HomeIndustry Commentary

It’s my turn to be the victim!

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

Political correctness and common sense have something in common.

No, it isn’t that opposing political correctness is just common sense. What they share is argument by assertion. Once you say something is just common sense (or, as political speechwriters are wont to do these days, to apply the adjective “commonsense” to whatever preposterous proposition their employer is promoting that day) … once you use the phrase you’ve eliminated the need for evidence or logic. Like placing “Q.E.D.” at the end of a geometric proof, you have no more ‘splainin’ to do.

Complaining about political correctness is like that too. Make the complaint and there’s no room for further discussion.

And yet, there’s little about politically correctness that’s cut and dried, except, perhaps, for both extremes of the linguistic spectrum. For example, very few of us favor casual use of racial or ethnic slurs. But how about:

  • Quite a few years ago now, David Howard, then head of the Washington DC Office of Public Advocate, used the word “niggardly” in a conversation about funding.

It’s a perfectly fine word, with a precise, appropriate meaning and a clean and wholesome etymology. Nonetheless, Howard was forced to resign for using it because he should have known he might be misunderstood.

My guess: The people who criticized him were a bunch of Homo sapiens.

  • Huckleberry Finn. This was Mark Twain’s magnum opus against racism. In it, Nigger Jim (you have no idea how hard it was for me to even type his name) is a more sympathetic character than most of the upstanding white citizens in the book.

And in one of the truly brilliant bits in the history of satire, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer wrestle with their consciences, and finally decide to do the morally wrong thing. They hide their friend from those who would return him to slavery, even though they knew they’d surely go to Hell for it.

Every so often some well-intentioned souls want to ban this, one of the most important works in the history of American race relations, from school bookshelves, mostly because of its authentic vernacular. One suspects they’re ignorant of earlier attempts to ban the book … yes, that’s right, by those who considered it anti-Southern and who complained that it encouraged sympathy for escaped slaves.

  • Blazing Saddles, one of the funniest movies ever, with a powerful message about bigotry, too. Mel Brooks has his cast use the n-word and other racial and ethnic slurs so often and so casually audiences eventually become desensitized to the language.

It’s hard to see how Brooks could have written the script any other way, and the language is, to my way of thinking at least, pitch-perfect for its era and purpose. If you disagree, try re-writing the movie’s punchline in more sensitive language — the line where Rock Ridge’s mayor, called on to be fully inclusive, declines, saying, “We’ll take the Niggers and the Chinks, but we don’t want the Irish!”

(Plot spoiler: Cleavon Little persuades the townsfolk to accept the Irish, too.)

And now, to blur things even more, we have micro-aggression — defined as speech that falls short of overt bigotry but that still subtly demeans or stereotypes members of an already-marginalized group.

I have no doubt micro-aggression is real. For example I recall squirming when a saleswoman told my wife and me a dining room table we liked was made of “Coolie wood,” entirely oblivious to what she was saying.

For that matter I cringe when I hear people tossing off demeaning workplace words and phrases like geek, bean-counter, and pointy-haired boss. None of these is likely to cause an IT professional, accountant, or business manager to burst into tears. Language does shape attitudes, though. And stereotypes guide and reinforce expectations.

On the other hand, there’s no easy line that separates the hyenas’ ghetto-speak in Disney’s The Lion King from the Lucky Charms leprechaun’s stage Irish.

So let’s just lose the phrase “politically correct” altogether. It adds nothing and obscures lots. We don’t need to stamp anything out. We do need to find the line that separates patently offensive speech from listening with paper-thin skins. This sure would be handy, because avoiding offense shouldn’t lead us all to just give up and sew our collective lips together.

What it won’t be is easy. It isn’t, that is, just a matter of … dare I say it? … common sense.

Comments (8)

  • As they say, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, but you’ll never be pure, so I say look for paths where the folks on the wrong side of the privilege gap give you feedback that you are part of the solution. As I see it, the people who have the kind of common sense you write about rarely need rules. But, there are other people with a different idea of what common sense is, so telling them to use common sense truly doesn’t help them. IMHO, these are the folks who most need rules and swift, consistent enforcement because they truly don’t see where the boundaries are until there is a push-back.

    Also, under “opinions”: Niggardly means stingy and the guy never should have been fired. Period.; I consider Huck Finn the Great American Novel (with apologies to Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and Portnoy’s Complaint), in part because Mark Twain is one of only 3 writers of any color I’ve ever read whose characters spoke black language exactly as I spoke it and heard it growing up; Blazing Saddles was co-written by Mel Brooks and some guy named Richard…Pryor. As far as I’m concerned, if was okay with Richard Pryor, it’s okay with me.

    Lastly, I want to commend you for creating the occasion for a discussion on prejudicial behaviors in the workplace. Hopefully, we listen to each other with the same care we want to be listened to by others.

