Monday, August 11, 2008

Political Correctness Gone Amuck!

I thought this article in today's Globe and Mail was really interesting, so I'm reprinting it here. As I've long held a reputation myself for being like that kid who knows a naked emperor when he sees one, I know firsthand what it's like to be roundly condemned for speaking truthful but unpopular views. I think Ms. Cohen is right on the money with her assessment of these times we live in:

From Monday's Globe and Mail
August 11, 2008 at 3:38 AM EDT
So, did you hear the one about the guy who pushed the envelope while thinking out of the box, and kept a whole lot of agenda items on his radar until he got rid of the low-lying fruit?

You did? Were we at the same meeting? Probably not. But you could have easily heard the same generic tunes at any number of meetings throughout the country. An actual, productive exchange of ideas in many business forums has been gradually usurped by a steady diet of mind-numbing jargon. Who among us has not been at a meeting where legions of employees around the table try to stifle their giggles as increasingly trite and outrageous gibberish reaches our ears and insults our brains. But is this just a work annoyance or does the use of jargon have any implications outside the workplace?

The trend away from honest conversation in the workplace has its roots in a more generalized climate of politically correct discourse. At first glance, it appears to be a relatively benign practice. However, this phenomenon should be viewed in the larger context of words and expressions being continually evaluated and re-evaluated for their potential to offend groups and individuals.

People are so terrified of potentially offending others that language becomes a mockery of itself. While we might joke that someone is follicularly challenged instead of "bald," or vertically challenged instead of "short," these types of expressions move us further away from the facts and into conversations and relationships that are based on a discourse reminiscent of walking on eggshells for fear of offending others. That is not to suggest that one must be honest to the point of being hurtful, but surely there is some need to develop a workplace and political discourse that is both respectful and truthful.

A culture of fear has permeated political conversation in Canada as well. Though freedom of expression is enshrined in Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, on an individual level, one is increasingly aware that political or religious positions that deviate from the unofficially sanctioned politically correct party line makes for ideologically dangerous living.

How did this happen? Can the average Canadian take back freedom of expression without fear of career or social retribution and shunning? Is it possible to nurture a more genuine political and social discourse or will we be forever doomed to repeat regurgitated pleasantries and clichés and obfuscate facts in order not to offend?

In order to reclaim honest conversation, baby steps must be taken.

Truly enlightened employers, managers and employees alike can make efforts to move away from jargon and back to a lexicon of clarity. A general caveat is that by the time "street" slang is used by middle-aged parents ("gee son, that's phat"), much to the chagrin of their teenaged children, it's clearly no longer cool. Similarly, by the time business jargon moves from the web to the boardroom, you can be sure it's just as dead and useless.

In the broader scheme of things, individuals can encourage their elected officials to repeal Section 13.1 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, that labels it a "discriminatory practice" to communicate messages that are "likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt." In real life this amounts to speech that is "likely" to offend someone at some point. We need to collectively buck up, stop whining and allow the appropriate bodies to intervene only when speech becomes a threat of physical violence or incitement (call the cops) or libellous (call your lawyer).

In the meantime, the next time someone tells you to get your ducks in a row, going forward, how to inform the discussion, or what struck them most about what-ever, take a deep breath, take a bold step forward and politely demand clarity. You could be pleasantly surprised at the result.

Laura Rosen Cohen is a Toronto-based writer


Ian said...

I think its all a bit easy for people to take pot shots at the more extreme views associated with a group or movement.

There are people at the edge of any group who push things to far, Muslims who blow themselves and others up, Christians who shoot doctors who perform abortions, Animators who believe we should only make one kind of animation or what ever. The loons have to end up somewhere, its a statistical fact. The vast majority of people who care about political correctness only want what Laura described as reasonable herself, “That is not to suggest that one must be honest to the point of being hurtful. “

I'm in Australia, today I saw a bumper sticker in the shape of my country with, “F@*k Off We're Full”written across it. Because I desire a country where that sort of thing doesn't happen, doesn't mean I'm responsible for dorks in the board room. As for those dorks who try ineptly to keep up with jargon (web, PC or street), there were plenty of dorks around before political correctness and there will be plenty after.

Raff said...

I think a lot of what we're seeing right now is still part of an ongoing experiment that started in the US in the 60s.

JFK got shot, the drugs came in, and people said "You know what? We've still got unfair treatment of innocent people, we've still got war, our parents are miserable, and where's this God character anyway? This whole Family Values wholesome lifestyle thing isn't working. It's WRONG. Time for an overhaul." From that point on, it became a heinous crime to be WRONG, to be Archie Bunker, lest you stand in the way of Liberation.

