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Politically Correct Theosophy? (Long post)

Oct 14, 1996 04:12 PM
by Dr. A.M.Bain


                       by John R. Crocker

An Open Letter to Radha Burnier, John Algeo, and the Members of the
Theosophical Society worldwide.

It is certainly all the rage these days to complain about Political
Correctness, and a lot of attention is being put towards discovering its
excesses. It is alleged, by various public voices, that the PC movement
is intent upon destroying First Amendment freedoms, and turning America
into a godless, radical feminist nation of dirt worshippers (A Right
Wing name for environmentalists). Others simply marginalize the movement
as little more than the emotional rantings of whining women, nasty
minorities, and tree-huggers.

As someone who accepts, on philosophical and ethical grounds, the
premises behind a lot that is labelled Political Correctness, and
further, finds the foundations of those premises to be fully in harmony
with the First and Second Objects of the Theosophical Society, it seems
perhaps appropriate to attempt to articulate some of those foundations -
in the hopes of helping the leaders understand that when, for instance,
a growing number of voices insist on changing words like brotherhood in
the First Object, it is not simply a negative reaction to something, but
the assertion of a positive philosophical position.

While the press focuses on the most surface manifestations of PC and
seems delighted when it finds yet another anecdote about its
excessiveness, beneath the surface lies something that is part of a much
larger and fundamental restructuring of the relationships between
genders, and between races.

To begin, however, its probably necessary to strip away the surface
layer: There is no such thing as a PC movement. The terms Politically
Correct and PC movement were created a few years ago by a couple of
extreme right-wing think tanks, and were created specifically as a
political tactic - one that has been quite successful. Most of those who
are charged with being part of the PC movement do not themselves claim
membership in something called a PC movement ... they are assigned
membership by the opponents of their various causes. They may call
themselves feminists, or environmentalists, or proponents of racial
equity, but the many people grouped under the PC label often have
virtually nothing in common with one another, either in terms of the
fields they work in or even in the intellectual basis of their work.

In the early 1980s a movement began among politically conservative
intellectuals in the rarefied circles of abstract political theory. The
social fabric of the nation, indeed, the western world, was seen to be
unravelling. Racial tensions and violence were again increasing (after a
lull in the 70s) economic insecurity was rising in the population, and
the structure of the nuclear family was eroding. Their analysis of the
causes of this concluded that the serious problems were arising because
a set of values that they believed were the core foundation values of
the western world were coming under fire, and that hence the roots of
social harmony were being destroyed.

For instance, it was not just that the divorce rate was climbing rapidly
that disturbed them, but the much deeper fact that the social paradigm
that kept marriages together in the past was disappearing - not just
that people were getting divorced, but that there was no longer any
social stigma attached to divorce; not just that people were living and
sleeping together out of wedlock, but that there were no longer any
social sanctions - no one even bothered to hide behaviour that in the
1950s would have caused the participants to become virtual social
outcasts were it not carefully concealed.

These thinkers began defining and attempting to reaffirm what were
called traditional values - in essence the values that were present in
the 1950s, just prior to the revolutionary 60s - and included Judeo-
Christian social and cultural values, and a form of free-market
capitalist economic values. This group of values was called traditional
and mainstream, and once defined, began to then be used as a standard by
which to judge what was radical or extreme.

The more defined these became, the more these people (and now others
throughout conservative political, academic, and Christian circles)
began noticing that these values were no longer being unquestioningly
accepted as the good. For a time, most of the arguments were constrained
to the intelligentsia in academic circles. Huge arguments about the
Canon of western literature and philosophy were being waged on campuses
(and still, for that matter, are). The reactivity of revolutionaries in
the 60s, who mostly just argued against the existing paradigm, had
become politically very sophisticated, and had begun to become as adept
at the use of the political system as the proponents of traditional
values had been.

