A recent incident brought home the impact of language and how we use it. I wrote a guest column for our local newspaper titled “I’m just an old white guy, who is angry.” The bifurcated response was extraordinary. Many saw it as evidence of racial bias resulting from “white privilege.” A friend passed me notes taken from an interracial group meeting within the city limits during which whether I was a racist was the subject of debate. Meanwhile, out in the suburbs, a local furniture store owner said, “you must be reading my mind”; a neighbor told me she “loved it”; and, someone crossed a busy restaurant to tell me it was “genius.”
From my perspective, the former group reacted to the headline rather than the substance of the column which had nothing to do with race. Reacting (or overreacting) to a word or a phrase taken out of context has infected our society with a disease. It is among the many ways in which political correctness has deteriorated our ability to function. Examples run from the ridiculous to the terrifying. A Seattle teacher is reported to have renamed “Easter Eggs.” They should be called “Spring Spheres” to avoid offending those who don’t celebrate Easter. The absurdity has crossed the pond too. In the UK, the Turnbridge Wells Borough Council banned the use of the word “brainstorming” for fear of offending mentally ill people. In Sydney, Australia, Santa Clauses have been instructed not to bellow “Ho, ho, ho!” for fear of offending American prostitutes. More serious is the firing of a Harvard Law School professor because he agreed to work for the team mounting Harvey Weinstein’s defense. Apparently, not all Americans are entitled to an attorney to represent them, only those deemed worthy.
Last month, a student newspaper at Northwestern University apologized for its coverage of protests objecting to a scheduled speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They had included some unflattering photos of protestors. To their credit, many professional journalists objected to the apology. The newspaper is edited and staffed by students at Northwestern’s top-rated journalism college. Pointing out that taking photos of people in public places and reaching out for interviews is a reporter’s job, Washington Post columnist Glenn Kessler wondered how “a top journalism school would apologize for the basics of reporting.”
Most Americans are sick of it. A study by a non-profit group called “More in Common” reported last year that approximately 80% of Americans think political correctness has gone too far. Some report fatigue at having to keep up with frequent changes to acceptable language.
While moving the goal posts can be frustrating for those just trying to live our lives, the true impact is more pernicious. There is a class of people who specialize in being offended. Many of them take to Twitter to express their outrage. The Twitter Mob, in turn, has an outsized impact on mainstream media. Once a politically incorrect utterance is widely reported, the consequences can be catastrophic. Just ask the North Carolina police chief, the California schoolteacher and the Google engineer who lost their livelihoods for daring to speak their minds. Suppression of language effectively makes the thoughts they represent become unthinkable. Is that what we want in a free society?
The cure for this disease is not an easy pill to swallow. It requires each of us to examine our own biases and to be open to discussion. Self-righteousness is so much easier. The Harvard Business Review (HBR), noting the negative impact on work environments, has outlined five principles to enable constructive dialog. Among them: pause, connect, question yourself and shift your mind-set. HBR’s prescription is intended for business leaders. But it could be adapted for use in any community.
WHO WILL LEAD?