A priest, a rabbi, and a prostitute walked into a bar. The bartender said, “What is this, a joke?”
That bit would not play particularly well in a church or a synagogue. It might not even play that well in a blog. But here’s the point: Over the years, the acceptance of certain types of humor has changed. When I was a child, jokes about wives and mothers-in-law were common. In high school, we told Polish jokes. A few years ago, you might have heard blonde jokes. Yet, I think most of us would agree that these jokes are no longer politically correct. In other words, they are likely offensive, to someone.
The upside of political correctness is that it makes us think about the impact of our words and actions on others. The downside of political correctness is that it can prevent us from connecting and communicating with people who are different from us—which, by the way, is everybody.
Last December, I read that a college president had urged his faculty to not acknowledge any particular religion during the holidays. In other words, when television commercials, stores, and ugly sweaters were all advertising Christmas, this particular college’s professors were not going to talk about it—or any other religion’s practices. Bah humbug.
I appreciate the intent behind this president’s attempt at political correctness. We would not want the faculty to indoctrinate students with a particular religious perspective, especially considering the varied beliefs within a multicultural college environment. And let’s be honest, even we Christians get a bit worn out by the Christmas decorations that have been on display since September. But to avoid the acknowledgement of any particular religious belief is akin to ignoring a student’s culture, his family background, or her philosophical views. Faith, religion, or even the lack of any particular religious beliefs, is an important aspect of most people’s lives. We shouldn’t ignore a person’s belief system and pretend it doesn’t exist.
What I loved about my work in hospice care was that our team focused on the whole person. Each patient we served was a physical, emotional, social, and spiritual being. And in order to serve them most effectively, we not only had to be sensitive to each part of their being, we often had to address them. In social work, we refer to this as the “person in the situation,” meaning that you must understand the interplay of all of these qualities to truly understand the person.
This is where I think political correctness has been misinterpreted.
A common outcome of political correctness is that we avoid discussing certain differences so that we won’t offend anyone. However, when I worked in Southeast DC and was the only white person in my office, it would have been much harder for my colleagues and me to work together if we didn’t discuss the elephant in the room—my whiteness! Once we brought it into the open, we understood each other much better.
In the late 1980’s, diversity awareness programs often tried to teach us about the specifics of different races and cultures. The instructors would suggest that black people had certain tendencies or that Asian people displayed certain qualities. In other words, the wisdom at the time was that the better we knew the qualities of any group of people, the more accepting we would be of both our similarities and our differences. Talk about the pot calling the kettle Hispanic (or something like that).
Well, that approach ultimately failed because we realized that there are no universal tendencies within races and cultures. Oh, sure, there may be common characteristics within certain groups of people. For example, it is said that Southerners like ham biscuits and sweet tea. This may be true for some but clearly, not all Southerners like ham biscuits and sweet tea. And therein lies the key to diversity. We can’t assume we understand a person’s race, culture, or background until we really get to know them. And this is where political correctness has gone awry. We’ve gone from obliviously telling insensitive mother-in-law jokes to avoiding any discussion of race, culture, or religion. And what’s really wrong with a good mother-in-law joke? OK, I jest (as my mother-in-law types a list of the reasons).
When it comes to political correctness, telling an offensive joke is not the same as asking someone about their background, their family, or their faith. The following is a perfect example.
A few weeks ago when I was in Jackson, MS, I took a cab from my hotel to the airport. My driver was a 75 year-old African American man. As we talked about his background, he explained that he grew up in Mississippi but that Mississippi was not an easy place for a black man to live 50 years ago. So, he moved to California for most of his adult life but eventually came back. We then discussed how Mississippi has changed over the years, how churches differ in white and black communities, and a few other issues that were not so much related to race but to both of us as human beings. It was a rich conversation and when he dropped me off at the airport, we shook hands and thanked each other for the valuable time we had just spent together.
Since none of us is exactly like anyone else and since no one is exactly like us, we must get to know people in order to make a meaningful connection with them. By learning about others’ emotional, social and spiritual perspectives, we discover both the similarities between and the differences from our own perspectives and experiences. Political correctness does not mean avoiding religious discussions during December. I think it means that we must be sensitive to and accepting of the views of all of the people we encounter.
Diversity simply means that we live in rich world filled with a lot of different people. If we want to make that world richer, we just need to take advantage of our commonalities and build upon our differences. Oh, and it’s probably a good idea to avoid mother-in-law jokes.