Research and history tell us, over and again, that the highest priority for people the world over is FREEDOM. “Duh!” you say. I know — it’s intuitive, isn’t it?
Freedom generally means the inherent right or liberty to DO and BE and SAY almost anything, at least much more than what we’re prohibited from doing, being and saying. I think that’s as it should be. No doubt, there’s a lot of room for argument and adjustment of my over-simplistic definition. But it’ll have to do for this discussion.
Yet, some who cherish their own freedom nonetheless choose to curtail the freedoms of others by creating an artificial set of guidelines hashed together out of their own agenda or distorted sense of mission. Set aside, for the moment, national politics here, which is rife with such selective nonsense.
I’m just asking for honest and honorable discussion of the topic known as ‘Political Correctness.’ The term itself is faulty because it depends, from the outset, on an arbitrary set of rules determined by WHO? Which body politic?
Here are two of my recent personal touches with it:
In a group conversation I headed at work early this year, I quoted a friend with whom I had coffee the preceding day and whose statement had referred to a group of his friends whom he rolled into a composite definition, “friends, all Asians.” Important to note that he himself is a Japanese-American. My quote of his harmless comment was in a discussion of how to make ethnic and social diversity a more prominent feature of our non-profit organization’s mission and activities. And nobody seemed shocked or offended when I said it. Or did I misread something?
It didn’t end there. Immediately after the meeting I was gathering my notepad and coffee cup when I was called out by one of participants in the group, a young Caucasian woman who said, “You slurred Asian people by calling them ‘Asians.'” She wasn’t ugly about it, just matter-of-fact blunt.
“Really?” I said. “How?”
“By adding an ‘s’ you automatically denigrated the group as a whole,” she continued.
When I asked how I should refer to them other than ‘Asians,’ she said I should “call them ‘Asian people.'”
“That’s less insulting?” I queried. “Can you tell me how ‘Asian’ is offensive but your suggestion is not?” I genuinely wanted to learn.
“It is!” was her response. A take-it-or-leave-it approach. She shrugged her shoulders and left the room.
I didn’t — and don’t — buy it. And apparently my Japanese-American friend [incidentally much younger than I] didn’t buy it either, and he IS an Asian. One ‘Asian’ is okay, but two ‘Asians’ is not? One ‘black’ or ‘white’ would be okay, but not two? So by inference, one ‘American’ or ‘Canadian’ or ‘Mexican’ or ‘European’ would be perfectly acceptable for social reference to a certain person of a given people group, but not the plural of those same words? What is inherently insulting or denigrating or suspicious about making a socially acceptable singular become a plural?
As an aside, I understand that it is not always necessary to define another’s ethnic group in the course of general conversation. But when one is explicitly addressing ethnic diversity, it seems to fit. Isn’t there something positive implicit in a discussion about how to better include diverse people groups?
Complicate the topic with this: A common descriptor used in media and on the street when I lived in Southern California a few years back was ‘Hispanic,’ but some of that general people group objected, preferring ‘Latino’ or ‘Latina,’ depending upon gender. [NOTE: They were not wanting to be indistinguishable from other people groups, so were not complaining of being ‘singled out’ for disparate treatment.]
I saw no problem in the shift and went with it. But even ‘Latino’ or ‘Latina’ wasn’t specific enough for others there who insisted upon being identified by their country of origin — as in, ‘Costa Rican’ or ‘Guatemalan,’ etc. How am I to know where another is from if they don’t wear a flag or badge that quickly discloses that information? If they’re the only source of info immediately available, then I’m up the proverbial creek with a paddle and at risk of offending them.
And what about, e.g., Guatemalans [Guatemalan people?] who migrated from Ecuador, and so on? Are they ‘Guatemalans’ or ‘Ecuadorians’? If ‘Asian’ or ‘Asians’ is offensive for the same reason as ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino/a,’ then I guess I have to find out if the person is from Bhutan or Vietnam or Japan or China, etc.? And if from China, will they require further definition and want to be called a “person from Hong Kong” [Hong Kongian?] or “Taiwanese,” or will ‘merely’ “Chinese” do? Come to think of it, “Chinese” is both singular and plural, so I’m in deep kwatchy either way!
Maybe we need to refer to ‘Mericans as ‘Tennesseeans’ or ‘Indianans,’ ‘Washingtonians’ and the like. Is ‘Hoosier’ offensive? It should be, because it pokes fun at a people group for a particular figure of speech.
You’re picking up on the dilemma. So where’s my link to freedom?
Our culture of freedom in the United States is degrading with this insane insistence on parsing every word, every term, every phrase to make sure it doesn’t offend. When is enough enough?!
THE BIG QUESTION IS — What has been accomplished by this rigid insistence on formulaic standards of communication? Had it at all enhanced relationships or healthy communication?
Practicing kindness, sensitivity and respect of others and their ethnic, cultural, religious and personal differences is to be expected. But what is there about calling a group of people ‘Asians’ that dishonors them? It refers only to a specific region of the globe and is clearly not a disparaging name. If that usage is offensive, then why is it okay to refer to U.S. citizens as ‘American,’ since an ‘American’ may be any mix of dozens of ethnic backgrounds and from any of 50 states, not to mention Canada and the whole of Central and South America.
Now take a side trip with me to the desert southwest where I recently escaped for a few days of blessed sunshine and a reprieve from the incessant rains of the Pacific NW. I stopped in Flagstaff for a haircut as I traveled. Coincidentally, the barber was a Latino (more precisely, of Mexican birth, as he later revealed). His only customer when I walked in was a Caucasian [is “two Caucasians” offensive?] and the three of us were quickly engaged in a discussion that roamed far and wide, laughing, asking questions, being open and transparent. The Mexican barber stated openly, by the way, that he was “fine with, and accurately called, an Hispanic.”
So in walked a 30-something fellow with an accent that clearly identified him as a native of the British Isles. He sat down beside me to wait. The other three of us immediately engaged him in the free-flowing conversation around cultural and ethnic influences and uniqueness.
When he paused, I straight-out asked, “Where’s your home of origin?” There was no threat, edge or fear in my voice, there was a smile on my face.
“Ireland,” was his response.
“I’m a Scot,” I told him, and his demeanor quickly showed his puzzlement.
“With an accent like yours,” he said, “I’d have placed you from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”
“Yep,” I said, “but my ancestors were from Scotland.”
His reply was a classic display of humor: “Well at least you didn’t say you were ‘Scotch,'” he said. “You know, as in ‘I’m half Scotch; the other half is water!'”
Our four-way conversation exploded into a rollicking good time and included stories from each of us about the confusion and difficulties sometimes encountered in communicating with strangers today.
That’s my point: Pre-approved ‘Politically Correct’ speech is nothing more than prior restraint of speech. My right to say what I think, if offered within reasonable bounds of human decency, kindness and respect, should not be shackled by your opinions of what is permissible in your perfect world. I see no merit — and considerable damage — in an insistence that everyone conform to predetermined and arbitrary rules of social engagement, particularly where such things as inane regional references — and especially plural references to region of origin — are made out to be insulting, offensive, degrading and, therefore, politically off-limits. The many Asians I know are proud of their heritage, their culture and their traditions. There, I said ‘Asians’ again.
Must we focus what precious little time we give in conversation with others to the triviality of being careful to NOT say so many things?
Carpe diem. Vita brevis!
© June 2013, Michael E. Stubblefield. All rights to my original work reserved.