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Polite-ical correctness

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Political correctness is killing this country, or so I’ve heard.

What I haven’t heard is a clear, crisp definition of what the phrase political correctness means.

When I first heard it I was pretty clear on the concept: It meant I couldn’t tell Polish or Italian jokes anymore. This was back in high school, where my clarity about the concept came courtesy of a much larger and more muscular Polish acquaintance who made certain I understood his point, reinforced by a seriously cute Italian girl who explained that I’d just reduced my chances of dating her to the sort of number mathematicians use negative exponents to express.

Along with the recognition that racially-and ethnically-oriented jokes were in bad taste came an increasingly widespread recognition that the extensive and colorful variety of racial and ethnic pejoratives that had been in common use, and the various stereotypes that had accompanied them, were no longer to be uttered in polite company either.

As my own heritage has in the past been used as a verb meaning “to negotiate beyond the point of reasonableness” — a stereotype I’ve often wished was more accurate when negotiating compensation and consulting rates, even while finding it offensive when spoken aloud — I long-ago made my peace with political correctness.

My perspective is, I recognize, less than universally shared — a situation I always find puzzling. In this case I’ve often wondered if the main problem is one of pronunciation: It should be spoken as “Polite-ical correctness.”

The problem, friends and acquaintances have explained to me, is that the desire to avoid offending anyone has been taken off a cliff, as in the example of calling people who are particularly short in stature “vertically challenged.”

Which leads in turn to the question, why would you want to call attention to someone’s past-two-standard-deviations stature? If they suffered from some other unusual size characteristic … say, unusually small hands … would you … oh, wait. Never mind. We crossed that boundary a couple of months ago.

None of this would be in bounds for Keep the Joint Running were it not for the nature of the most recent attempts to make political correctness socially incorrect.

Which is that right now, among some members of the political (as opposed to the polite-ical) class, political correctness means being forbidden to attach bigoted and factually incorrect stereotypes to all Muslims of all stripes everywhere in the world.

And, for that matter, to all Sikhs as well, because many of those who complain about political correctness aren’t all that well-informed, not only about Islam but also about what it means to wear a turban.

This is a legitimate KJR topic because, in your role as business or IT leader, you’re likely to hear colleagues emulating their favorite political personage or pundit, expounding loudly, unfavorably and in public about Muslims.

Which, whether they realize it or not, insults the DBA, developer, or sysadmin in the next cubicle. One of those who feels offended might report to you. If so, you have a legal responsibility to make sure they don’t work in a threatening and harassing environment.

Depending on your personal moral code, even without HR’s dictates you might figure you have a responsibility to help out someone who’s on the receiving end of verbal bullying, because being a bystander in a situation like this is the sort of passive behavior that won’t make you proud of yourself when you look in the mirror tomorrow morning.

More important than this: Why would you want to let some uninformed lout spew garbage that drives good employees to work for a competitor? We’re all in a fight for talent. That being the case, fight to win.

Sometimes, even with the best of intentions we hold back, for no other reason than that we aren’t sure what to say in embarrassing circumstances like these. If that’s what’s troubling you, be troubled no more.

I recommend starting by looking at the offending party with a sour expression and a don’t-look-away gaze that’s just short of a stare. When you’re sure you have their attention, say, “What you’re saying is offensive and uninformed. You’re welcome to your opinion, but you aren’t welcome to share it here. What you’re doing is a firing offense, so we’re both better off if you button it right now. Save it for a bar after you’ve left the office. People in bars expect to hear folks who have had a few too many expressing their ignorance in loud voices.”

Well, okay, maybe that isn’t the best way to handle it.

Tempting though.

Comments (16)

  • Is it just me or does it seem like that the people who object to the concept of polite-ical correctness the most are almost always the “offendors” rather than the “offended”?

  • Bob, I’m glad you wrote that. Doug, yes, you’re right.

