I hope you had a lovely Memorial Day holiday. I was reflecting on how thankful I am that we have warriors-both abroad, fighting for our safety, and right here at home, fighting for our freedom and civil rights. Have you heard Mackelmore and Lewis’ (the “Thrift Shop Song” folks) new song, “Same Love”? Give it a listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlVBg7_08n0. The first time I heard it on the car radio, I had to pull over and cry. It still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. We are winning, people!!
Anyway, it’s WTF Wednesday and today, I am thinking about political correctness. At a party this weekend, I witnessed a large group of young, wealthy, cosmopolitan folks riff on PC. Quotes included “I mean, you’re a f*&%$n’ secretary, just say it!” and “we have to call our janitors ‘sanitation engineers'”. The general consensus is that political correctness has gotten way out of hand.
But has it, really? I love to joke about PC-isms as much as the next gal. I vividly recall a book we had when I was a kid-“Politically Correct Holiday Tales”. The elves were “vertically challenged” and Santa was given carrots instead of cookies in a nod to the (then still relatively new) obesity epidemic. I thought it was HIGH-LARIOUS. The humor made me feel like an adult-a far cry from the Nickelodeon lineup, which featured bathroom humor and people falling down.
(A vital aside-I think people falling down is also hilarious. Still do. Probably will never stop. Provided that nobody is hurt, of course. But oh man. It kills me.)
Political correctness seems to fall into this over-protective mania we’ve got going on right now-making churches and schools peanut-free to combat allergies, not letting kids walk home from school (even if they live down the block), SPF-infused clothing…the list goes on and on. We are no longer encouraged, as my childhood icon Ms. Frizzle would say, to “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” Ever-fearful of crossing the line, we make up ridiculous titles to spare people the indignity of a job title that’s been held for years with no comment. It’s not a stewardess, you chauvinistic pig, it’s a flight attendant.
I see all of that. Hanging around people with kids has made me hyper-aware of my own germy grossness. I want to spitefully feed all these super-clean, organically-fed-and-diapered babies dirt just to prove to their parents that they can relax a bit. The five-second rule is Gospel, y’all. There’s something about this new overprotective thing (EVERYTHING WILL GIVE YOU CANCER NEVER GO OUTSIDE NEVER EAT ANYTHING EVER) that really sticks in my craw. I’ve backpacked Southeast Asia. I have eaten some truly dubious things and lived in some foul conditions. And I am still standing. My parents, who did not have the benefit of all this zeitgeist hovering, are still standing. Can’t we all just chill out a bit and call a stewardess a stewardess?
No, and here’s why. Because words can hurt. (I’m going to take a sec here to plug an AMAZING book-The Book Thief by Marcus Zusack. It’s a powerful testament to what words can do. Seriously changed my life. Go read it!) And how you talk about people does affect how you see them. I’ll own up-I’ve used the words “retarded” and “gay” as pejoratives. It’s so common that it never felt wrong to me. But it is wrong, it really, really is. Ask anyone with a retarded family member. Or a gay one. Think of something you use to describe yourself (woman, white, Christian) and then use it to mean “bad”. “Man-that movie was so white! It totally blew!” It feels weird. Because we all know that “white” is synonymous with “power”. But it wouldn’t be, if it was slang for low-quality or tacky. My hero Kurt Vonnegut said “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful who we pretend to be.” I say-we feel what we say, so we must be very careful about what we say.
While doing research for this post (yes, I do research, thankyouverymuch) I read some brilliant and incisive critiques of this PC thing. I don’t really disagree with most of them. I don’t want to be the morality police and say we have to call janitors “sanitation engineers”. But I do say that we should ask people what they want to be called. Because people are people-and they deserve respect. My friends from this weekend, God bless them, have never been janitors and secretaries. They have not ever been treated with less than courtesy. So of course they think that ‘those people’ should just be called what they are. But we’ve set things up so that “secretary” means “sex toy”, “stupid”, and “not worthy of deference” (and almost always “female”, but that’s another story). So, if my secretary, should I ever be fortunate to have one, doesn’t like all that baggage and wants to be called “administrative assistant”, I will totally call him or her that. Or “copy machine master” or “superman” or “magician”, come to that. Whatever they want.
Because some people don’t care. I had a friend growing up who hated the term “African-American”. He said, “you don’ty call yourself Irish-American. I’ve never even been to Africa. I’m just black.” So, I called him black. But I would be foolish to believe that’s what every person of color I know prefers. So I have to ask each person what they like.
That’s what this is all about, in the end. Just treating people like people. And sure, it takes a little more time. But it’s so, so worth it. For example, right now I’m unemployed. I’ve been searching for a job for a while, and so I volunteer at the public defender’s office. People get all nervous when they try to decide what to call me. Some magnanimously call me “lawyer”, which I technically am, since I am licensed to practice law in Massachusetts. Some vaguely offer “she’s helping us out around here” for a while. And some shrug sympathetically before muttering “intern”. Because, at 27 years old and married, intern is not a very desirable thing to be. But I will own it-because it shows that I haven’t given up yet. I’m not a home, watching “The Price is Right” in my pjs while perusing the want-ads, no. I’m at work at 9am, dressed in my suit, giving everything I’ve got to a job for which I receive no compensation whatsoever. So yes, I’ll own that title. Because it means I’m strong. But other people may not feel the same way. In fact, they probably don’t. So I’ll just ask them how they feel before labeling them. And if I may be so bold, you ought to do the same. Let’s see what a little kindness can do.
Tune in Friday for a book review of a truly revolutionary book from an excellent author-Wide Awake by David Levithan!