Later, the whole movement morphed and mushed into a set of superstitions - "Can't be racist! Can't be sexist! Can't be homophobic!" - that turned Generation X into a mob of sexless, mumbling shoegazers.

Now we're occupied by machines and sharing bland, awkward discourse about....not much, eh?

All this is just my theory, since I wasn't there to see it all unfold, but I think that all that's left of the experiment of the 60s is the habit of disagreeing with any authoritative statement.

Steve said...

As a citizen of the US, I thought we had the corner on overblown political correctness. I also thought we led the world in rude bumper stickers. There's an irony in that somewhere.

Hey, let's not be too quick to judge this. We need jargon. It's the backbone of international business. Without jargon, The Wall Street Journal would be a one page flyer. Entire cable news networks would have to resort to running classic Warner Brothers cartoons. Corporate giants would crumble overnight.

Take the American auto industry, for example. Think what would happen if someone were to stand up in a board meeting at GM and say, "Hey people, I figured out why our sales are down. We make lousy cars." I can hear the horsemen of the Apocalypse now.

So I say we need to continue thinking outside the box. Our products are poised for the long tail. Our negative cash flow was the merely the result of a shift in the profit margin generated by the restructure of our retail distributorship in convergence with the acquisition of investor-related non-revenue generating capital expenditures. At the end of the day it's a win-win.

Have a nice day.

Ke7in said...

I'm a little confused by your post Pete. I do remember you being very open with your anime design critique, and I bet you know that whenever you do that, you become instantly more popular with about a quarter of the students, and instantly become an idiot to the rest. I for one very much enjoyed your critique of the state of anime, as well as traditional Saturday morning cartoon design (not to mention 12 oz. Mouse)

But I do also remember your views on comedians, like your latest post after Carlin died. I can't be sure but I thought I remembered you talking about some more adult movies or television shows with the same hesitation. It seems like you're all for being open and without hesitation when the discussion is "clean." But if the subject is a little more adult and is discussed with the same frankness, it is deemed shocking, harmful or obscene. Obviously there is a time and place for any discourse, but I can't see why you or society in general draw those lines.

Thad said...

I work in Pittsburgh's southside, and whenever I am waiting for the bus to go home, I swear I am in Alabama (sorry, Carville). About five prime (and ripe) specimens of white trailer trash are there, one woman talking of how she just was released from rehab, and then all of them partake in this long conversation about how dope kills men's sex drives ("Not for me, heheh!" exclaims the greasy man sitting next to me). I think anal sex came up twice, but I was trying to not pay attention by playing Tetris on my cell phone.

Had a child been present, I'd have just told them all to shut their welfare traps.

So, sorry, I am in favor of "time and place" in regards to certain conversations in real life, particularly in the presence of those I don't know.

Pete Emslie said...

Hi Kevin,

As an instructor, I feel that it's important to be discerning and offer up a critical opinion of those things in the animation industry that I believe to be mediocre or just plain bad (like "12 Oz. Mouse"). If we are all led to believe that everything is great, then how do we keep the bar raised high? Whenever I am critical, however, I will always back it up with an analysis of why I don't think something works and will offer up a solution.

In regard to my feelings on today's standup comics, it's true I don't think much of the ones whose routines are mostly sex jokes and profanity. Don't get me wrong, as I think that George Carlin was a brilliant guy, but I preferred some of his more cerebral musings over his more famous "7 words you can't say on TV". It's not that I'm a prude, however, and I don't find standup comic profanity or blatant sexual innuendo on TV sitcoms offensive so much as I find it boring. I just feel that it's the easy way out, when the TV shows of my youth struck me as far more creative and clever in the writing. A show like M*A*S*H had some sexual innuendo too, but it was slyer and incorporated into far more witty, clever scripts that actually had something to say about human nature.

Ke7in said...

Just want to clear something up Pete, I was applauding you for your discussions of the state of character design, as you were very honest about what was wrong with it, and backed it up by giving examples of what would improve it, or showing something that was better.

pappy d said...

"People are so terrified of potentially offending others that language becomes a mockery of itself."

We can't look to language to do our job for us. No wondr young people don't know what to mock.

Anonymous said...

It's easy for Catholic School higher-education (read: rich kids who move to others' towns to go to College and University) Canadians like Thad to think he's so above the way lower class and blue collar men talk.

I take pride in knowing I can tell people to fuck off at my job all the time and make racial jokes and get racial jokes told about me, to my face, where everyone laughs. The joys of grocery night crew.