Political Correctness, Cultural Relativism and the Need to Repair the World

From Oct 2010.

I am reposting this article in light of last weeks inane actions, whereby Yeshiva University, an orthodox Jewish institution of higher education, honored the virulent antisemite  Jimmy Carter and the politically correct crowd (including several prominent rabbis) bullied a Long Island synagogue into canceling a speech by an anti-Islamist blogger.


“If I am not for myself, who will be for me; If I am only for myself, what am I?”

On Judaism-“Treat others as you wish to be treated. The rest is commentary now go study.”

People like to quote Hillel. I remember when George Shultz was Secretary of State and the US had just bombed Libya in retaliation for a terrorist attack against some US servicemen in Germany. Needless to say the world condemned the US for taking actions in defense of the murdered servicemen. Shultz quoted the top half of Hillel’s famous quote, “if I am not for myself, who will be for me.” I remember thinking at the time, that the Secretary of State has truly missed Hillel’s point. It was not just about taking care of yourself but what is your obligation to the rest of humanity. No don’t get me wrong, bombing Libya, after they were implicated in a terrorist bombing in Germany against US servicemen was a good thing in my book, I just felt it was the wrong quote to use.
In answering my own questions about what Hillel meant at that time, I am reading Joseph Telushkin’s new book on Hillel. The interesting thing about it, and the part I think many people can miss is the political drama involved between Shammai and Hillel. It’s almost as if you are reading a modem newspaper about the machinations between the more conservative part of the Jewish community and the modern liberal Jewish community. Interestingly though Telushkin makes a good point about modern Jews and that is those who spout politics without using extensive Talmud or Torah to back themselves up, are not talking about Judaism but about their politics and have confused the two.
Building on this theory of convoluted Judaism, many have aligned themselves with the concepts of political correctness and cultural relativism. While we are supposed to repair the world and it is good and just to want to help people and make this a better world by far, the question becomes just how far do you go in excusing others and how are you/they characterized?
Do you make excuses for poor behavior or do you hold someone up to a standard and create boundaries of right and wrong? How do you help someone by allowing him or her to make excuses for misdeeds and to not learn from their mistakes? How does repairing the world allow for gender apartheid, fgm, and honor killings? How in repairing the world do you make excuses for suicide bombings and ignore the hatred and virulent anti-Semitism of the Islamic-fascists? How in repairing the world do you forget to notice that militant Islam is trying to kill you just because you are you and not them? How in repairing the world do you make excuses for totalitarian governments, denial of human rights and the delegitimization of the Jewish people as a people? How in repairing the world do you not protect the most vulnerable, females without any rights in Islamic countries? How in repairing the world do you allow nations to claim historical reference as an excuse for disenfranchising half of their population or repressing their nations?
How in repairing the world do you allow misogyny against female political candidates in the US simply because they are conservative and endorse male politicians who use sexual innuendo and derogatory terms for women in order to denigrate these female candidates? How do you endorse and make excuses for a candidate who befriends anti-Semites be it university professors, religious authorities or hip-hop stars? How in repairing the world do you allow for the legitimization of physical assault on disabled students? How in repairing the world do you tell others who live in harm’s way that you, who are safe and secure in your homes, have the right to decided whether they can defend themselves and how they are to defend themselves? How in the repairing the world do you have the right to sacrifice someone else’s Jewish child to appease the world’s anti-Semites? How in repairing the world do you allow those who hate you and wish you ill to define your identity and decide your future? Where in repairing the world does it say that in order to help someone find their own humanity you have to give up yours and your children’s humanity?
Perhaps that is what Telushkin means when he discusses the Jews who use their Judaism as the front for their political thought (liberal and conservative) when in fact there is no Judaism in their political process at all? I just wish people would be honest with themselves. Their views of the world have very little to do with Judaism and have a lot to do with self-importance and ego. The belief that they know better than someone else on how to repair the world and how to fix society does smack of hubris and conceit. The irony is that somewhere in the recesses of their minds these people still need to have the backing of God. Or do they, somewhere truly believe that this is what Judaism is all about? Have they so misconstrued their religion to think to allow evil for some and not for others is excusable? Do they really think that it is just fine to abandon the disenfranchised because they live under the Taliban or have no history of democracy?

My eldest son came home from college the other day. He is studying the push by Western Europe into the Americas. While we all know the horrific result of that for the native population, and no, no one is saying it was a good thing, he equated it to the United States bringing democracy to Iraq. “They have no history of democracy in that area of the world so to bring it to them is a violation of their culture.” His professor was equating the destruction of the Native population in the Americas to the bringing of a political system that allows for self-actualization, freedom and equal rights for all. Is this not political correctness and cultural relativism run amok?

To say that because a people have no history of freedom then they are not entitled to freedom? To say that because women are subservient in a culture that that is how they should always be until that culture evolves in its own time (someone tell me just who voluntarily gives up paternalistic power without a fight)? To say that because a people have always believed in the disenfranchisement and delegitimization of other nations then that is how they should be until they decide to change, without any outside interference? To say that it is just fine to allow internecine warfare because that it is how it has always been and to not try to teach another way is how it should be because that is how it has always been? To say that freedom for some is not necessary in repairing the world because they have no history of freedom has nothing to do with Judaism, Hillel or even the basic concepts of the United Nations Declaration for Human Rights.

Political correctness and cultural relativism have nothing to do with Judaism and everything to do with a warped sense of reality. Judaism as Hillel teaches us is about making the world a better place. It is about providing humanity to those considered the other. It is about treating your fellow humanbeings with the respect that all humanity deserves. Yes, terrible things have been perpetrated upon one human being and another throughout history, but the lessons learned from these atrocities isn’t to shirk your responsibility to bring freedom and justice to people. In fact it is a lesson in what is important and what is a right and what is a freedom. We as a society evolve in our perceptions and that is a good thing, but at the same time we as a society also learned right from wrong. Just because someone doesn’t think they are wrong, and that they have a cultural history that allows them to violate another humanbeing’s humanity, doesn’t mean they have that right and that it should be allowed. Nor should we stand by and allow these same human rights violators to delegitimize and disenfranchise us and our children in the name of political correctness and the misguided desire to not overstep our bounds.

Hillel’s quote is telling in that we are required to repair the world, but first we are required to take care of ourselves in order to repair the world. So to those who decry or are embarrassed by the Jewish people’s (or the Untied States’) right of self-defense I say look to Hillel. Nowhere did he ever say that we had to sacrifice ourselves on the alters of political correctness, cultural relativism or accept as gospel our enemies’ view of our civilization, in order to make this world a better place.

About Elise "Ronan"

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10 Responses to Political Correctness, Cultural Relativism and the Need to Repair the World

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