I'll start this post with a disclaimer -- don't expect a super-intelligent and precisely-termed analysis here. Many of the things I say have probably been said before by people much more educated on these things than I have. This is just a glimpse of what breaking down this particular topic has looked like for me personally.
The term “politically correct” has become something of a hot button over the past few years, as the struggle of a society that intends to promote both freedom and equality intensifies. This is understandable, from a big picture standpoint. There will always be tension in a land where you are told you have both total virtual freedom, and a responsibility to respect others’ exercise of that freedom, even when it may not look like yours.
What’s concerned me of late, however, is what I’d like to call “petty political correctness”— that is, when we must ponder at what level we should limit our own personal “freedom” to say and think what we want to in everyday conversation, in the pursuit of respecting others.Bottom line; we’re talking name-calling level of disrespect.
Hopefully, as you read this post, you have some sort of thought to the tune of “Isn’t this kind of obvious?” or “Why is he talking about basic elementary-school-level golden-rule logic?”. If not, I pray you take this to heart.
This is something I experienced this past week:
I was sitting in the cafeteria of my Christian college, sharing a late-night snack with some friends. We were all disappointed, as the advertised snack of chicken tenders had been replaced with some less-than-stellar hot dogs. Another student sat down at our table and exclaimed “These are sooo gay!”
I immediately felt uncomfortable, as I tend to do when that word gets thrown around in that way. I have friends in my life who identify as gay, and they have expressed to me that it offends them to have that word thrown around as a synonym for “lame”.
I responded, calmly, “C’mon, don’t say that.”, trying to be as nice as possible.
The student responded, “Say what?”
“Using the word ‘gay’ like that. It’s offensive.”
“What, you think the hot dogs are offended?”
“No, it’s just mean to use that word like that.”
I was met with a judgmental stare and a head-tilt that seemed to communicate, “Really? Why would you even care about that?”
I’ll admit, my immediate reaction was a scoffing exhale, and some judging in my mind. I left this situation at a loss for words. I felt as if I was being judged for being offended by ignorance. I wasn’t sure whether this student was being insensitive because they felt it didn’t matter (to my knowledge, there were no gay people at the table), or even worse, because they didn’t care since “it’s just gay people”. (I shouldn’t have to wonder that, but at a school where there are many close-minded and sheltered students, I do.)
In working through this issue, I must admit, I found myself somewhat hypocritical. There have been times I have laughed at, or been a part of, those moments where another guy says something either vulnerable or unintentionally suggestive, and someone else in the room shouts “Ha! Gay!” (Although, to be fair, the original clip from the TV show this stemmed from was making a directly ironic joke about human respect, seen here.) I could rationalize and say that these jokes are only made when a behavior is comparable to that of a stereotypical gay person, and therefore aren’t necessarily derogatory. I can’t do this in good conscious, though. This stereotypes all gay and straight people to a certain type of behavior, and I know deep down it also affirms the idea that gay people are “inferior” to straights, as I wouldn’t ever make jokes when a gay person “acts straight”.
Part of this battle over “political correctness” is about finding the line between what is too far, without infringing on our right to express ourselves. People aren’t getting into debates everyday over someone shouting angrily, “What, are you blind?!” to their clumsy co-worker. Or calling your siblings “crazy”.
BUT, if you said the former at a party, and someone blind spoke up and said they were offended, would we really be so bold to throw stones for them being “over-sensitive” or complain about how we’re “in an age where everyone’s too politically correct”??
Of course not! If you have any sense of respect, I expect that you would apologize, and express that you didn’t mean to offend them, and perhaps even be more cautious in the future throwing that term around.
While, in my situation, this didn’t fully apply (as I am not gay myself), I think that if we really care about people who these labels truly apply to, we would try to mimic the way we speak about them with intentional respect, as best we could, when they aren’t around.
The biggest difference that separates calling someone “blind” vs. “gay” is this; issues such as sexuality and race are ESPECIALLY sensitive at this time in our country. I hate to sound cliché, but isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? Are we really not wiling to actually make an effort to be sensitive as we talk about people of different races or sexualities than ourselves, even at a time where we can most easily offend and alienate?
The last point I want to make is this: Christians should be leading the pack on this.
The debate over homosexuality and whether it is a sin or not should not detract us from our calling to love those around us. We’re the ones who march around with the claim that we are called to love the loveless, whether they are “in sin” or not. There is a lot of talk these days about what it means to love the gay community “without enabling or affirming their sin”. I’ll tell you one thing: making petty jokes that are insensitive and offend groups of people will NEVER convince the gay community that they are loved.
This isn’t really a response to the situation I experienced this past week, but that incident got me thinking hard about this topic. I write it down in hopes that it will be concretely captured for my own benefit, and I share it just in case someone out there happens to read it, and is challenged as well.
Bottom line: I’m making a commitment to watch my words more carefully, specifically when using terms that describe groups of people, even if it means I have limit my right to say what I want. And I hope that if you read this and can see where I’m coming from, you’ll join me.