As director of Teaching Tolerance, I’m used to being told that I’m “just so politically correct”—as if that’s a bad thing. Politically correct has become a pejorative label that allows the user to avoid really thinking about the power of words or about human decency.
I read two sets of reader response comments this week that made me ponder how to get people to stop, think and really hear the words they're saying. The first related to a New York Times story about renewed attention being given to the name of the NFL football team that calls Washington, D.C. home (you know the name), and Suzan Shown Harjo, the American Indian woman who has spent the last 40 years trying to end the use of Indian mascots and team names. The comments were predictably dispiriting, including the usual arguments: “The name is a tradition,” “Calls to change it are just political correctness run amuck” and—most troubling—“If the majority isn’t offended, it’s not a problem.”
The other comment was made in response to Teaching Tolerance’s post about partnering with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to present a webinar on the “December Dilemma.” We mentioned on our Facebook page that the webinar would address “religious diversity in the classroom.” A commenter replied: “Hopefully, we will see plenty of tolerance during the Christmas season for Christians who want to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior ... or will we see the intolerance of people claiming to be ‘offended’?”
“Claiming to be ‘offended’”? Wow. Way to show respect for other people, ma’am.
These comments give rise to the question: How do you begin to talk to people who reject the legitimacy of other people’s thoughts and feelings?
This pondering led me to think about a leaf from my father’s 1926 elementary school autograph book that I’ve had framed. The entry is a 19th century verse passed along by his mother, a woman I never knew:
If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek,
Five things observe with care,
To whom you speak,
Of whom you speak,
And how, and when, and where.
My father followed that advice throughout his life, but I’m not sure it plays well to a modern audience. So what are some rules, or things we can “observe with care,” that might work today? I’ve come up with three (none of them original to me):
- The “Kid Litmus Test.” In discussing the NFL team name controversy, columnist Maureen Dowd quoted sports writer Christine Brennan of USA Today: “Try explaining and defending the nickname to a child. It’s impossible.” This seems like a reasonable litmus test for any of us: Before using a term, just stop and think about how you’d defend it to a child. If you hesitate or cringe even a little bit, don’t use the term.
- The “Would I Say It to Their Face?” rule. You think a nickname like “redskin,” “raghead “or “yid” is OK? Ask yourself if you would use it when speaking to an American Indian, Sikh or Jew. If the answer is no, don’t use it. If the answer is yes, these rules probably won’t help you.
- The “Stepping on Someone’s Foot” paradigm. If you happen to offend someone by telling an insensitive joke or using a derogatory nickname, apologize. Don’t suggest they shouldn’t be “offended” or explain that you didn’t mean it. It’s just like stepping on someone’s foot. Understand that the little yelp of pain is real, that your foot intruded into that person’s space, and apologize.
If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek, these three things observe with care.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.