Back in 2004, I was invited to be a guest speaker at the Seattle chapter of The Ethical Culture Society, a non-religeous group that lives their lives by a strict code of ethics rather than religious principals. Although I was never an official member of the society, my family attended quite a few meetings that year, and I actually gave two different talks - the following is the first one I did on February first, 2004. I'll post the second one tomorrow.
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The Words and Intentions of a Politically Correct society
David M. H. Workman
When I was growing up, we had two cardinal rules in our house that were mandated by my mother. The first was no gossiping. We were not allowed to say anything negative about someone behind their back. If there was something we didn’t like about someone, we spoke to them about it personally, and in private.
The second wasn’t as much of a rule as a philosophy. It was my mother’s goal to see the elimination of all prejudices worldwide. I was raised with the fundamental principle that it doesn’t matter what someone’s social or financial status is, or what their education, race, heritage, sexual orientation, or gender is – every person on this planet deserves to be treated with courtesy and respect at the very least.
My mother was very serious about both of these issues, and I have tried to live my life following these principals.
My mother was also a bit of an activist. My family moved from New Jersey to Spokane, Washington in the late 60’s and my mother had befriended a mixed race couple that lived across the state line from Spokane in a small town called Rathdrum, Idaho – just north of Coeur d’Alene. Rathdrum had a small pocket of neo-Nazi’s who had been causing problems in the town for a number of years. My mother was invited to attend a meeting at City Hall where they were discussing ways of dealing with the issue. This was 1969 or so. While they were in the meeting, the offending group of people planted a cross in the front lawn of the City Hall building and lit it on fire. As everyone tumbled out of the meeting, wondering what to do, my mother went across the street to the little market and bought a bag of marshmallows. She came back, grabbed some sticks, and proceeded to roast marshmallows on the burning cross and lead the townspeople in singing campfire songs.
To this day, I get very uncomfortable when I’m around idle gossip and I really get upset with people who are obviously prejudiced.
However, I also get upset when I see backlash against someone who is obviously not prejudiced, who just happens to use a “non-politically correct” word for someone or some group of people.
As an example, a common term to use when I was little was “Negro”. In general, there is nothing wrong with the word Negro – it just means “Black” in Spanish, nothing more. However, there is an obvious derivative of Negro, which is quite derogatory and over time the two became synonymous, so the proper term to use through the late 60’s and early 70’s was “Colored”. That too started sounding dated, and by the late 70’s the preferred term was just plain “Black”. Around this time, black people were finally starting to feel proud of their heritage, and for good reason. Through a concerted effort on the part of people like my mother, we made a lot of progress towards the elimination of prejudices around this time. Shows like “All in the Family” made fun of bigots, and throughout the 70’s we finally had some black characters on TV that were “real” people – not just caricatures or humorous side kicks. And in the 80’s we had TV shows like “The Cosby Show” which really brought to life a normal, upper middle class black family that was broadly watched by audiences of all races.
Somewhere after this, though, the PC era began. “Black” wasn’t right, and “African American” was suddenly the accepted term to use. However, “African American” doesn’t really roll off the tongue very well in casual conversation and the pendulum has swung back so that it’s OK to use the term “black” again.
I am using black people … I mean “African American” people just as an example – there are plenty of others. I’m still not exactly sure when it became offensive to refer to someone from the Orient as “Oriental” instead of “Asian”. And don’t call our southern neighbors Mexicans – they prefer Latino now.
At the hospital near our house, they’ve recently taken down the “Handicapped” parking signs and put up ones that specify that “these parking spots are reserved for the Mobility Impaired”.
Some see these changes as progress.
Why do these terms go out of favor and become politically incorrect? Usually because there are people use the words in a derogatory way, or with an unflattering tone of voice and then a stigma gets attached to the term. I feel that as long as there are still people who convey their prejudices in their speech, they will use the current “Politically Correct” term in a derogatory way.
So instead of seeing any change to a new “politically correct” term as progress, I see it as a sign that we still have a ways to go in our fight to eliminate prejudice. It is the use of the word and the tone in people voices that needs to be changed, not the word itself.
Another side effect of these changes are the accusations that if you don’t use the correct words, you are labeled a bigot, or sexist, or whatever. You may get fired from your job for a simple misunderstanding.
