so on. The very idea of “political correctness” and reaction to it seems to have spawned a societal reaction that has even had political consequences.
But when people bring up political correctness, sometimes there is another underlying problem that perhaps we would do well to examine further.
Jewish tradition lauds rebuke. The Torah instructs:
לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְ.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear guilt because of him. (Leviticus 19:17)
The rabbis had a great deal to say about what this verse meant. From it, they drew the idea that not only does one have the obligation to rebuke another for wrongdoing, if you fail to try to correct this person’s behavior, you yourself bear responsibility for the wrong committed. According to the Talmud, in fact, one is obligated to rebuke anyone who has committed a wrong – from your family, even up to the entire world, if one is able. (Shabbat 54b)
However, the rabbis also recognized something equally important: that rebuke is actually extremely difficult to do well. Maimonides, in his great work, Mishneh Torah, adds instructional advice to the obligation to rebuke. He says that the rebuker, “Should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that the rebuke is offered for the wrongdoer’s own good, to secure for the other a life in the World to Come.”
He adds that the first time one rebukes the person:
“He must not speak harshly and humiliate him, as it is said: ‘Do not bear guilt because of him.’ Thus said our Sages: ‘Can it be that you rebuke him until his face becomes white?’
Thus it says, ‘Do not bear guilt because of him.’ From here we learn that no person may humiliate anyone, even more so in public…whether of low or high social status…”
(Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Dayot, Chapters 6:7-8)
Maimonides’ focus on how one rebukes is important. While it’s important to act against wrongdoing, and to fix it, particularly when it involves harming others or redressing social wrongs, we seem to have entered a time in which the act of rebuke has become a sort of gleeful attack mode.
It is no wonder that people recoil from publicly being called racist (and think how much of a victory it is, anyway, that people don’t want to be racist!).” Nor is it especially surprising that the fixation on minute behavioral slips, instead of being responded to with “Oh, right, I see that and will change it,” is irritation on the part of a person who may have received genuinely conflicting information on how people want to be addressed in this time of changing mores.
Even among those who struggle constantly to do right by others, the recent recognition of “Call-out culture,” should make us all stop a moment and think. There must be a balance between genuine attempts to correct terrible social patterns of behavior, and simply indulging in the gleeful “gotcha.” That’s why the tradition emphasizes relationship, private rebuke (at first), and examining one’s motivations for rebuke.
The natural response to public humiliation is anger, not acceptance. That is why the sages read the both the final clause of the commandment in Leviticus in multiple ways – both that each of us is responsible for stopping wrongdoing, but also that how we step up and stop it matters.