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Political Correctness versus Respect

dan-dewoskin-new-photoby Daniel DeWoskin
President, DeKalb Bar Association

As I watch debates among presidential candidates, read newspaper articles about which celebrity made an offensive comment and see who was offended, it occurs to me that there is a difference between political correctness and respect in general. When I was a child, there were many terms I heard people use that were not politically correct, but were certainly acceptable in everyday parlance at the time. This did not mean that these particular terms were respectful of others, or perhaps were the best choice of labels or terminology. Instead, they were simply accepted.

I can understand the fatigue that so many people today have with the thin-skinned – the folks who are so anxious to be offended that they cannot wait to pounce on someone who uses a phrase they think is politically incorrect. However, there are many things to be taken into consideration. For instance, just who is using the offensive term? Is it someone who is elderly? Is it someone who grew up in a place where the offensive term was not considered offensive?

As you read these questions, you may be saying that it does not matter where someone is from. It does. Context is everything. We use language to communicate. For instance, when my children say something that is offensive, they do not always mean it to be offensive. My son recently asked me what a certain expletive meant. He spelled it for me aloud, showing me that he knew that saying this particular four-letter word would not be acceptable to me and may subject him to a stern lecture. I am rather certain that he knew how to correctly pronounce it as he has possibly even heard me use it in traffic. I’m kidding of course. I’m more certain he would have only heard such language from his mother.

Often, our criticism of people who are in the public eye is not that they said something that is unacceptable, but that if they did not mean it to be offensive, they should have known better.”

Regardless of where he heard the word, my son was asking me a question and did not even begin to use the word with a bad intent. The intent is always important with language. Often, our criticism of people who are in the public eye is not that they said something that is unacceptable, but that if they did not mean it to be offensive, they should have known better. This is a different criticism than one that excoriates them for a blatantly inappropriate statement.

Getting back to the difference between political correctness and respectful behavior, it does not seem too onerous to achieve both. If I call someone “Tom,” and he corrects me and politely tells me he prefers “Thomas,” I do not walk away thinking him uptight for expressing his preference. In the same way, as a person who does not wish to offend others, I can pay attention to what is commonly accepted as politically correct in order to show the respect that I genuinely wish to convey.

Now, context is everything. When I see a comedian, I do not necessarily expect the comedian to be overly cautious about every single word he uses. Like many other people, I do expect those running for political office to convey respect for all the people they hope to call their constituents. If they speak and act in such a way that does not demonstrate at least an aspiration to conduct themselves in such a manner, I personally question their qualifications for diplomacy. And yet, these are just my standards.

Many people are tired of political correctness. They feel as though they are always walking on eggshells to avoid offending someone, anyone. Some worry that their jobs hang in the balance on a daily basis just because they may accidentally say something that was not intended to offend, but that ultimately causes them real damage. The way I see it, if a person simply tries to be respectful of those around him on a day to day basis, he builds the type of credibility and rapport with those around him that invites others to inquire about what he meant and openly discuss how they think he could better express an idea in what they think is a less offensive manner.

Is this too much to ask? Perhaps it is for some. For myself, I always want someone to tell me when he or she thinks I have made an offensive remark. It may have been inadvertent. In fact, after hearing the person out, I may disagree with whether or not it was offensive, but the chances are that if one person thought it inappropriate, others may have felt the same way. Valuing this information and appreciating the context is what makes us adults. It is what allows us to interact civilly with people of all different cultures and backgrounds.

I told my son not to use the word that he so carefully spelled out for me. I did not tell him what it meant, although I was inclined to tell him that it meant that I stubbed my toe, that I spilled something on a new tie that I wore for the first time, or that daddy really thinks the other driver should pull into the intersection. Clearly, I’m confessing to having used this word. The fact that I got to hear him spell it shows that even at such a young age, he understands the importance of context. I am not concerned with teaching my children to be politically correct, but I am perpetually concerned with teaching them to be respectful.

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