Pauza Magazine Winter 2008 - Page 9

The Politics of Correctness Lately, I’ve noticed that even the term “political correctness” is no longer politically correct. The go-to phrase is now “cultural sensitivity.” The culture being referred to can be racial, religious, age-based, gender-specific, occupational, nationalistic, heritage-based, physical, class-based, or “your-bias-here: _________.” The sensitivity refers to missteps that frequently occur in word, deed, thought, professional conduct, social interaction, perception, leadership, or tutelage. My question is this: Who defines cultural sensitivity? And exactly how do they delineat e the boundaries? The topic is subject to a wide umbrella of interpretation and supposition, with no reliable, codified rules from which to refer. Here are several obstacles I’ve been wrestling with in my attempt to come to terms with cultural sensitivity: We’re all uncommon, so have that in common… A culture is comprised of a large number of participants, each with his/her own definition of what constitutes an observation versus a slight. In any society, if an individual goes searching for insult or inaccuracy, he (or she!) will surely find it. You cannot imagine what it’s like to be me; you can only imagine yourself being me, and that’s not the same thing. Oftentimes, those who’ve appointed themselves arbiters of cultural sensitivity are positioned outside the culture they seek to protect and are therefore unqualified to pass judgment on the words and actions of others. An individual of Inuit descent is no better informed about the cultural taboos of a Laotian than a devout Shinto is knowledgeable about the sexual turmoil experienced by someone who is transgender. Predicting the unpredictable The universe of potential for misunderstanding is almost as vast as the universe itself. Terrorism is a scourge on humanity, in part, because there are simply too many methods for terrorists to strike. (Who could have imagined they’d target fuel pipelines leading to JFK Airport?) Similarly, the number of potentially insensitive moments in any given situation is incalculable. To err on the side of caution is admirable; to live in fear of offending is to lead a tethered and suffocating existence. We can attempt to predict dicey remarks, but for every situation we deflect, another will likely arise that we could not have predicted. The squeaky wheel gets the grease That is, one errant remark or behavioral gaffe may rub an individual the wrong way, but does that indicate deep-rooted callousness or hostility? Or could it be that the recipient is overreacting and, in so doing, setting in motion a chain of reactions among those who believe it their responsibility to safeguard sensitivity? One opinion, perhaps even a few, does not adequately represent the collective mindset of an entire populace. “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good…” Are intentions taken fully into account? The tendency to damn someone forever for an inadvertent slip has seemingly replaced our ability to shrug it off as an aberration. We insist upon holding larger grudges for longer periods. Why? Granting to others the benefit of the doubt should be our default mechanism, not our least attractive option. Perhaps some individuals will require patient re-schooling; most, however, merely need a gentle by Mark Ackerman reminder to consider the feelings of their audience. Those who genuinely intend to hurt others are few in number. Generalization, group-think, and guilt-by-association. An African-American who treats Latinos harshly does not represent the tendencies of all African-Americans. To proceed under that assumption would be both ignorant and presumptuous. When groups of any persuasion allow themselves to be guided toward erroneous, damning conclusions, the upshot is often a degree of distrust that rises exponentially as the tale is retold. A large quantity of misinformation can readily fuel hatred, and falling victim to common misperceptions without checking the facts can display a lack of initiative as well as poor judgment. The prejudicial equation is a simple one: one Jew + evidence of costconsciousness or thrift = all Jews are miserly. If these perceptions become ingrained in a culture, it becomes an awfully hard bell to un-ring. Grandstanding Grandstanding has been on the rise since political correctness gained a foothold in the collective conscious. There was no avoiding it: to deny or ignore issues of cultural insensitivity was—and is—to paint oneself as a transgressor with broad strokes. Another pertinent example comes to mind… In 1985, President Reagan visited West Germany and laid a wreath for fallen WWII soldiers in Bitburg Cemetery. A small number of Nazi SS officers were also buried there, however, and the grandstanders protested vehemently. I’m certain that the former president didn’t choose that particular cemetery for its smattering of Nazi graves; rather, his visit was predicated upon honoring the war dead, and all cogent people were aware of that. Those who found fault with Reagan’s activity were clearly ignoring his intention and concentrating instead on their own self-aggrandizement. The real issue—eulogizing those who were lost in a horrific global conflict—took a back seat to a non-issue. “Hello, Kettle? This is Pot. You’re black.” No, that’s not a racial slur. It’s an old adage along the same line as the one about glass houses vis-à-vis throwing stones. In short, I wonder whether the majority of acutely sensitive accusers are capable of turning the mirror toward themselves. And I’m concerned about those who wound at the slightest scratch: are they truly sensitive and compassionate or are they tetchy and irascible by nature? It seems as if those who demand tolerance and respect from others had better be overt with their own tolerance and respect in return, don’t you think? Conclusion: Cultural sensitivity is not a bad thing; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Any philosophy that advocates temperance and diplomacy over callousness and ignorance certainly will aid in the advancement of civilization. Bereft of the richness of a multi-cultural society, we become a bland, unremarkable humankind. But even ripe with diversity, we will remain a flawed species, albeit one that generally means well. Too many of us, representing a wide cross-section of roles, have lost sight of that simple fact. Skeptics should be directed to the excellent passage voicing a modest, yet applicable, request: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” winter 2008 -