  • My version is “don’t be a jerk.” It doesn’t require any further explanation for most people. Just don’t be a jerk. It’s a good rule for absolutely anywhere or time.

  • As someone who has lived in the People’s Republic of Berkeley since the 70’s, I can tell you where the term “political correctness” came from.” Socialists and Communists had and still have a problem dealing with prejudice. Neither of those systems were ever designed to deal with racism or sexism. When this deficiency became clear in the early ’70’s, their solution was to make bigotry a political problem, rather than a moral one.

    But since advocates of both systems decided they needed to address prejudice to attract a wider variety of people, the term, “politically incorrect” was coined to indicate that prejudicial statements and actions went against the politics of socialism and Communism, even if you were otherwise a good socialist or a good Communist.

    Because this line of argument is rather arcane for most people, the term has become synonymous with over-sensitivity by target groups and a phony excuse for the groups to play the “victim” card.

    For a couple of decades, I agreed with this view. Teasing is an age-old practice leading to inclusion or showing love in some instances. But, as more and more people get accepted into the mainstream, it’s clear that those comments do hurt, do affect performance, do affect the careers of the targets of the prejudicial comments, and really do create an unsafe workplace (see Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – definitely NOT a credit to his race).

    As I found out over the years, if you are the first or second of your group to work at a professional level in your organization, some people will always feel threatened and will use prejudiced based “jokes” as a tool to undermine you, regardless of your personality, skills, talent, or personality.

    But most of all, as Michael Corleone and Bob Lewis have said, “It’s bad for business”.

  • I was with you well into the middle of the last paragraph, and then said whoa you’d gone too far. Then back on even keel with appreciation for your last 2 lines!

    • Yeah, that was also what I’d thought. “What you’re saying is offensive and uninformed. You’re welcome to your opinion, but you aren’t welcome to share it here.” If you stop there you have a perfectly acceptable response to all manner of non-work-related rants, even if all they are insulting is someone’s favorite sports team 🙂

  • I think there is a big difference between speech in the workplace and speech in someone’s personal life. In the workplace our job as leaders is to make everyone comfortable and recognize the differences in individuals. We respect those differences regardless of our personal beliefs (such as a leader that is agnostic supporting religious holidays and prayer). In our personal lives I believe everyone has the free speech right to stupidity. I’d rather live in a place were all ideas can be expressed than a place with “save zones” where speech cannot be expressed.

    • I believe you’re saying good manners should be a matter of choice, not of legal edict – a stance just about everyone will agree with.

      Complaints about political correctness are (in my view at least) about social and cultural enforcement of good manners, not about legal enforcement. In a sense, those who are complaining want people who object to their statements to hold back rather than objecting, which makes the free speech piece of the puzzle rather one-sided.

  • Bob, I think you and I must be from about the same generation, when being PC was positive, meaning not falling into and reinforcing racism, sexism, etc.

    But for every social (or political) movement there is backlash, and the backlash came quickly regarding political correctness. The college cohort after mine (5 or so years younger than me) knew “political correctness” only as a derisive term, applied to “whiners” who couldn’t deal with reality, or some such thing.

    There’s a reason for the existence of racism and sexism and all the other -isms and prejudices, and the people who benefit from status quo, the maintenance of those social (or political) hierarchies, are going to fight back. Using ridicule is one of their best weapons, because it attacks and undercuts while also indicating that what they are working to repress is too absurd to even take seriously.

  • I would think, as much of a melting pot as we have always been, by now we would be used to new and different people entering our sphere. Much more fun to learn about them than treat them like aliens or lump them all together. I would definitely approve of your final recommendation. Maybe just leave off that last sentence 🙂

  • Political correctness is really all about fairness to others. I always ask people who disagree with political correctness: “What part of being fair are you against?”

