I distinctly remember the first time I heard the term “politically correct.”  It was in East Lansing at the Peanut Barrel, circa 1989.  I was talking to an attractive young woman who was apparently smitten with Mitch Albom; she thought it lovely he was also “politically correct.”  It was clear I should know what she meant, so the phrase couldn’t have been brand new, but I believe it was still fairly fresh.  If I have ever flirted with political correctness it was that day.

In Stage One, political correctness was a new and nifty shorthand way of indicating that one observed all the liberal pieties, like a gang-banger flashing symbols or wearing his colors.  It was a proudly worn badge.  But like anything new and nifty, it was overused.  Eventually, conservative wags noticed this usage and started making fun.  Before long, pious liberals stopped referring to themselves as “politically correct."

In the second stage, it is the critics of political correctness who use the term to identify outrageous instances of the politically correct mind set in action.  When Lincoln Chafee renamed the Christmas tree in the Rhode Island capital building a “Holiday tree,” we cried out, “Political correctness has run amok!”  We are still in this stage, although a new and insidious form is emerging, which I call Stage Three political correctness.

Let me set the stage with a question: what has happened to political correctness now that it is widely criticized, and no one claims it any longer?  Has it disappeared?  Hardly!  No, the politically correct now simply deny that they are politically correct.  They avoid the label like Michael Moore avoids the gym.  The politically correct now promote political correctness as an unfortunate necessity, thanks to the very ubiquity of political correctness.

Do you see how insidious this is?  It’s a full blown fait accompli!  They say, in effect, ‘you are SO right, political correctness is everywhere!  What are we to do?!’ they plead.  ‘We would love to call it a Christmas tree, but thanks to political correctness, we may be sued!’  At the very least, feelings may be hurt, or worse, offense could be taken.

This was crystallized for me as I tried to prevent my daughter’s graduation from being ruined.

As high school valedictorian (three girls with the same GPA shared the honor) my daughter was to speak at commencement.  She struggled writing her speech, and asked for my help.  I suggested starting with a joke, and helped her find one:

"An old man went to the Doctor complaining that his wife could barely hear. The Doctor suggested a test to find out how bad the problem was. "Stand far behind her and ask a question, and then slowly move up and see how close you need to be before she responds"  Excited to have a plan, the old man hurries home and finds his wife preparing supper. "Honey," the man asks from about 20 feet away, "whats for supper?" After receiving no reply he tries again, 15 feet away, and again no response.  Ten feet away, still no response. Finally, 5 feet away, he asks again, "honey whats for supper?"

She replies, "For the FOURTH time it's lasagna!"

Prior to the ceremony an assistant principal reviewed drafts of the speeches and told my daughter that the joke in her speech was offensive.  The joke ABOVE...is offensive???

It turns out, “Old man” is offensive.  Also, the hearing impaired may be offended.  And it is probably sexist (which is offensive) to find the wife home making supper.  The adviser suggested Hannah, my daughter, needed to put herself in others' shoes.  She thought Hannah should replace the joke with a story about having had a temper tantrum as a little girl, because she wasn't being heard.

I wanted to see what the principal thought, so I sent him an email and shared the joke; I also let him know we’d found it in a collection of jokes for public speakers, and then added:

“I'm having a very difficult time seeing how this is in any way offensive.  Do you have written standards that govern this sort of thing?  If you'd do, I'd like to have a copy of them.  Or is this subject to the arbitrary decision of the adviser?  Either way, I'm very interested in your judgment.  I hope you'll agree that this is quite innocuous and perfectly acceptable in a commencement speech.”

He replied in part:

“I have read the quote in question and on the surface it doesn't seem offensive.  I would guess that the fact it references the elderly and a disability, and that both will most likely be represented in the audience during graduation, that Mrs. Murphy is trying to avoid any sense of insensitivity,  especially if the joke isn't heard clearly and thoroughly.  I can meet with Mrs. Murphy tomorrow and with Hannah as well to resolve this.  I know it seems ridiculous but we have to operate in a politically correct world, sometimes to a point that the meaning is lost.”

“…BUT WE HAVE TO OPERATE IN A POLITICALLY CORRECT WORLD…”  I.e. 'We would NEVER impose a standard of political correctness, but our hands are tied!  We are awash in political correctness!'

In reply, I asked to be involved in the meeting with my daughter.  Instead, the principal called me and said that after speaking with the assistant principal, they agreed that removing the word “old” from the description of the man would make the speech just fine in their view.  My daughter was happy to have the matter resolved, but agreed to let me follow up.  In addition to thanking him for his help in resolving this delicate issue, I also wrote:

“I must say, I'm still not happy with the way this was handled by Ms. Murphy.  It would have been nice if she had suggested this simple fix to improve the speech.  Instead, from what I understand, she addressed this in front of a group of students (Ms. Murphy regretted not being able to do it in private) and rather than your diplomatic approach, she suggested Hannah needed to put herself in others' shoes.  She thought Hannah should get rid of the joke entirely and instead use a story about having had a temper tantrum as a little girl, because she wasn't being heard.  It seems to me political correctness is the standard Ms. Murphy employed, rather than a regrettable outside force one needs to take account of, as it is for you.”

Stage Three political correctness, you stand exposed!

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