donald-trumpPolitical correctness is getting a bad name. Throughout this presidential campaign, Donald Trump has insisted that political correctness was killing our country. Candidates generally choose their words carefully, but now, if they are too careful, they can be accused of being PC and contributing to our country’s demise. This has allowed some to say whatever comes to mind, regardless of how hurtful, disrespectful, or unconstitutional it might be. At least they’re not being PC.

“Political correctness” seems different today than a couple of decades ago. In the 1980s and ’90s, political correctness focused more on helping those of us in the majority to recognize and correct our cultural blindness. Men needed to become more aware of how we minimized women with language, whites had to recognize the damage our language perpetuated on people of color. Heterosexuals had to wise up about how our depictions of gays and lesbians were not only insensitive, but also harmful.

The purpose of being politically correct was to provide teachable moments to those of us in the majority about how our casual, and usually thoughtless language kept hurtful and harmful beliefs entrenched, perpetuating the cultural divide that minority groups saw clearly while those in the majority were blind to it. It was not about anyone or any group being thin-skinned or picky, it was about getting through the thick skulls of those of us in the majority.

The current focus on political correctness is quite different. We have moved from finding teachable moments to looking for “gotcha” moments. Teachable moments prompt discussion. Gotcha moments shut it down.

In a discussion of cultural differences several years ago, one of my colleagues, a Hispanic woman, confronted me on something I said. She was not accusatory, just observant. I was embarrassed. I got defensive. She responded, “I just need you to know what effect that has on me.”

I finally responded, “I’ve said that all my life without thinking about it. I had no idea it would be offensive to you. I’m sorry.”

That was it. She had been heard, I had learned, the discussion continued.

That doesn’t seem to happen much these days. There is little room to disagree and then continue to talk. When it comes to the hot topics of today, such as terrorism, gun regulation, abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage, climate change, disagreement rarely produces discussion. Instead, it generally leads to each side trying to outshout the other with the assumption, “I’m right and you’re an idiot.” No one hears or learns anything new.

college classIn politics, candidates are criticized for being too cautious. Ironically, on college campuses, professors must now be wary of not being cautious enough. Students and professors who introduce or discuss topics that might be upsetting to students run the risk of having a grievance or lawsuit filed against them. In a setting where the exchange of divergent ideas should be encouraged, in class and outside of class, there is little room for navigating between being honest and being seen as oppressive.

Political correctness does not have to be a sign of weakness or cowardice. Being careful not to offend a group of people is a sign that we are at least talking about something that is uncomfortable and important, and probably at one time unmentionable. Finding appropriate words with the intention of not offending someone is a huge step.

Being honest and genuine, speaking my mind while still being respectful and compassionate is a tough balance. It requires a level of humility and openness I am generally not willing to invest. I have to ask myself if I am just as willing to listen and learn as I am to speak and be heard? If so, I then have to keep my mouth shut and listen. Then I have to be genuinely curious about the other’s perspective. “Tell me more about…” “How did you come to that opinion?”

Only then can I expect them to take me seriously.

Words are important. They are our best tools for creating a world where we can all live together. The path toward compassion and respect usually begins with ignorance and then passes through a patch of awkward political correctness along the way while we find the words we need and the respect others deserve.