The Politics of
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
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?
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 -