Letter to the Editor: Erik Honda on Political Correctness

By Erik Honda, Acalanes English Teacher

// I congratulate the authors of “The Negative Effects of Political Correctness” (March 21)

for what seems to be an authentic desire to find appropriate methods of discourse, through which they can engage with their more liberal classmates. However, their ignorance of their own privilege (i.e. white male privilege) interferes with their ability both to diagnose the problem and to offer solutions. As a fellow white male still suffering the lifelong effects of privilege blindness, I thought I’d offer a couple of suggestions.

   First, let me acknowledge that the authors have one thing right; they correctly point out that political correctness is not a legal term, but a social one–it is more about politeness than it is about politics. Manners are not a legal issue, but manners matter a lot in terms of how others perceive us.

   Having established that important principle however, the authors then backtrack. The chain of reasoning they then follow toward their claim–that political correctness interferes with free speech and rational dialogue–is flawed, because they don’t address the sort of discourse that is usually labeled politically incorrect. Their sole example of what they claim is a politically incorrect statement is a statistic derived from a poll of British Muslims. I am not sure what the opinions of British Muslims have to do with discourse in the United States, but in any case the authors are mistaken that the speech they describe is politically incorrect–provided that a statistic is derived from an unbiased, scientifically sound source (a high bar), it can be considered a fact, and facts cannot be politically incorrect. Facts are not rude or impolite, facts are facts.  Politically incorrect speech is not about facts, but about terms and tone. Tone in presentation often has to do with the speaker’s lack of awareness of his privilege.

   Let’s put on the table what we all know. Politically incorrect speech is most often misrepresented as a joke, most often “told” by white males. It is speech that demeans women or members of minority groups. It is “locker room” talk, to coin a recently overused phrase. Since the authors fail to give any local examples, let me provide a few.

   Holding a “Wigga” party where white boys wear Afro wigs, dress “ghetto,” and some appear in blackface; making rape jokes in front of survivors of sexual assault; gluing a quarter to a desk, and then telling a Jewish student to try to pry it off, because “You know you want it”; dressing a student of color in a sombrero and having him do a fake Mexican accent for a school video promoting “school spirit”; freshman boys giving each other Nazi salutes in the halls of their high school; a group of boys prodding a female Jewish classmate to laugh at Holocaust jokes; one student regularly asking a Muslim classmate if she has a bomb in her backpack. All of these incidents have occurred in our district or nearby ones over the last couple of years.

   There is a legal debate to be had over whether any of these incidents are protected under the first amendment–some of them doubtless are. But I hope we can all agree that they are (at the very least) impolite, and that they do nothing to advance what the authors say is their goal–open and rational dialogue.  People who do things like the above are not trying to have open and honest conversations with members of minority groups, they are trying to humiliate them. If you know anything about Milo Yiannopolous, the fact that the authors cite him as an example of a politically incorrect person whose free speech rights were curtailed, and claim that he had “no intention to be harmful” does much to highlight the authors’ lack of understanding of both intent, and harm.

   In my experience, when white men make impolite (politically incorrect, rude, nasty, intolerant, racist, or sexist) statements and then get called on it by women or people of color, their reaction is often indignant: first an insistence that they didn’t “intend” to be rude (see above), and then a countercharge–“Are you saying I’m racist/sexist?! That really hurts me. I’m offended by that.”  It then sadly often follows that women and people of color find themselves having to apologize to the white man for having hurt his feelings–the victimizer becomes the victim.  From what I’ve seen, the “special snowflake” is not the overly sensitive minority (as the right-wing media has it) but the endangered species of the entitled white boy. A scenario like this played out recently at a leadership summit in our district as well.

   I am sympathetic to the authors. Having been raised in a bubble of privilege not that different from Lafayette, I have made my share of politically incorrect comments and have felt hurt and offended when people pointed them out to me.  In fact I still get called out on a regular basis for not recognizing my own privilege (by my wife–thanks honey), and sometimes that is painful.  But I try to treat it as a learning experience.

   So that’s my advice. The next time somebody points out that you are being politically incorrect, just take a moment to think about what is being said; instead of getting hurt and then angry and defensive, and insisting on your free speech rights, just think. Think about what you have said, and the implications of it. Think about how you might feel if you weren’t a member of the dominant majority, but of the embattled and oppressed minority. Think about it.

   Then learn some manners, and grow up. If mutual respect and healthy dialogue is really what you want, it takes some give on your part as well. You don’t get to define the rules of the road, and to say what is hurtful and what is not, just because white men have been doing that for the last several hundred years. Times have changed, and now you only get one vote in the conversation. The answer we have to reach together.

Mr. Honda is an English teacher at Acalanes, and the chair of the district’s Diversity Committee.  If you would like to know more about the Committee, send him an e-mail at ehonda@acalanes.k12.ca.us

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