If G. K. Chesterton were around to account for what’s wrong with our world today, he’d likely list political correctness high among our current ills. The term itself would not have been familiar to him, but the phenomenon was. He detected in the atmosphere of his era a “cloudy political cowardice.” Instead of telling others what they really thought and believed, people were fearful of venturing beyond what he called a “creedless vagueness.” Sound familiar? It should.
What could be more creedless and vague than something called inclusivity? The only notion more creedless and vague might be something called diversity.
Of course, the maddening vagueness of Chesterton’s time did have its defenders, if only because political cowardice always has its uses. Chesterton took their arguments seriously. The best of the lot was that this sort of vagueness at least “saved us from fanaticism.” He then took that seemingly plausible argument and turned it on its head. On the contrary, Chesterton contended, such “creedless vagueness creates and renews fanaticism with a force quite peculiar to itself.”
As is so often the case with Chesterton, the immediate response to such a statement might be either “huh” or perhaps a complete sentence, as in: “How can that possibly be?” After all, aren’t the true fanatics among us creed-driven dogmatists? Aren’t those who hold to dogmas inevitably fanatics, even at times “dangerous fanatics.”
Chesterton did not agree.
Let’s examine his reasoning. His starting point was to ask his readers to take a second look at the word “dogma.” Even then it had negative connotations and associations. Were they justified? Chesterton thought not.
After all, what was the purpose of the human mind if not to use it to come to conclusions? By Chesterton’s count, those conclusions were one of two kinds. They were either “dogmas” (truths) or prejudices.
He then ventured a sweeping, but thought-provoking and truth-telling conclusion of his own. The Middle Ages was a “rational epoch”; therefore, it was an age of “doctrine.” Fast forward a few centuries. Chesterton’s age—and ours, for that matter—has been an age of feelings, although he put it a bit differently. Chesterton described his era as a “poetical age”; hence an age of prejudice.
Not surprisingly, Chesterton much preferred doctrines (or dogmas) to prejudices. He also preferred creeds to prejudices. Now it goes without saying that creeds unite those who hold to the same creed. But Chesterton held that creedal differences can also unite—so long as the difference is a “clear difference.”
Returning to the Middle Ages, he posited that “many a magnanimous Moslem and chivalrous Crusader must have been nearer to each other, because both were dogmatists . . . “
For Chesterton, boundaries can unite, as well as divide.
He then went on to apply the same point to politics: “Our political vagueness divides men; it does not fuse them.” In making such points, concrete examples (as opposed to sweeping generalizations) are always important, and Chesterton had one immediately at hand. A conservative could approach the “very edge of socialism, if he knows what is socialism” (italics in the original). However, if socialism is nothing more than a “spirit, a sublime atmosphere, a noble, indefinable tendency,” then the conservative will “rightly stay out of its way.”
Chesterton went on to conclude dogmatically that “one can meet an assertion with an argument.” But what is one to do when one encounters something as cloudy as a “tendency?” The only response that made sense to him was to resort to “healthy bigotry.” No doubt unhealthy bigotry might come into play here as well.
In a very real sense, Chesterton’s “creedless vagueness” and our “political correctness” are quite alike, both in their origins and in their consequences. In pursuing the differences between prejudices and dogmas Chesterton went on to note that prejudices were “divergent,” while creeds were “always in collision.” After all, what do believers do but “bump into each other?” And “bigots,” healthy or otherwise, can do little but “keep out of each other’s way.”
Creedless vagueness and political correctness are both devices to avoid argument and debate. Chesterton was a dogmatist who loved to argue and debate. He also took time to listen to the arguments of those who disagreed with him. In What’s Wrong with the World he described himself as a “sincere controversialist.” While not given to patting himself on the back, Chesterton went on to describe such a “controversialist” as someone who “above all things (is) a good listener. The really burning enthusiast never interrupts; he listens to the enemy’s arguments as eagerly as a spy would listen to the enemy’s arrangements.”
If listening is important, and it is, so is arguing. It can also be unifying. Chesterton specialized in arguing with his opponents, including his brother Cecil. But never once did the two quarrel. They knew each other too well for that. Besides, as Chesterton puckishly put it, a quarrel should never get in the way of a good argument.