Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 801:
POLITICALLY CORRECT

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 801.

Today, I struggle to be correct. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

People like to ask me, "John, is your program politically correct?" Even if they ask in jest, I need to answer seriously.

The longer I write, the more clearly I see how much hurt a small insensitivity can inflict. On the other hand, courtesy for political advantage is no courtesy at all.

The mischief of political courtesy goes beyond just inventing cludge terms like waitperson for waiter. It does far worse damage when it replaces understanding with formula thinking.

Our art museum just mounted an exhibit of early Central and South American art. The art was magnificent. But the script of the tour tape systematically replaced every unpleasant feature of our old native cultures with goodness and light.

One artifact was a beautifully carved Aztec stone -- an altar for human sacrifice. The tape ignored it. It also ignored Aztec war, aggression, and the little phallic statue across the room. It sandpapered off all the hard edges of our complex native forbears.

The New York Times reviews a new exhibit of Greek sculpture. The exhibit was wonderful. But the brochure? Well, it ignores Greek slavery and recites cliches about the cradle of democracy.

I face the problem of keeping meat in the meal of history when I teach. I tell students that early Islamic conquerors didn't force religious conversions. I say that the most humane and compassionate of all the American colonizers were the Russians in Alaska. Students resist both ideas. Prejudice against Islam and Russia has yet to receive political condemnation.

The subtle point is that we'll never eliminate prejudice by replacing courtesy with a set of guidelines. Bias isn't a human weakness we can locate and eliminate like a bad transistor.

This program is about creativity. It's about learning to see what others miss. It's about being surprised. Guidelines are the work of people who don't want to be surprised. Formula courtesy makes us live in a world of answers. To be creative, we need to feed on questions, not answers.

Years ago I heard an old engineer tell a black student, "We've got to get more nigras into engineering." I was shocked. But the student was interested in the man's intent. "Never mind his language," he told me, "I know this guy's on my side."

Of course the time has come to rethink pronouns and ethnic terminology. By all means, let's practice common courtesy. But that student looked past guidelines and saw substance. He was willing to be surprised. And in that he was better prepared to honor diversity than I was.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Cotter, H., Ancient Sculpture at the Met: Matter Over Mind, The New York Times, THE LIVING ARTS, Friday, March 12, 1993, p. B9.

The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes (R.F. Townsend, Gen. ed.). Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992. See page 195 for a remarkable evasion in describing the altar for human sacrifice:

Such a monument is described in the Aztec coronation rites as an altar where blood offerings were made to the sky and the earth, when the kings were confirmed in office. These and other famous monuments, when considered in the context of the central precinct and pyramid, served to remind the Aztec lords of the integration of their imperial state with the structures and the powers of the world around them.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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