Reactions began, mostly in the humanities departments - professors of
Political Science, Economics, English, Philosophy, History, and other
Liberal Studies fields were coming under intense fire, by people making
the case that all that was being read and discussed was the writings,
and values, of Dead White Males. These faculties (over 90% of whom were
Living White Males) naturally became very defensive, as their entire
careers were built upon understanding an agreed-upon canon of writing.
It was not just that their authors were being criticized (indeed,
teaching the nature of the arguments between the authors of the canon
was a chief part of the curriculum), but rather that people were
starting to reject even the context within which the arguments took
place as too narrow, oblivious or dismissive  of the insights of large
numbers of races and religions, and simply lacking resonance with the
experience of a lot of women.

Feminists were asserting the right to judge and analyze literature by
standards completely outside of academic traditions - and literature
professors were not happy about having their pet authors simply
dismissed as sexist.

Multiculturalists were beginning to seriously question both philosophy
and politics that they considered to be little other than means of
enforcing a certain set of norms, norms that made sense to those of
northern European ancestry (as they came from European traditions) but
were not necessarily in tune with people from anywhere else in the

Environmentalists were beginning to seriously question the very premises
of capitalist, free market economics, the very notion that the natural
world was simply a place where one gets raw materials for human
civilization, and disposes of its waste.

In short, once a set of traditional values was defined ... it could not
help but seem as though these values were under attack, often somewhat
successful attack, from every different direction. But this was very
difficult to fight politically, because the enemy was extremely
decentralized ... the attacks weren't coming from a single source and
weren't composed of large events, but came from countless sources, and
were composed of thousands of small battles at the personal level. It is
here that political operatives formulated the category called
Politically Correct and defined the enemy as the PC movement. This then
meant that it became possible to take an environmentalist advocating for
environmental education in Oregon grade schools, a multiculturalist
arguing for an African Studies program in a Chicago university, and a
feminist charging her boss with sexual harassment at work in New York,
and a PETA activist protesting the clubbing of baby seals (four people
who themselves have nothing to do with one another, and certainly would
not say they are in a movement together) and group them all under one
heading. Millions of separate and completely unrelated actions by widely
varying individuals and groups across the country can now be bundled
within a single metaphor - so suddenly the enemy is well defined,
appears to be enormous and threatening, and can be battled.

It is important, for anyone who complains about the PC movement to
understand this. The PC movement is not an organized, deliberate and
planned campaign. The category of PC, and the anti-PC movement is. In
the U.S.A., Rush Limbaugh's Executive Producer is the most powerful
behind-the-scenes power broker in Republican circles. When Dan Quayle
began to become terribly embarrassing to George Bush, two of the
intellectual giants of the conservative think-tank world were literally
assigned to him, both to make sure he didn't say anything stupid, as
well as to articulate a family values philosophy through his mouth.

(As someone who has run small political projects himself, I am in awe of
the tactics of those who created the anti-PC movement ... I don't agree
with them, but I must admire brilliant political work ... they created a
category out of thin air, managed to get it introduced into the popular
vocabulary, focused the public's attention on its excesses and so
demonized it that people now feel it to be a badge of honour to be
Politically Incorrect.)

But what does all this have to do with Theosophy? Well, it probably is
worth pointing out that our founders would almost certainly be called
Politically Correct. This may seem a bit counterintuitive at first, as
the most successful aspect of the anti-PC strategy has been to, at the
emotional level, link the term PC with the feeling of restricting
freedom ... and since the founders spoke their minds freely - often
really freely, it would seem natural to think of them as being
politically incorrect. (More about this linkage later).

But we must look at exactly how they lived and what they believed in.
Annie Besant, feminist and animal rights activist, if she did the exact
same things today as she did when she lived, would be precisely what
many now label a radical feminazi. HPB? Horrors! She left her husband.
Never had kids. Lived with men. Travelled the world, and managed to
upset traditional value systems not just at a single university, but in
several nations. And she not only criticized Christianity in terms that
even today would be considered extremely scathing, but actively
advocated the introduction of Buddhist thought - that is, HPB, were she
alive today, would not only be defined by conservative thinkers as the
very height of Politically Correct but would be accused of being
excessive about it. A major plank of the Right wing platform would
probably be Kick HPB out of the country. She certainly wasn't a family
values kind of person, and had access to a range of knowledge that would
cause entire think tanks to run screaming for their lives. In fact she
is to this day called one of the chief tools of Satan by Christian
fundamentalists, and is blamed for being one of the principle causes of
a whole host of Politically Correct evils.

