THE BLOG

The Problem With Political Correctness

02/25/2013 10:39 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2013
  • BJ Gallagher Best-selling author, speaker, and human relations expert.

Mom was wrong when she taught me, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Names do hurt -- names can shame, ridicule, and humiliate. Some pertain to race or gender; others refer to weight, facial features, or a particular part of one's anatomy. Names that refer to social class or what part of the country you're from can be hurtful, as can names that involve age, religion, or physical ability. Even slang names for certain occupations can be hurtful. Certainly, no one likes to be called a name that is disrespectful, unkind, or downright mean.

But there is another category of name-calling that is also hurtful and destructive: names such as "racist," "sexist," "homophobe," "anti-Semite," "bigot," and the like. Yet many throw these labels around at the drop of a hat, without understanding what the labels actually mean -- not to mention the damage done by accusing someone of racism, sexism, etc. The accusation alone -- even without merit -- can be enough to besmirch a reputation, kill a career, and/or be used to invalidate a lifetime of good work.

Let's consider the definition of racism: "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial difference produce an inherent superiority of a particular race." How about the definition of sexism: "prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially: discrimination against women." And let's see who is a bigot: "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance."

I wonder, do the TV talking heads understand the true definition of the labels they hurl at public figures: "racist," "sexist," "bigoted," or worse -- based on nothing more than a comment taken out of context, someone's clumsy attempt at humor, or a photo or image that's the artistic expression of a creative person?

How many of us understand these definitions when we call someone a racist or sexist jerk? Jerk, perhaps... but racist or sexist? Perhaps... perhaps not. Do we really understand the seriousness of those labels? Or, are we simply indulging in destructive name-calling based on political correctness?

My point is that the political correctness movement has gone way too far. While the original intent of political correctness may have been good (to encourage tact and sensitivity to others' feelings around issues of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical abilities, and such), the effect of political correctness has been to make everyone avoid these topics altogether -- thereby hindering our ability to get comfortable in living and working with those who are different from us. It's gone so far that political correctness has become a bigger problem than the problem it was intended to address!

It's gotten so bad that a liberal professor friend of mine says that she thinks the whole political correctness movement was invented by the Far Right to inhibit any meaningful discussion of diversity issues in order to keep racial, gender, and other barriers in place. Wow. Could my cynical (dare I say paranoid) friend be right?

It doesn't really matter whether the PC Police come from the Right or the Left; the result is the same. These days everyone is so afraid of being called "sexist" or "racist" or "anti-Semitic" or some other career-killing label, that we all tiptoe carefully around diversity issues, and avoid them altogether if we possibly can.

But the question is: How are we ever going to be able to live and work together more comfortably if there's a whole herd of elephants in the room? If we can't talk about our feelings, fears, aspirations, anxieties, assumptions, hopes, worries, dreams, and concerns, how can we ever build trust with those who are different from us? If we can't talk about differences that puzzle us, or things we're curious about, without fear of giving offense, then how can we ever overcome our ignorance about cultures and races -- or even the opposite sex?

If we must constantly self-censor any conversation pertaining to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or physical ability, then we are doomed to perpetuate the very barriers we say we want to overcome.

To those who serve in today's PC Police, I understand that your intentions are good. But there is often a big gap between intent and impact. I would invite you to consider the impact of your censorship and finger-wagging, as well as your inclination to self-righteous, moral indignation. You don't realize it, but you're effectively throwing a wet blanket over public (and private) discussions of vitally important issues. You've gone too far in your efforts to protect everyone's feelings. You're essentially imposing a gag order on the whole of American society, and in so doing, you're hindering our progress in getting to know one another and to understand others' different perspectives, viewpoints, feelings, and life experiences.

Lighten up, please. Resign from the PC Police. Give us all a break.

2013-02-23-plpcover.jpg

BJ Gallagher is coauthor of the diversity classic, "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins: A Fable About Creativity and Courage" (Berrett-Koehler) - now the best-selling diversity book in the world (published in 23 languages). www.peacockproductions.com