Monday, December 3, 2007

Political correctness--The middle way

Don Imus is back on the air this morning and I'm hearing folks attributing his earlier firing to political correctness run amok. Have we, as some claim, become too politically correct?

I think no...and yes.

I am glad that society is not so willfully blind to the way the system marginalizes and denigrates those outside the mainstream. I am relieved that using racist images of blacks, Native Americans and Asians to sell products is no longer widely accepted. It is a good thing that homophobic slurs aren't so easily spoken in polite company. We should be glad that calling a group of student athletes "nappy-headed hoes" provokes outrage and discussion about European beauty standards and black female sexuality. There was a time when a comment like that would have been met with silence and tacit agreement.

Political correctness works when it challenges memes based on bias and forces us to think about how our actions and speech affect others. Political correctness goes wrong when it stamps out thoughtful discussion of ideas for fear of offending.

For example, would any network television executive allow All in the Family to air today?

Norman Lear's All in the Family highlighted the ridiculousness of bigotry, while humanizing people who mistakenly hold prejudiced views. It was a wonderful, groundbreaking sitcom that found a way to highlight society's ills, including racism, sexism, religion and homophobia. I remember this episode. I was in elementary school when it aired. Even then I could recognize that Archie Bunker and George Jefferson were decent men with flawed bigoted views. But today, I imagine the scene above would never see the light of day on CBS, where it originally aired--too much chance of offending someone.

Sometimes political correctness overrides common sense. It allows us to avoid wrestling with hot button topics like race, gender or sexuality. We are all too precious about the things that are important to us. Christians are slighted by any challenge to their belief system, while atheists feel oppressed by any mention of God or spirituality. Blacks will brook no discussion of the ways our community is destroying itself, while white people refuse to acknowledge their inherent privilege. No one wants to talk. No one wants to think. No one wants to be challenged. No one wants to be uncomfortable.

There has to be a middle way. There is humanity in being sensitive to other people's feelings, finding out what hurts them and why, and then honoring that. And it is socially responsible to evaluate whether ideas that have been widely acceptable, really should be. But each of us needs to check our sensitivity. Is it rational? Am I so busy being offended that I avoid discussion, and miss opportunities to teach and connect with people who are different from me?

What do you think? Has political correctness gone too far?


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