While this is worth mentioning, however, its not the chief argument I
want to make. The grounds for asserting that the Theosophical Society
should not only not resist adjusting itself to some of the premises
behind what has been labelled PC, but should actively welcome the chance
to do so, is based in the First and Second Objects - which are not only
fully in harmony with some of those premises, but might almost be
considered to be one of their earliest articulations.

I'd like to focus on one of the root premises behind some of what is
labelled PC - one that receives a good deal of derision, and is also a
subject of current debate in Theosophical circles: language matters.

One side of the argument seeks to alter especially the gender
implications it sees present in universalizing pronouns (i.e.,
individually, we are men and women, but collectively we are men
belonging to the race of mankind. Our association seeks to form the
nucleus of a brotherhood and we are all FTS ... Fellows, Theosophical

On the other side are those that either hold that even the Objects
should not be touched (a slightly odd argument, as they were altered
several times in the early days ... as the TS developed and the Objects
became more refined) and those that just do not see what the big deal is
- some even claiming people who are superficial enough to be caught up
and overly affected by something as minor as the gender in pronouns
probably aren't even suited for the depth of the philosophy.

While people have protested these attitudes, I'm not sure if a full case
for gender inclusive language has yet been made in Theosophical circles.
I shall try to do that here.

The philosophical argument comes chiefly from feminist and multi-
culturalist writers, and arises out of a couple of decades of study of
the connection between language and culture.

Basically, these people, in the sixties, began feeling as though a lot
of their experience that was either undervalued or completely ignored in
the past was not only worthy of attention, but needed to be articulated
publicly.  Their view of the traditional values was that these values
did produce social harmony, but that harmony was dependent upon people
accepting their place in a particular hierarchy of power - and it was
asserted that the top of this hierarchy was white males, and northern
European male values. The social harmony that these values produced was
only present so long as women and minorities accepted, without
complaint, access to power and opportunities of a far more limited
nature than that afforded white men.

They would answer, for instance - the conservative's argument - that the
nuclear family was falling apart, and that the social stigma surrounding
divorce should be re-introduced, by saying that many of those marriages
survived because the woman subjugated a lot of her interests to the man,
and had very few opportunities for anything like a career or profession
(other than approved womanly professions ... secretary, teacher,  nurse,
maid ...). The nuclear family is far harder to hold together if both man
and woman are equally in pursuit of careers, if the woman is not
dependent for economic survival on the man (a fact that kept a lot of
bad marriages together) and even further, the woman has, because of new
birth control devices, far greater control over reproduction. While
radical feminist thinkers are asserting that the family itself in any
form requires the submission of the woman, and is simply not necessary
even for the raising of children (and it is this that is most often
quoted by the press as feminist and extreme) ... most feminist scholars
stop far short of that - making the argument that while the family does
appear to be in trouble right now, it is because we are in a naturally
uncomfortable, but necessary, period of re-adjustment; that what is
needed is not a return to a model that had failed to work (if it was as
good as some claim it was, it wouldn't have fallen apart in the first
place) but rather, the far more difficult work of understanding entirely
new models of what marriage is, models in which the cement is based not
upon male dominance, but upon the assumption that both may have equally
strong and valid career goals, that both will share housework, child
raising, etc., etc.

The larger point is that these feminist and minority thinkers (and a
number of white men who were persuaded by the strength of the arguments)
seemed to notice (somewhat suddenly, in the opinion of some)  that the
status quo was fine so long as they played their assigned parts, but
that if they began expecting the same power, privileges and
opportunities afforded white males, they ran into severe obstacles ...
in fact the whole system of traditional values was rigged against them.
This at first led to the revolutions of the 60s ... and as culture
altered, at least some women and minorities began gaining some access to
power and privileges.

