We just came through an election season during which the phrases “politically correct” and “politically incorrect” were used ad nauseam: the first to indicate a rigid adherence to language that offends no one in the least way, the second as a label for saying what you want, when you want, where you want, to whom you want. (Full disclosure: I’m recycling most of this blog post from one of my 5777 High Holidays drashot.)
Let me say up front that I’m n0t an absolutist when it comes to political correctness. Some of the reports I’ve read of college students having the fantods because someone spray-painted the name of a political opponent on a campus sidewalk or needing to be warned before a professor mentions a historical event that might upset them give me a swift pain. I mean, part of maturity is being able to deal with uncomfortable speech and subject matter.
I thought the kids in my generation who grew up with white privilege and enough money were sheltered, but we’re right off the streets compared to some of the students entering college today. By all means, nail the spray-painter for vandalism and suggest to instructors that they give students a heads-up concerning, I don’t know, graphic images and descriptions. But one of the reasons you go to college is to experience people who don’t necessarily think like you, to live outside a completely safe space. A demand for extreme political correctness, like extreme anything else, doesn’t make sense to me.
But the other end of the spectrum, the claim that a person’s right to say whatever he or she wants supersedes whatever discomfort that person’s words inflict, is much more dangerous in a civil society that’s becoming less civil with each passing year. Like many of you, I grew up with the jingle “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But language can hurt. It can kill, if it’s powerful enough to incite violence.
Even if language used isn’t used in a hostile, purposely hurtful way, it still can inflict pain. These are the faux pas, the “microaggressions” that I’ve seen described online and in magazines: small, often unthinking or even well-intended words or actions that make the recipient feel less-than. They can be based on race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender. They are everywhere, and whether or not you think they’re silly, trivial, or confusing, or someone is being oversensitive, these microaggressions are sincerely felt and should be acknowledged.
Many Americans take pride in being direct and outspoken, in contrast to other national cultures in which a veneer of obfuscation or politeness masks opposition. We have the right to say what we want and print what we want, and by God we’re gonna do just that. But there can be a very thin line between being outspoken and being tactless, between “telling it like it is” and lashon hara, which literally means “evil language” and represents not just malicious gossip but any derogatory speech about another person or group, even when it’s true.
Words are like a stone thrown into a still pond: the ripples flow out from the stone in ever-growing concentric circles that eventually go all the way to the water’s edge. Positive speech can carry someone through tough times. Negative speech can poison a relationship, with an aftertaste that lingers sometimes for decades. I know this because I have dropped such stones into the pond and, horrified, watched the circles spread.
This doesn’t mean you can’t ever advise, criticize, even rebuke someone. But your words can come from a place of love, not just self-righteousness or condescension, from real concern for the recipient, not just for your own agenda. It all comes down to thinking before you speak. Or hit Post or Send.
One of the easiest ways we can care for one another is to refrain from unnecessary speech that does harm to someone else; to point it out — kindly, lovingly — when it occurs; to develop enough empathy to imagine ourselves on the receiving end of what we say. Were everyone to do that, we would have a society that goes beyond civility to real understanding.
(If you recognize the creator of the cartoon above, please name so I can give credit.)