Freedom of speech
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Rightists tend to mock political correctness. They argue that compelling people to express themselves in a certain way regarding race, gender and disabilities limits free speech and suppresses the honesty and spontaneity of personal expression.

From a secular and Christian viewpoint this critique is perfectly valid. From a religious Jewish perspective it is not.

In order to understand why this is so, we need to remember one of the reasons progressives attach importance to non-discriminatory language. Progressives argue that speech and writing influence thoughts and thoughts influence action. Therefore it is crucial to promote respectful and sensitive forms of expression.

In essence, this approach is analogous to that of Halakha or Jewish jurisprudence, which carefully regulates the actions of observant Jews. Although Halakha emphasizes the details of correct actions rather than correct speech, it also determines in numerous instances what one should say and how one should say it.

During centuries, Christians (and later Reform Jews) have attacked Halakha and adduced that it fosters hypocrisy, by allegedly driving religious Jews to act correctly out of a sense of duty rather than out of sincerity. Religious Jews retort that even if one initially acts correctly yet insincerely, eventually correct actions will become second nature and one will act both correctly and spontaneously.

In other words, rabbinical literature millennia ago made an argument to promote virtuous behavior not entirely different to that made by progressives today to promote what they consider virtuous expression.

For this reason, an observant Jew may be contradicting the spirit of Halakha by arguing that politically correct terms stifle righteousness. To argue that sincerity and spontaneity matter more than correctness, echoes the arguments made by Christians that the Law stifles the spirit.

This does not mean that nowadays many or even most expressions of political correctness are desirable. When political correctness stifles the discussion and debate of problems affecting different communities, it weakens rather than strengthening bonds of sympathy between different sectors of society. Nevertheless, the use of terms that are appreciated by minorities, such as Inuit rather than Eskimo, Converso rather than Marrano, Ethiopian Jew rather than Falasha, or that promote respect between men and women and between members of different races and religions, should be welcomed by observant Jews for the same reasons as the minutiae of Halakha.

Thousands of years of Jewish and Christian history demonstrate that regulating correct actions is a more promising path toward virtue than expecting spontaneous virtue. At the same time, Jewish history also teaches society an important lesson: Regulated actions only promote virtue if the reason behind these actions is learnt and understood by individuals.

If politically correct expression is promoted without educating people as to why a given term is more respectful and considerate, the end result will be mechanical compliance and conformism, neither of which is beneficial and healthy for society.

Rafael Castro teaches English and Social Studies at a high school in Berlin. He can be reached at [email protected]