As a country, we’ve led the world in addressing these issues. I am always surprised when I travel internationally on business and hear sexist and racist remarks, especially in the workplace. They are usually said in jest – and sometimes even as a compliment, but if you said them here in the U.S. you’d get hauled up to HR quicker than you can turn around.
There are people with valid grievances against employers, and some of these people have won sizeable judgments in court. But as soon as that precedence is set you get people who are just looking to make a fast buck. At my previous company in California, we had a female employee that lodged 18 complaints with HR in one year about her male coworkers, including a complaint against our CEO for not changing the station when a slightly suggestive Barry White song came the radio on during an afternoon party he was hosting at work. The rest of the complaints were just as absurd, and HR knew it. It was pretty obvious she was only there to try and build a case for a lawsuit, and the company ended up paying her $50,000 to just go away before that happened.
This type of behavior puts everyone on edge. And people are more and more sensitive to saying the wrong thing for fear of reprisal. The sensitivity to being politically correct has permeated our society.
How about professional sports teams? Since today is the Super Bowl, a football example seems appropriate. A team name and mascot is chosen because it is a symbol of something you respect. Why is it that nobody thinks twice about the Dallas Cowboys, but a few years ago everyone was all riled up about the Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs? Is it because Indians are a minority and Cowboys aren’t? Luckily, cooler heads prevailed – the team owners publicly stated that Indians – I’m sorry – Native Americans, were being honored, not being made fun of, and the teams kept their names. It would be fun to have a Cowboys and Indians Super Bowl, maybe the Redskins would finally kick the Cowboy’s little white butts.
It’s almost like there’s an unwritten law, and the Washington Redskins and Kansas City Chiefs have been “Grandfathered in” under the old rules. If you notice, all of the new sports teams have steered clear of any names that may even refer to any particular group of people – so we have names like Panthers and Titans.
Luckily, some people do still have a sense of humor – like the University of Northern Colorado, whose basketball team has named themselves the “Fighting Whities”. What’s funny is that half of the team is Native American. If you go on the web and just search for “Fighting Whities” you can find their website and buy a T-Shirt. They’ve made enough money selling T-Shirts that they donated $100,000 back to the school.
We need to keep fighting to eliminate prejudices, but people also need to be a little less sensitive. I still can’t understand why the Latino community was up in arms about the Chihuahua in the Taco Bell commercials. How was that racist? And why were people upset that the shopkeeper in the second Star Wars movie could somehow, if you really used your imagination, be construed as being Jewish? These accusations are counter productive.
The press doesn’t help either – they love to sensationalize anything that might have something to do with race, whether real or imagined. In general, most of the news stories that focus on race do more to fuel the flames rather than try to bring people together. Many times, the victim of a crime was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the press is very quick to jump in and make accusations that the crime was “racially motivated” if the criminal and the victim were of different races.
Do I carry any prejudices myself? I really shouldn’t, considering my upbringing and my family. I have one brother married to a full blooded Native American Indian. My other brother is gay as Liberace. Both myself and my wife have very mixed bloodlines. My division manager that I work for is Iranian. Your race, your sexual orientation, your gender define who you are, and you should be proud of who you are. But if I take a good honest look at myself, I have to admit that I do have a prejudice against people that belong to certain religions. I see religion as a choice you make - not who you are, and that choice usually stands for something that I don’t agree with. Why do I bring this up? I think it’s always good to admit our own shortcomings, and as much as we like to think of ourselves as enlightened individuals, many of us do carry some prejudice, however small.
But would I not hire someone to work for me because he or she is a Christian? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. And very unethical. But there’s the rub. There are many people who put their prejudices or their greed before their ethics. Minorities have endured hundreds of years of limited opportunity because of other people’s unethical behavior. Even as society has changed and prejudices have been widely reduced or eliminated, the resentment has remained – sometimes stronger than ever.
Ever since the dawn of mankind, society has undergone constant change. Some for the better, and some for the worse. We’ve made tremendous progress in the past 40 years on the issues of eliminating prejudice and fostering equality between people of different races – more than any other time in history. But with that progress comes change. Changes in our attitude, changes in our perception of others, and changes in the language we use. We need to stay focused on the long range goal, keep a sense of humor about things, and not get distracted by the people that are not 100% up to date with their vocabulary.