Political Correctness (a repost from 2005)

Published in 2005, long before Portlandia…

If you have ever listened to Dandy Warhols or listened to Damali Ayo talk about Portland types, it’s clear that I am not alone in noticing Portland types are often a sort of..different.

I say this with love, I am a Portlander and I work with Portland “types”.  Recently I have had a couple instances at work where I would like to smack a chunk of rebar against the head of a co-worker.

What is my problem? Political correctness.

I went to The Evergreen State College, which is Washington’s public version of Reed college. I was quite young (17) and I took on and lived in a set of beliefs that exalted political correctness for a long time.  I still think it is important to be sensitive, lest one reveals the limited-ness of their own experience.

And I am not criticizing those who would aspire to something higher than the racism/sexism whatever -ism as usual, however I do believe that political correctness is a little disingenuous–it’s like covering a bad odor with air freshener. It lacks honesty, we must all walk a little stiffer knowing that we might have some not right thinking somewhere lurking in our brain about some people group. Whether it’s the transgender community or Chukchi indigenous of the far north or the immigrant population or the housewives, Presbyterians or gypsies or whoever.

In political correctness, we don’t actually change our opinion of people groups we don’t understand–educate ourselves, seek to understand, we just don’t say anything bad to their faces and we try not to say anything bad about them period, no matter what we think. And naturally we don’t discriminate against them. Isn’t this the very definition of disingenuous?

Let me paint a picture.

A group of people out for a jovial lunch, they work together.

To break a large bill, amid many conversations the Lyubov (she is from the Ukraine, a great helper with Russian and Ukrainian speakers, but very first country national) is speaking with an older spouse of a co-worker who is joking with her about the money exchange so as to shortchange her, she is laughing and says “What, are you trying to Jew me down?”

Sudden silence falls, but she still laughs and he exchanges with her. She doesn’t really notice, and all goes on.

One of the members of the group is Jewish (he married a Jewish woman), not orthodox, and to what degree they practice is unknown. But it is instantly acknowledged that this Ukrainian immigrant woman is racist, though she was born in the Ukrainian countryside in a culture that has no idea of what political correctness is. More than likely, she may be totally unaware that what she has said was racist. In fact, a visit to this area of the world will reveal that the population at large is mostly peasants.

And now, at work, she is treated with a sort of silent acknowledgement that she is a bad racist.  Because she hasn’t really been sensitized to how what she said was inappropriate (she lacks a western liberal higher education).

Do two wrongs now make a right? Those who would consider her racist have no idea of this woman’s background/education. Those who would purport to be empathetic or politically correct forget that there is a big world out there where people don’t get a liberal education teaching them concepts like political correctness. Lyubov hasn’t had the chance to choose to not be a racist, much less had the opportunity to go to college, do we judge her for that?

While her comment was if not at the very least ignorant, and at the worst, very racist, remember, the civil rights movement never happened anywhere but in the US…only here. The rest of the world lives in a state where racism just IS–for worse.

So, now there are two wrongs, she is wrong to make an anti-semitic comment. And all her coworkers, who are also her superiors in this situation, have discredited her as a racist, which is culturally normative from where she comes. They are also guilty of *cultural insensitivity*, for having no understanding of the cultural context in which Lyubov was born educated and lived in most her life.

Doesn’t it work both ways? Or do we only concern ourselves with political correctness that fits in with what we know…it is impossible to have the level of sensitivity necessary to be 100% PC short of making it one’s life’s work?

I might have a slightly different perspective on this, as I had a friend from Sudan while I was living there (Russia) who told me stories of kids throwing rocks at her for her skin color, not to mention the open racism pretty much everywhere she went, from the store, post office and in class…  I strongly empathize with people coming from other countries to the US.

Another little one. One coworker notices another got a haircut, in fact, got their head shaved. In a moment of joking one asks “Hey hair looks good, but for a sec I thought the gypsies ran away with it” Other coworker doesn’t laugh. The gypsies have just been insulted.


Disingenuous. On one level noble, on another, nonsensical. Power comes into play here, the gypsy comment comes from a blue collar worker, the rejection from a white collar worker. What about the blue collar guy who never learned all this stuff– and now has been insulted by the white collar guy? So we saved the gypsies at the cost of what? Insulting the guy on the lower level of the power echelon?

These are just things that happen around me.

As a person who follows teachings of Jesus, I have worked or lived in environments where my religion has been viewed as everything from “quaint” to “archaic” to “idiotic” and “mindless”. Actually, I didn’t feel like I was being discriminated against. That was just life, and yes, I recognized those environments as “hostile”. I am not saying it is ok, but to me, sometimes the whole world can be hostile, depending on how much you are willing to go out of your comfort zone.

Most often, people never bother to “get to know you” because that is just “too much trouble”.

And frankly, when “judged” for my religion, it told me more about the person doing the judging than anything else.

I am not condoning prejudicial behavior…talk radio liberally uses hate speech which will never be ok, because it is a catalyst for action. And action is where the line is crossed. Whenever it crosses from words to action focused against someone perceived as “different” and therefore “bad” there is a problem. When someone is blocked from what they pursue on a basis of their race, religion, gender, age, ethnicity, a problem arises. A social problem.

And so, I have ridiculed Portland types, but I think that what I was mostly annoyed with was this concept of political correctness. The notion is noble, important and contains good, but carried out, it, like so many other *ideas* become flawed by humanity and its’ limitations. I might even assert that I am looking forward to it’s demise.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. It leaves me wonder in seeking to Americanize this woman to the norms of her new environs, perhaps it would be best for someone to call her out, step out of their comfort zone and give her a “perhaps you don’t realize this phrase is very offensive.” PC or not her oversight needs some light shed on it.

  2. Heather says:

    You know, I thought to mention what a sweet gentle woman she is. That is why it was easy for me to forgive her, and I tried to think of a way to help her out by mentioning it, especially when she made another “blunder” in the PC way a different school year, but because I knew her heart, it was hard to say anything without feeling like I was “picking”, I guess in the end, I valued my friendship with her over venturing into dicey territory.

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