Sunday, June 11, 2017

A plea for political correctness

Though condemned by the Right and the Left, 

a bit more political correctness would benefit us all 

A couple of years ago, during a luncheon at an idyllic countryside restaurant outside San Miguel, I inadvertently dropped the "R-bomb", when I referred to mentally disabled people as "retarded." 

A good friend of ours at the table, who has a mentally disabled daughter, very gently, almost affectionately, stopped me and said, "Al, I so wish you wouldn't used that word. It's so hurtful for people like my daughter." 

She told me her daughter was disabled, mentally disabled, if you will.  

I appreciated the correction, and also that my lunch companion was such a good friend that she didn't take lasting offense at my thoughtlessness. 

But even then, the dismissive phrase "politically correct" flashed in my head, though just as quickly I realized the distinction was not an empty social artifice but a matter of being respectful—kind—to a person who was different from me and whom I hadn't even met. 

Indeed we have no right to say what other people prefer to be called. The notorious "n-word," for example, has been banned from polite vocabulary by those who are affected and stigmatized by it—African Americans. Comedian Bill Maher learned that recently. 

It's a tough habit to acquire that I by no means have mastered. Sometimes it requires a two- or three-second delay to rephrase a thought before I say it or hit the "Enter" key, or to consider what the other person is saying before dismissing it with my prejudices. 

On a national scale the lack of civic respect has turned political dialogue into something like a windshield shattered into a million pieces and which keeps us from seeing anything past our noses. 

The mutual respect required for a democracy to function has turned instead into a perpetual shouting match. 

During the last presidential election, "political correctness" became the epithet du jour at the Republican convention, angrily spit out from the podium as if it were a fish bone stuck in the speakers' teeth. 

On the other hand, unspoken smugness hung over the Democratic gathering, as aggrieved folks on the other side, such as unemployed blue collar workers, were dismissed as untutored yahoos or bigots. 

During the last few years of my mom's life in Chicago, I had an epiphany of sorts about the politically-correct advocacy for the physically disabled. 

I had grown to quietly resent mounting government expenditures—my tax money, goddamn it—to accommodate the relatively few people with physical disabilities, by installing lifts on buses and ramps and curb cuts on sidewalks and other measures to accommodate the wheelchair-bound. 

Then my mom ended up on a wheelchair. On an outing to the Chicago Botanic Garden, I came to appreciate it all—the ramps, wheelchairs, handicapped-accessible bathrooms and restaurants, no doubt costing hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars—without which my mom would not have been to enjoy this wondrous place on a Sunday afternoon.  

I appreciated the advocates' insistence that we do not shunt the physically disabled to the margins of society.  

In Mexico during the past two years, I have also learned to appreciate the issue of immigration to the U.S. from the Mexican side. 

I have met dozens and dozens of people—including our gardener Félix and two of his brothers—who have spent some time working in the U.S. without visas or other authorization. I would describe them all as desperate people trying to make a living, and none as threats to civilized society. 

Yet they are called "illegal aliens" by some, as if they were Martians who stole someone's parking space, or worse, "rapists," "criminals", to be lumped along with terrorists, radicals and other strangers into the category of "Other," whom we can feel free to demonize and abuse for political purposes. 

I'm all in favor of the U.S. having secure borders and an enforceable system of immigration, a project far more complicated than just building a wall or deputizing every Barney Pfeiffer in the U.S. to harass every brown-face they bump into.

We can start by adopting the politically correct descriptor, adopted by most major American newspapers, of "undocumented workers." 

It recognizes that these are people who with their labor keep large sectors of the American economy afloat—think meatpacking, agriculture, restaurants, hotels and nursing homes, among many others—and do so in our midst without our official permission.  

Defusing the issue of immigration by skipping the name-calling could help us do both, devise a more functional immigration system and recognize how immigrants benefit the rest of us with their labor. 

Perhaps there's room for a National Shut Up and Listen Day, to include even college campuses where opposing, usually conservative voices, have had hard time getting heard recently because someone's interpretation of political correctness won't allow it.

My definition of political correctness—respect and tolerance—would allow both, Ann Coulter and Bill Maher to say their piece. Those who choose, could go listen to them, politely. 

Those who can't stomach the thought, should ignore them. After all, being ignored is the one thing provocateurs hate the most.

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