Don’t settle for political correctness

Being a red-blooded college student, I naturally have spent the past several years surrounded by the TV show The Office. I’m an apathetic fan, at best, and as the quality of the show began to deteriorate several seasons ago, I moved on without too much grief.

From conversations I’ve had with people, I think one of the reasons it’s so popular is its complete lack of political correctness. Let’s face it: the show is packed with racial slurs, fat jokes, sexist comments, etc., all packaged in an awkwardness that makes it funny to some, immature to others. I think people enjoy having a zone in which political incorrectness is ok, even exalted. And I have to wonder: “Why? What is it about political correctness that people dislike?” I think it has a lot to do with uncertainty. Political correctness, with the prime goal of “offend no one,” and its constant reminders of the many ways we may potentially be offensive, leaves us unsure of how to act around others. What if we say or do the wrong thing and tick “them” (ah, nebulous pronoun!) off? How can we act natural and yet try to guard every word and phrase and expression from being potentially hurtful?

I think political correctness can be a useful tool. That is, it can help make people (especially those who constitute the cultural majority) think more carefully about how they treat other people. But we do ourselves a serious disservice if we allow political correctness to be our guide as to how to treat people who are different than we are, for political correctness tends, more than anything else, to erect barriers between people. It gives clear guidelines for how NOT to treat people, but doesn’t help us see HOW to treat people–with the result that people who are nervous about making politically incorrect gaffes may just avoid people who are different than themselves. That is, people are naturally disinclined to interact with people who are different than they—when the need to become politically correct is thrown into the mix, that inclination becomes even more potent.

(Of course, there is a whole different class of people who don’t care about political correctness because they actively dislike people different than themselves. Some of these people are wounded, some are ignorant, and some of them are bigots. Love the first, dialogue gently with the second, and challenge the last).

Am I against political correctness? Not at all. I think it’s a start in that it does make people more mindful of how they talk about, think about, and treat others. But I’m afraid that many people may settle for knowing how to not offend people without seeking to actually know people. Political correctness would become obsolete if people would actually interact, if people were willing to actively seek relationships with people different from themselves. Offenses and ignorance are more easily corrected in the context of relationship, while hurtful actions and stereotypes are less likely to occur in the context of the same relationship.

That doesn’t mean that if people would just interact, everyone would agree and eventually the world would hold hands and sing Kumbaya. But it would mean (theoretically and with the hope and verve of a 22-year-old idealist) that people would learn to dialogue about their differences productively and respectfully.

Side note: I do understand that truth (ie: spiritual truth) is often politically incorrect, and I do not advocate that one waters down one’s beliefs in order to become socially acceptable to others. I do advocate, however, a balance of truth with grace. When speaking to people about your faith, are you more concerned that you make your points and “win”, or are you more concerned with actually communicating with and loving the person with whom you interact?

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