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.

9 thoughts on “A plea for political correctness

  1. I cannot believe that you used the word retarded in polite company in what appears to be a non-humorous context. I wouldn't do that, and I am decidedly non-PC.As for the “undocumenteds” — I gleefully call them illegal aliens — it is a very complex issue. I promise you that the overwhelming majority of Mexicans who sneak into the U.S. are not doing so because they are desperate. I know quite a few of them, returned ones, and some are my relatives. They were not desperate. They have homes, family, a roof over their heads, plenty to eat, decent duds, nice cell phones and televisions, you name it. They go up north because they can, and they dream of major bucks.There is lots of economic opportunity in Mexico. Ease of starting your own business (far easier than doing so in the U.S.), lots of help-wanted ads in newspapers and online, trade schools, scholarships, etc. You name it, it's available here.That it's not taken advantage of more is a cultural issue. It ain't lack of opportunity. Mexico is a land of opportunity these days. And Mexicans should stay home, take advantage of it, and make Mexico better.


  2. Yea, using the R-word was pretty cloddish on my part. The vast majority of EVERYBODY who migrates to the US, including my family, does so to improve their lives and be able to buy a bigger TV and car that what they had in Murmansk or Krakow. With the incredible increase in the number of foreign-owned plants in Mexico, especially in places like Guanajuato and Queretaro, employing people for assembly etc. the pressure to go to the US has lessened, that's why I think the number of Mexicans emigrating to the US has dropped significantly. I think the U.S. needs immigrants, if nothing else to compensate for falling birth rates among the natives, and do nasty jobs the natives won't do. But before we do that we need to cool down the screaming and yelling and name-calling, and stop treating Mexicans and other migrants like vermin or disease carriers. Undocumented workers is a little stilted but it could help tone down the rhetoric.Onwards. Still waiting for rain.


  3. Anonymous

    Sometimes it is necessary to use plain and simple language. On immigration, we need to be totally honest.Not every thing turns out like it is supposed to. Most people head north with the intention of earning some money to buy a ranch or establish a business back home. But, they go to a dance and they meet a girl. The missus back home fades away in their mind. Pretty soon someone is pregnant, and they have another family here.Life in the US is interesting, but they still send money home to the old folks and the missus. But it is hard returning to visit when one doesn't have documents. The relationship grows even more distant.Hasta los esquincles se hacen gringos. Their children are festooned with weird tattoos. They don't seem to have that work ethic, and the drugs are a constant problem.Their kids in the US don't speak much Spanish, and their grand kids don't speak any, and worse, they don't want to learn. No body wants to go back to Mexico.Now we have about twelve million people trapped here without documents. Many are approaching retirement age, but that social security number they have been using belongs to someone else.Some how, we have to find a way to resolve this problem. Reagan did it with an amnesty, but that is not possible in today's political environment. I don't have the answer, but some one needs to come up with one.Robert GillPhoenix, Arizona


  4. Robert, I think you've painted Mexican immigrants with a firehose of stereotypes. I don't know what Mexican immigrants are like in Phoenix, but in Chicago we have hundreds of thousands, many of whom came up to work in the steel mills at the turn of the century. Like some other immigrants, some want to stay in the U.S.—that's no crime—but just as many want to go back home and retire in Mexico. I would think that legalizing the Mexican immigrants in the U.S. would be a first step to solving the immigrantion problem if nothing else to know who and where they are and how many are there. I agree there are not quick solutions. al


  5. Anonymous

    Al, You've fallen off of the “euphemism treadmill.” Once upon a time, “retarded,” which simply means “behind,” was the polite euphemism of the day, having replaced less savory terms like dunce, dunderhead, etc. In fact, I have a dear friend, a social worker, who retired from what was once called the Department of Mental Retardation (DMR) in MA, which has since been renamed Department of Developmental Services. The former name at least had the advantage that people easily grasped the organization's mission. Now it's entirely unclear. So the euphemism treadmill means that once people grasp what a term really means, it becomes unusable and must be replaced with some other, preferably vaguer euphemism. But a sad fact is that there are certain things or conditions that simply are undesirable. No one wants to be mentally disabled, physically handicapped, or anything other than physically fit. And no amount of Orwellian “newspeak” is going to change that underlying truth. So when people figure out the term, it takes on its true meaning, which is to say something undesirable. And then a new term must be found.By the way, “undocumented worker” is more pernicious as it makes it all sound like some kind of innocent paperwork error, rather than illegally entering a country in violation of its laws to work illegally. The latter is really the truth of the matter, which “newspeak” won't change. I personally think we need an amnesty of some kind, but let's call a spade a spade. Saludos,Kim GRedding, CAA place which is geographically challenged. I'll leave it up to you to figure out what I mean by that. P.S Check this out: http://bocktherobber.com/2008/08/cripples-retards-and-politically-correct-euphemism/