After a time, however, a deeper sort of criticism began. Women were
beginning to make it in the corporate world, but felt they had to
sacrifice their femininity to do so (the differences between men and
women are way deeper than just plumbing) - had to accept a very foreign,
cut-throat set of values. African Americans began achieving some
success, but discovered they needed to almost deny their culture -
become white - to succeed. And both women and minorities had to simply
accept a continual, subtle (and not so subtle) stream of jokes,
demeaning comments, and often outright harassment. What began to be
called into question was not just unequal distribution of power among
race and gender, but the value systems within which power existed; what
began to be desired was not just access to power, but an alteration of
the power structure itself.

It was at this point that the really serious questioning of the roots of
the power structure began in earnest ... people began seeking to
understand not just the manifestations of power, but its foundations.
And it was then that, from a number of different directions, in a number
of different fields, thinkers began converging towards a very similar
conclusion: that a culture, value system and power structure that had
for hundreds, even thousands of years, been almost entirely controlled
by white men had naturally been integrated into the very roots of its
continually evolving language, and that the act of learning that
language, of learning to see the world through the concepts of that
language, was the foundation level of that power structure, and the most
pervasive means of continuing to acculturate children into those value
systems. It is extremely subtle, and happens at an almost entirely
unconscious level. And because of the subtlety, it is, perhaps, easy for
some to say What's the big deal? Why trouble about the word brotherhood
. you know it really means women too.

To use a computer metaphor, at the surface level of society there are a
large number of types of social interaction - fields of study and work,
politics, religion, personal relationships, etc., etc. These might be
seen as software programs that individuals are taught young, and learn
how to use both individually and in groups. Language, however, is the
DOS - the operating system. Its the first thing loaded on the computers.
One is rarely aware of it directly, but it is the foundation upon which
all other programs run, and deeply affects which programs can be run as
well as the design of those programs (just try to run a Macintosh
program on an old Microsoft computer if you don't think language

There is much more at stake here, then, in arguments about words, than
simply the words themselves. What feminists, multiculturalists, the
differently abled (to quote another term laughed at by the anti-PC
movement) and others are doing is attempting to re-program DOS.
The most powerful argument against the PC movement is that it attempts
to impose restrictions on the freedom of expression. The whole
foundation of those who advocate changes in language, however, is that
they are trying to open language - that language already has imposed
powerful restrictions, not only on the speech, but in subtle ways on the
whole range of opportunities, experiences, and even society's evaluation
of the worth of countless generations of women and minorities. The
people that created the anti-PC movement linked the notion of
restriction with that of PC very deliberately ... but examine, for a

Here is a Theosophical Lodge meeting, a few people begin complaining
loudly about the words brotherhood and man (as a pronoun). They begin
insisting that these words be changed. The response is that they should
ignore the words and focus on the meaning - in fact they may be seen as
lacking depth if they make too big a deal out of it. If they persist,
they may, then, be charged with attempting to impose restrictions on the
freedom of expression of others in the room, of trying to impose their
values on others. The argument ends and they lose (as, in fact, they
have - despite a lot of people advocating these changes, our Three
Objects have not altered). Is this a victory for freedom of speech in
which someone who would impose restrictions has been stopped? They would
say no, it is an affirmation of the status quo imposition of

I can understand how to someone who does not see why language matters
that much, the whole debate seems like a huge pain. A couple of months
ago a techie at my university came and upgraded the network software in
the office in which I work. There was a pile of grumbling all day.
People were being continually interrupted in normal functions they had
come to not think twice about. The network's link to the university
mainframe - and all our databases - kept getting broken and re-started.
Even worse, after the guy left, for the next few weeks we had to re-
learn a lot of stuff. Our programs had to be set up differently, we had
to learn different ways to get our computers to talk to one another
across the office. A couple of old programs simply would no longer run
at all. The main problem was that we had to suddenly pay attention to
what we had taken for granted. It took, however, only a couple of weeks
before we began to get used to the new system, and suddenly, lo and
behold, people began to like it. We began to discover all sorts of
possibilities that we didn't have with the previous system. We noticed
our programs ran smoother, quicker, with far fewer glitches and
interruptions. Then even deeper changes started - instead of just
learning different keystrokes to do the same things we had always done,
we began to notice that we could change several standard operating
procedures themselves ... that a couple of what had always been rather
large and time-consuming tasks could be accomplished almost without
effort once we began thinking in terms of the possibilities of the new
system. And a number of functions students had desired, but we were
prevented from giving them because we simply didn't have the technical
tools suddenly became possible to deliver.

