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Political Correctness

April 30, 2009

Political correctness. At first blush, it seems like an okay sort of idea. Most people will agree that it’s just not nice to run around offending people all the time. But in practice, it gets a bit ridiculous. You can’t call this group of people by this name, or you can’t greet this other group of people with this phrase. And Heaven forbid you show that image to that group of people! The burden of responsibility gets shoved onto the speaker, and the listener has license to take offense at the tiniest perceived slight. One offensive word is replaced with a euphemism which, in the end, really means the same thing. Pretty words are bandied about and all the real issues get shoved under the rug to fester. Are we really accomplishing anything, other than making people walk on eggshells all the time? And this trend, along with the mentality behind it, is showing no sign of slowing down.

Right now, I’m reeling at the news that Israel is re-naming “swine flu” as “Mexican flu.” Why? Because it’s distasteful to utter any pig-related word. That’s right. Now, it’s one thing for Kosher and Halal laws to declare pigs to be ritually unclean and unfit for consumption. And it’s perfectly reasonable, within that belief, to think of pigs as being bad in general. Correct me if I’m wrong, though, but isn’t disease also a bad thing? Since when was it offensive to call a bad thing a bad thing? And of course this re-naming is offensive to Mexicans. Well, if we can’t name the disease after its origins, whether biological or geographical, what can we call it that’s nice and inoffensive? Some have suggested “spring break disease,” after the method by which it’s being spread, but I believe chlamydia has already claimed that euphemism.

So many serious issues, so many sides to every issue, and so many people taking offense at how they’re dealt with. How do we keep everybody happy?

Well, maybe the problem with political correctness isn’t that it’s gone too far. Maybe it hasn’t gone far enough. Let’s take it as far as it can go. Anything that’s the least bit controversial, let’s eliminate it from the public consciousness. I mean, we’re a pretty large and diverse crowd, and the larger the population overall, the greater number of minority groups whose toes we need to take care not to step on. We’ll fill the gaps with reality TV and other mindless, sanitized pap that will keep everybody vaguely contented without having to think or worry too much about anything upsetting them. We’ll get rid of books that deal with dangerous ideas. We’ll get rid of TV programs that promote anything of substance. News programs will only talk about happy, fluffy things that will make people feel good about themselves. That way, everyone will be merrily ensconced in their own little cocoons, safe in the knowledge that they’re being protected from anything offensive or upsetting. There’s a war on? What war? That makes me sad, and that’s a bad thing. Let’s change the subject. Hey, did you see the latest episode of Popular Program? Can you believe what Popular Celebrity is wearing?

But will that be enough? We’d better work on leveling the playing field, so that people don’t have to be plagued with worry that they’re not good enough, or jealousy that others are better than them. It’s been said that all men are created equal, but that’s just not true. That guy down the street can run faster than you. Your co-worker can type faster than you. Some of your friends are smarter than you. You have some advantages that others don’t. Jealousy breeds anger and resentment. It’s hard to bring people up to higher levels (we don’t have the technology to realize Gattaca, after all), so let’s bring everyone down to a lower level. In addition to only teaching easy, simple facts that anyone can remember, let’s keep the smart people distracted with grunt labor so they don’t come off as smarter than anyone else. And while we’re at it, let’s keep active people occupied with sedentary busy-work so that they don’t outshine the less athletic among them. And let’s not forget naturally attractive people: We should forbid women from wearing make-up and make all of them shave off their eyebrows so that more homely people don’t feel intimidated by them.

Everyone’s happy now, right? There’s nothing left for anyone to be offended by. Offensive ideas are gone, offensive comparisons are removed. Oh, wait. This whole modest proposal is rather offensive, isn’t it? Well, for those of you who skimmed past the tags at the top of this post: Yes, I was being sarcastic, satirical. I took my ideas directly from Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury and Harrison Bergeron, by Kurt Vonnegut. (The scary thing about those stories is that we do have the technology to realize them. Certain aspects of Fahrenheit 451 have already come to pass in our society. Now that’s really scary.)

My point here is that not only is it impossible to avoid offending people, it’s the wrong way to go about remedying the situation. Rather than putting the burden of being perfectly inoffensive on the speakers, it’s high time the listeners started taking responsibility for their own responses. If I intentionally insult you, that says quite a bit more about me and issues I have than it does about you. And if I don’t mean to insult you, but you take it as a slight, then that says quite a bit more about you and the issues you have than it does about me. Either way, we’re getting nowhere. But we’re so thin-skinned, giving words more power than they ought to have, that we’re willing to get ourselves worked up over minutiae and make things into far bigger deals than they really are, often at the cost of dealing with issues that are more important.

If humanity wants to grow and move forward, we need to get our priorities straight and learn that you can’t communicate when you take away all the ugly words. Pretty words by themselves are pretty empty. It’s what we do, not what we say, that matters.

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