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Five Recommendations for a New Politeness

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For many of us, the first and most important lesson from our childhood is the Golden Rule. In a graduation speech at the University of Notre Dame, even President Obama made reference to it when he said

For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It is no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule -- the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated.

This is a universal concept that anyone can understand and apply to their own life.

For a time, there was a concerted attempt to apply this reasoning to the language we use in everyday conversations. A close look at our language choices revealed that the prejudices within our society were being reflected and reinforced in common speech. It was pointed out that referring to women as girls was belittling, calling something gay because it appeared effeminate was offensive, and referring to recent immigrants as foreigners was disparaging. This positively motivated movement was eventually stymied by occasional excesses and pushback from the conservative and religious right.

Engaging in insensitive speech is unnecessary and should receive society's condemnation, but it is also unnecessary for speech to be made illegal or result in top down censorship; excesses that tend toward censorship are real concerns. Remember Nipplegate? The Federal Communications Commission tried to fine CBS for politically incorrect indecency when Janet Jackson's right breast was partially exposed during a Super Bowl half-time show. Instead of being an example of how our bodies aren't something to be ashamed of, the fine per indecency violation was hiked from $27,000 to $325,000 after this incident. Additionally, as this movement progressed, an idea gained traction that critique of religion was automatically offensive.

As Sam Harris eloquently articulated in Letter to a Christian Nation, making religious critique taboo has a number of ill effects. Some nations have gone so far as to ban such critique and reinvigorate horrific blasphemy laws. A legal system can protect people from harassment and other types of mistreatment, but attempts to legislate niceness not only won't work, but more importantly such attempts will infringe upon our critically important freedom to think.

The political correctness movement also went too far in its over-analysis, such as construing any tall slender objects as phallic and therefore anti-woman or considering dark language around antagonists in stories to be inevitably racist. This kind of excess gave birth to a number of humorous parodies like calling failure "differed success" or calling ugly "visually challenging." Such extremes (both real and fabricated) provided ample fodder for those with real prejudice to seek the ability to be immunized from criticism for their bigoted behavior.

Many of those leading the charge against political correctness argue against laws that create accessibility for the wheelchair-bound, against providing language options on official forms, against efforts to remove racial slurs from sports team names, and against protections in legislation like the Violence Against Women Act and hate crime laws. What do these drives almost always have in common? They are usually lead by the dominant group in society (white, male, Christian, heterosexual, etc.) against the efforts of those targeted by that group for discrimination.

The Religious Right is among the worst offenders in vociferously challenging the perceived evils of political correctness. Ironically, they do this while simultaneously creating their own sort of speech police. For them, it's OK to criticize minorities, but not for the Dixie Chicks to criticize U.S.-lead war efforts. And efforts to challenge the growing wealth inequality in this country get labeled class warfare.

It's time for a new push to do what's right in our everyday speech. It shouldn't be legislated and it doesn't need to be, but we can do better for ourselves. Here are Five Recommendations for a New Politeness.

1. Identify people in ways they prefer to be identified. This flows directly from the Golden Rule advice of treating people as they'd like to be treated.
2. State your opinions and critique with respect for the humanity of those with whom you might disagree. Politeness doesn't mean censoring the flow of ideas or even respecting your opponent's positions; just don't forget they're human, just like you.
3. Be sensitive to the fact that there are groups in this country that are faced with daily prejudice and discrimination. Being aware of stereotypes will help you avoid speaking as if you endorse them.
4. When you're in the majority group, and most everyone is in some aspects of who they are, consider giving ground once in a while to someone who isn't. Hit the brakes on your Beemer and let that minivan merge into traffic.
5. Take the time to inform those who aren't polite about the effects their words can have, and explain how they can get their point across in a more compassionate way.

With political correctness an irreformable term, and chivalry having its own baggage, perhaps we can learn to be polite without allowing it to hamper our ability to be opinionated. On this note we should remember that being polite isn't about holding your tongue when something needs to be said, rather, it is about expressing yourself and your ideas in a way that isn't needlessly negative.