  • The core of the ideology of Marx and Engels is “the material dialectic.” Through Stalin’s interpretation, every statement must be filtered through the material dialectic system for meaning. Some statements have meaning that, under the dogma of the material dialectic, cannot be true, and to assert that they are true is to make a statement that is politically incorrect because it cannot be true. To say “we have a Marxist state but it could improved” is politically incorrect in Marxism because by definition a Marxist state is perfect and cannot be improved. To say the state is perfect is “politically correct.”

    I’ve always taken the social “politically correct” banner to be a false epithet used about the views of people you don’t like, a sly suggestion that people who disagree with you are really communists.

    For instance, if you say group X can’t be trusted because of their color, I think you’re rude and ignorant; if I express that to you, you’ll complain that I’m trying to be “politically correct.” No, I’m pointing out that you’re rude and ignorant. Politics usually has nothing to do with it. I will admit agree that there are plenty of people on both ends of the political spectrum who want the government to regulate the speech of people on the other end; those people are invited to go review the First Amendment.

  • Do you have a clear and unambiguous definition of “political correctness”?

    Try an extension of merriam-webster:

    conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex, race, viewpoint, speech, dress, political outlook, historical views, etc. including any and all past, present or future interpretations and/or possible differing viewpoints) should be eliminated. Also see “social warriors”.

    • First things first: MW provides two definitions, neither of which match yours:

      agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people
      , and

      conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.

      Second: Your definition sounds suspiciously like a strawman, the point being that if this is what folks are objecting to, they’re concerned about a mostly imaginary phenomenon.

      • I did say extended definition.

        Further it appears political correctness is the domain of the social warrior by their works and actions.

        As to what they are “concerned about being mostly an imaginary problem”. That is a possible definition but not the one I would use.

        One could use the idea that political correctness says vocalizing ones beliefs is disrespectful to others and must be avoided at all costs.

        One could also say the point of political correctness is to silence the opposition by destroying them in any and all ways, but that seems to bring us into totalitarianism by the social group. Which is close but totalitarianism has more of a government orientation.

        The extended version I suggested seems to capture the more complete definition, since it contains the element of intolerance shown in current political correctness. Or we could just go with the official definition:

        “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.”

        The key thing to remember in regard to the original topic is that none of this should be in the office space.

  • I believe we (the so-called “Western countries”, not just the USA) do have a problem, but I wouldn’t call it “Political Correctness”. I’d call it “Intolerance”. You describe the age-old intolerance we’ve always known (e.g., racism, or sexism), and which hasn’t disappeared, no matter how much we repeat “We’ve come a long way”.

    And in recent years we’re seeing the rise of a different kind of intolerance, where:
    – Non-Black people can be harassed for wearing dreadlocks.
    – Non-Native Americans can be sued for using Native American symbols in their businesses.
    – Non-Mexicans wearing a sombrero can be harassed for being offensive to Mexicans.
    – Non-Asians teaching a yoga class can be accused of cultural appropriation.
    – It is wrong to say “All women are sl*ts” (and I completely agree it is wrong, just in case you’re wondering), but it is defensible to say “All men are rapists”.

    My perception is that we’re fighting hate and intolerance with more hate and intolerance. Will this kill any country? I don’t know. Looking at History’s most blatant example, it took the Great Depression to get the Nazi Party into power, so I’d say, on the grande scheme of things, it probably won’t. OTOH, “past performance is no guarantee of future results”.

    So, at the end of the day, I see the both sides of the issue becoming equal: Intolerant, and with a professed desire to avoid any debate whatsoever. Apparently, you don’t need to debate when you know you’re right, you just need to make sure those with different opinions from yours are silenced.

    Speaking for myself, I used to be a social liberal/progressive, and I’ve always supported such principles, both with my wallet and my vote. These days, I’ve become much more cautious. It seems that the current lay of the land is “Harassment is valid if the cause is worthy”, and I happen to disagree. A lynch mob is a lynch mob, now matter how valid their words may be.

    Oh, and we both agree this is not a conversation for the office.

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