In other words, we didn't understand how restrictive the previous system
was until after we had gone through the discomfort of learning the new
one, began to tap some of its possibilities, understand that most of our
programs ran better and some new programs became possible, and realized
we were not only providing the same services far more efficiently, but
were able to provide several entirely new services as the result of the

I must also say that personally, the experience was identical to that of
learning to use gender neutral language. It was over a decade ago now,
but I certainly resisted a bit at first. A good friend, however,
persuaded me of the justice of the effort, and I found that once the
intent to do it is there its not that big a deal. It took me a month of
conscious effort, and after a couple of months the new program loaded
itself back into the sub-conscious. It becomes second nature with very
little trouble.

And the fear of jumping on the PC bandwagon is, I think, misplaced. That
fear is part of a deliberately orchestrated campaign by people who fully
understand what alterations in language mean, take them very seriously,
and are intent upon holding on to a power structure in which they are
privileged. So we hear all sorts of stories about, for instance, how
feminist and gay studies and Afro-centric programs are taking over our
colleges, and are treated to horror stories of unqualified Hispanics who
get promoted over qualified white men, and troubling accounts of women
charging men unjustly with sexual harassment simply because they were
thwarted in romance. But this ignores scale, and ignores the abuses of
the current value systems. After over a decade of feminists, gay-rights
activists, and minorities allegedly taking over our college campuses,
well over 3/4 of the tenured faculty in the nation are still white men.
Despite that terrible affirmative action, over 99% of the upper echelons
of the Fortune 500 corporations are still white men. And for every man
unjustly charged with sexual harassment, a thousand women are still
beaten in their own homes, and frightened to even enter a legal system
that values women so little that being caught with a bag of marijuana
gets you a longer prison sentence than rape does.

I would ask, then, those who resist altering the language of our Objects
(to start with) especially those in leadership positions, to put aside
the defensiveness, and the thought that the Objects should not be
changed on such insignificant and superficial grounds (it does take a
bit of contemplation to understand why language is so important) and

Part of the intent of the First and Second Objects was, and still is, a
truly revolutionary idea. They speak of a genuinely universal outlook
.. and are as clear and succinct an articulation of inclusiveness as
I've seen. To form the intended nucleus and to study comparative
religion and philosophy means, in essence, that we all, to some degree,
must lift ourselves above our particular cultures, genders, religions
and philosophies, and, in essence, create within ourselves a wholly new
DOS ... one that does not privilege one perspective at the expense of
others, one that can run an enormously wide range of programs. Looking
at today's world, with its many fundamentalisms, nationalisms, and the
thousands of different barriers drawn between us and them - our First
Object is every bit as stunning, as revolutionary today as it was a
century ago. A century ago, there was virtually no research into the
link between language and culture, and the little there was was entirely
pursued by white men (very few women and almost no minorities even had
access to university levels of intellectual training - let alone the
time and opportunity to pursue extended research). Brotherhood, and man
had connotations of inclusiveness that they no longer posses. In fact,
to growing numbers of people these words now signify the opposite of
what they did a century ago. And so, because the meaning society finds
in words has changed, I'd like to suggest that changing the wording of
our Objects not only does not change the intent, but that the change in
language is necessary to maintain the original intent.

Because meaning has changed, the wording of our Objects now contradicts
their meaning. How can we form something without regard to gender and
call it a brotherhood?

Because the perspectives of the First and Second Objects encourage
altering our points of view, of acknowledging that races, religions,
creeds, and both genders have value, would not the adjustment of the
language be a powerful expression of that acknowledgement? As a white
male, I cannot fully understand the precise subjective nature of the
freedom, the encouragement, the empowerment, that the women and members
of other races in my life tell me they feel when someone takes the
trouble to speak with inclusive language. But because I love them,
deeply value their very different perspectives, and they tell me that it
matters - how can I not, as a demonstration of that love and value, name
them as they wish to be named? If a Native American friend tells me
that, to him, there's a big difference between being called an Indian -
a name assigned as part of a mistake by a European explorer - and a
Native American - affirming membership in a race of people whose
inhabitation of his homeland predates Europeans - not only do I not feel
my freedom of speech restricted, but I gladly, because I am a
Theosophist who accepts the First Object as good, welcome the
opportunity to express it in practice.

