By Elvin Lim
Last Friday, President Barack Obama communicated his support for the building of a mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero, saying, “Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.” This seemed harmless enough until he found out that over two-thirds of America disagreed with him. Chastened, the President went off-message while visiting the Gulf Coast on Saturday to control the political damage, saying, “I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”
Tsk, Tsk, Barack Obama. He forgets that he needs to be sensitive to the hurt felt by the families of 9/11 victims, and it is not enough, apparently, for a president to merely recite our constitutional rights without acknowledging that what is constitutionally permissible may nevertheless be emotionally distressing to some fellow citizens.
The truth is, the American Left is in agreement, and zealous proponents of this principal of political correctness: that we should always err on the side of being sensitive to the emotional hurt felt by victims of oppression and injury. The Left is perturbed, for example, that statues of Confederate generals are allowed to remain in many Southern cities in the name of the freedom of expression. The Left argues that we should be sensitive to the emotional harm inflicted on the descendants of former slaves that live among us, and symbols of their ancestor’s oppression ought not to be brandished with impunity.
Even though the Right tends to speak of “political correctness” in pejorative terms, their outrage at the “Ground Zero Mosque” is nothing but an exercise in political correctness. Everyone agrees that the developers of the mosque have the right to build the mosque on private property; most Americans believe that it would be insensitive to do so.
Usually, the Democrats are accused of being over-sensitive. Not so this time. It is the Left that is accusing the Right of exaggerating emotional harms and conjuring phantom injuries. Exactly what harm is being done to the pastor of a Southern Californian church if a mosque is constructed two blocks from Ground Zero? What has a mosque in America have to do with a bunch of Muslim terrorists who flew planes into buildings in the name of Allah?
About as much as a statue of a Confederate general can inspire memories of the institution of slavery in the minds of the descendants of former slaves.
It is a reasonable argument to propose that if we are committed to our fellow citizens, we owe those who have suffered certain injuries a measure of sensitivity, even when we feel strongly that these emotional injuries are several times removed from a tangible injury. Whether this be the emotional harm felt by families of 9/11 victims (or the harm felt by conservatives who never knew but nevertheless feel connected to the families of 9/11 victims) or this be the emotional harm felt by descendants of slaves (or the harm felt by white liberals who feel they are kindred spirits with their African American friends), political correctness encourages the fellow-feeling that is necessary for the unity of a community.
To recognize that a constitutional right may not always feel like a moral right is to acknowledge that feelings matter. To concede that we need to be sensitive to each other’s emotional injuries is to say that we are all, at one time or another, members of the PC police. But, if we arbitrarily picked and chose who among our fellow citizens we would extend our sympathies to, then we are not being very good citizens at all. If we choose to be a government of men (above and beyond a legalistic, emotionless government of laws) we should extend our sympathies to all fellow Americans, not just those we find it easier to sympathize with.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.