Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Reflections on "Emotional Correctness"

In October of 2006, I was preparing to do a workshop on HIV at a Christian high school in Illinois.  My co-presenters were from theologically conservative/evangelical churches.  As tends to happen during election years as this was, social issues are hot topics, and this year, gay rights/marriage was a big one.  As we were nearing the date of our workshop, one of my co-presenters called me and asked if we could have coffee together.  What Tom wanted to tell me was this: during the workshop, he would not bring up the issue of gay marriage, but if he were to be asked his opinion, he wanted to be honest - that he believed that marriage should be for a man and woman, not same-gender couples.  More importantly, Tom wanted me to know that he deeply valued our friendship, and he did not want that to burn our friendship.  It was a very moving moment for me.

I was reminded of this experience this morning as I was watching a Ted Talk given by Sally Kohn. Sally is a columnist who currently appears on Fox News. She's also a liberal.  She's also a lesbian.  The gist of her talk is that we as a society have been focused on political correctness, but what is more important is Emotional Correctness.  She describes emotional correctness as "the tone, the feeling, how we say what we say, the respect it conveys."  She says that political persuasion starts not with ideas and political correctness, but with emotional correctness that builds relationships.  She goes on to give an example of trying to understand and appreciate the feelings of someone who is against immigration reform because he/she longs for life the way it
"used to be" as being emotionally correct.

All of this really resonated with me.  For almost a decade, I worked and lived closely with social and religious conservatives doing HIV/AIDS work.  I saw so much of what Kohn was talking about.  I saw goodness in people and places where I expected Bible thumping and had been taught to expect hatred and ignorance.  Instead, I found respect, friendship and love.  I remember sitting with people who would talk about their beliefs about gay people, for example, that were far from where I am, but we were having conversations, exploring and appreciating the underlying beliefs and our struggles.  I sat with one church group to talk about HIV/AIDS work in Africa.  They expressed concerns about a gay person (me) being at the table.  I said that as long as they did not physically hurt me, we could still work together.  The levity and respect made conversation and action possible.

I also learned to appreciate the role that love plays in peoples' actions.  Once, at a Pentecostal Church, I watched a colleague talk about the challenges of opening doors to gays and lesbians.  Two women in the audience were vocal that it was gays and lesbians who needed to change, not the church. I marveled as my colleague held these women through their anger until it became clear that it was love of their daughter/sister (respectively) and love of their church that were tearing them apart.  It was love, not hate.  This is what I think Kohn is talking about - that we are all human; we all have love.  As she states, we liberals can be very smug and righteous in our political correctness, but this does not necessarily allow for persuasion.

It was during these days that my own faith deepened as I was challenged to articulate what I truly believe.  I was working with people fueled by their faith, and they were curious about mine.  It was then that I started to say that, for me, the core of Quakerism is that there is that of God in all, and ours is to joyfully seek it.  That meant having faith in others' goodness ("respect"), and enthusiastically appreciating that, despite our political and social differences.  It is what continues to be what I strive for in my work and life.
-Brad Ogilvie