  • Well said!, I’ve been saying, it used to be true that if you’re weren’t outraged you weren’t paying attention, these days, we’re paying too much attention. You may want to buckle up it could be a bumpy ride!

  • The saying goes something like “the problem with common sense is that it’s not very common at all”. Me, I’d say the problem with common sense presents itself when the people involved don’t have very much in common. I believe that’s what the “common” in “common sense” means – that a community (defined as “a group of people with very much in common”) defines a set of beliefs/opinions/attitudes/whatever that are commonly held as acceptable.

    That’s why I believe we should be exposed to as many diverse perspectives as possible. Each perspective will – hopefully – give us a different view of a subject, and will makes us think about it from a different angle. We may or may not change our minds, but that’s not the issue here, the issue is understanding those we call “the Other”. Even if we disagree, even if we condemn, we should seek to understand.

    For a few years now, I’ve included in my reading habits sites and authors that I know I’m very likely to disagree with, because they consistently hold views that differ from mine. It has given me a better understanding of their reasons and sometimes I even find myself agreeing with their analysis, even if I rarely agree with their proposed solutions. Sometimes I just laugh as I witness their biased views of the world, only to discover that my views are equally biased (and my proposed solutions are probably as flawed as I think theirs are).

    And I found out we have common sense, plenty of common sense. But each community has its own common sense.

    As I write this, I’m wondering – maybe the issue is not common sense, but middle ground?

  • No such thing as common sense – it’s called good sense, and unfortunately good sense isn’t all that common these days. Sadly today, too many people pile on to criticize others without considering what the real facts are, and/or the culture of victim-hood overshadows good old good sense.

  • And how may net-nannies are going to block this weeks KJR
    based on the use of the N word. I know mine did.

  • Sadly, we too frequently have different interpretations and associations with the same word. My first clear realization of this was when I was waiting for co-workers to gather to go to lunch. At the time, it was me (a male) and five women. I said something like, “We may as well go, ladies.” One of the women furiously told me to NEVER call her a “lady”. When I asked why, she said that she found “ladies of the evening” very offensive. While I was aware of that phrase, I was more familiar with “Ladies and Gentlemen”, or “She is a Lady of refinement”, and similar expressions that clearly showed a “lady” to be a women of high class or culture — an elevating term. But not to this one woman.

    Not long after that I began to realize that far too many disagreements, and even arguments, were because the people applied different definitions to the same word. If I would get them to describe (to each other) what they meant (without using that word they appeared to be arguing about), they often found they were in great agreement. But it is so hard to get past words to meanings.

    I recall reading decades ago that one of the ways that the Soviet Union was going to “destroy” the U.S. was by corrupting the language: to get “bad” to mean “good”, and to alter the meanings of words so that a politician can say something that seemed very pleasing and agreeable to the audience while completely meaning something else (which the audience would not like at all). I have often considered that “politically correct” was something to this end.

    Some of it seems simply ridiculous to me, in the effort to “not offend” someone else. Must we really call an adult of short stature “vertically challenged” instead of simply saying “short”, when it is not meant to ridicule, belittle, or otherwise put-down or make fun? It is sad
    that the term “dumb” has such a negative connotation we can’t say “blind, deaf, and dumb” without offending someone. Such changing of definitions would make someone today reading a novel from the 1800’s think that the world was full of homosexuals (as there were so many “gay” people then).

    • My 2 cents is to just take her response as feedback, as to where she (and maybe other women) have a boundary with you in the workplace. When I read your post, I could empathize with your feelings of surprise and maybe a little hurt feelings. But as I thought about it, I recalled some of the monstrous amounts of pain women like my mother, grandmothers, girlfriends, and female friends have told me about over the last 6 decades. It is a truly grim story. You could take some time learn about it, but you could also just take it as feedback about someone’s boundaries with you in the workplace, and move on.

      It seems to me that the only thing worse than her not sharing what her experience was, would be for her to say nothing and be in pain. I’ve sometimes been privileged to be the boyfriend, friend, or son on the other side of that silence, working to be support, or at least to be a band-aid for the female sharing her experiences with me.

      I was raised in a community where teasing was the norm, so I miss not being able to do it, especially in a workplace situation. But, where there is a difference in power, for whatever reasons, I found even mild teasing can hurt people, who don’t come from the same context, and in truth, there is no way we as men know what it is like to walk in a woman’s shoes, so I feel blessed if they do choose to say something to me. I may or may not agree with it, but I can never have the opportunity to make things right, if I am unwilling to hear it.

      For me, I often hear being offended as manipulative, and I don’t respect it much. But, I hear being hurt or injured very seriously and if honoring boundaries in the workplace will help prevent people from being injured or hurt, on the way to achieving mutual respect for all, I’m all in.

      That’s my 2 cents (more like a dime).

Comments are closed.