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.