If growing numbers of strong and educated women tell the TS that not
only does the language of the Objects now carry connotations of
exclusivity and elitism, but that in not changing them we appear to be
taking a side in an ongoing social and political debate ... it is not
necessary for all of us to fully understand the subjective difference
within them that a change in language would make ... not necessary for
us to fully understand what the big deal is ....

Our First Object contains a revolutionary idea - the intent to form an
association of people, not on the premises of a particular nation,
religion, creed, gender or race, but on those of our mutual existence as
spiritual entities pursuing spiritual growth on planet earth - and at
the deepest levels of the TS our intent should continually be to find
ways to express that inclusiveness more fully, to open our arms wider,
to demonstrate our perspective to the world.  We should not have to be
dragged kicking and screaming into making our language gender inclusive,
but should instead see it as an opportunity to more fully express the
intent of our foundation Objects - should do so not with begrudging
reluctance, but with pride, and as a statement of the very best of what
we are.


When this booklet first appeared as an article on the Internet Theosophy
List, there was naturally some discussion of the topic.  The following
letter is outstanding in at least two ways.  Firstly it shows that women
in the U.S.A. were making their voices heard some time before the period
covered by John Crocker.  Secondly, it is outstanding because the writer
is clearly more than a little older than those who are struggling to
obtain justice and fairness in the use of language today.  The argument,
sometimes heard, that "the older woman" sees no reason for change is
magnificently given the lie by Liesel Deutsch.  (Alan Bain, March 1996):

"Dear John,

"1.) As a member of New Jersey College for Women, class of 1943, I have
to tell you that protesting didn't start on the 1960ies. We did it too.
Just to give you a few examples:

"We were the first generation to wear jeans. In those days, women wore
dresses & skirts. Slacks, jeans, especially for women were unheard of.
We went to the Army-Navy store, bought a pair of men's jeans, & then
safety-pinned them up around the waist so they would stay up.
Incidentally, it was a crime to ever wash them.

"New Jersey College for Women, now Douglass, is the women's college of
Rutgers. We had a student government run by us young women, & a student
court run by us young women, pretty near everything was run by women,
except the kitchen, which was run by Mr. Lasagna. We had many women
profs ... this, in the days when every important leader, except Frances
Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt, was male. Probably, the women profs were
paid less. I never had occasion to ask them about that.

"We had one history prof, Emily Hickman, who was a whiz. I made sure
that I took at least an elective class with her. I had her for one
semester on modern Russia. I was scared of her, but she was so good that
I still remember a lot of what she taught us.

"Well, in the late 30ies, just before I got to NJC, the administration
fired Emily Hickman for her radical tendencies. The students protested
loud & long, demonstrated & etc. until they finally rehired Emily
Hickman. The happy ending of this story is that, at the end of WWII, she
was invited to San Francisco to help fashion the United Nations'
Charter. Douglass today has a building named Hickman Hall.

"2.) When you start talking about that the Rush Limbaugh crowd pictures
the politically correct crowd as ogres, I'd like to refer you to my
favorite article on the components of prejudice, called The Enemy Within
by Bob Moyer, in Psychology Today, 1-85, V. 19 #1. The lead pictures are
of Reagan & Brejnev. Both have long passed into history, as has the cold
war, which this article talks about, but the mechanism described is
still with us: denial, dehumanization, projection, wrong images,
theories of behavior, assumptions, irrationality, contradictions .. I
skipped a couple, but I think you get the idea. If you're not too
familiar with the subject of prejudice, here's a brief piece to fill you
in on the subject. - Liesel Deutsch. Member, Theosophy International."

THEOSOPHY INTERNATIONAL: Ancient Wisdom for a New Age:, and from homepage above.

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