  6. My point is, and perhaps I didn't make it very clear, that it doesn't help a civil society for its members to call each other demeaning or derogatory names. When you call people faggots, ragheads or retards you are dismissing them as lesser human beings. It's not nice or useful for anyone regardless of the subject of the debate. As for immigration, we need to follow four steps or principles:1. Treat immigrants as human beings worthy of respect and even kindness. Right now we have a case of a high school junior who faces deportation because he doesn't have any papers. What purpose does that serve? What's the point?2. Need to have a Reagan-like amnesty program, leading to legal residency and eventually citizenship to those undocumented immigrants who are deemed qualified. This allows you if nothing else to do a head count and make sure they are paying taxes etc. instead of slithering around under the boxspring.3. As a nation, we need to recognize and publicly declare—as a matter of national principle—that immigration has historically been a tremendous plus to the U.S. and continues to be so, and stop the current business among the nuttier right wing of bashing, defaming and harassing immigrants as a matter of politics.4. The US as a country has the right and obligation to patrol its borders to control who goes in and out. Migration to the US is not an international human right.Maybe you could rearrange my three points if you disagree with my priorities, but they should be the basis of a policy on immigration. Mexico awaits you.


  7. Anonymous

    Hola Al, My point was not that it's good to call people derogatory names. Rather the point was that attempts to sanitize the undesirable leads inevitably to the new, sanitized term becoming seen to be derogatory. And so, a theoretical Rip Van Winkle, attempting to be nice, ends up insulting everyone as the vocabulary has moved on while he slept. As for immigration, don't confound illegal entry with immigration. They are not the same thing. I think America still largely supports the latter, but is increasingly fed up with the former. As for treatment, I think on the whole, Americans treat immigrants quite well. For example, when people become citizens, there's a ceremony they can attend for swearing-in. Local news stations still occasionally cover them, and the reporting is quite positive. I saw one on the local news here in my small-town, hick-ish market within the past week, and the tone of the coverage was overwhelmingly positive. Also consider this. I used to work for an Italian guy (at the US subsidiary of an Italian bank). My boss, Marco, marveled at how anyone could become an American and be treated equally with every other American. “This could never happen in Italy,” he said. Sure, you might become a citizen, but no one would ever consider you to have become Italian, and you’d always be somewhat separate from society. And I'd wager that that Italian attitude is probably pretty much the norm in most of the world, at least in the non English speaking parts. So I think Americans treat bona fide immigrants quite well. But there's less and less tolerance for illegal border-crossers, and a growing level of skepticism about refugees from unstable societies. As for your numbered points, I pretty much agree with them. Point number two, sadly, is politically impossible, though everyone on Capitol Hill knows it’s the only real solution It’d also be the right thing to do. On point number one, it's hard to argue policy based on any individual case. If the kid came as a very young person, then yeah, he should stay, in my view. If he arrived six months ago, send him back. As for point three, I'd say that we need to focus on immigrants who are skilled, educated, and who can contribute. We could do a whole lot worse than set up a point system like they have in places like Australia, New Zealand, and other locales who encourage immigration that contributes to their societies. There’s less and less demand for unskilled labor in the USA, and we already have loads of low-skilled natives. No need to make the problem worse. Sadly, because the loads of illegals have somewhat poisoned the well, it’s hard in this country to have a rational discussion of policy regarding immigrants. And confounding immigrants with illegal border-crossers doesn’t help one iota. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Saludos,Kim G


  8. The immigration debate right now is poisoned with racist undercurrents, often manipulated by politicians, that make it very difficult to agree on rational solutions. “Rational” being a system that provides needed immigration, particularly when the locals are not reproducing quite enough (that includes you) to keep the population at a sustainable level. A rational system would respect and appreciate immigrants and their contributions. I've yet heard a Republican come out and says something like “immigration is good for the U.S.” or “the U.S. economy needs immigrants to keep growing.” And on and on. “Rational” is the key word here.


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