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Michael Abrahams: How correct is political correctness?

Published:Sunday | June 21, 2015 | 10:57 PMMichael Abrahams

I recently saw a cartoon depicting three children sitting on a bench outside a principal’s office, obviously in serious trouble. The first child said, “I said the Sh-word.” The second child said, “I said the F-word.” And the third child said, “I said “Christmas.”
I cannot recall hearing the term ‘political correctness’ during my youth. Back then, we used to call a spade a spade. Nowadays, there is this fear of causing offence and, as a result, our language and behaviour have evolved. Or have they devolved?
Prostitutes are now ‘sex workers’, deaf people are now ‘hearing impaired’ and dwarfs are ‘little people’. Fat women are now ‘plus size’, but fat men are still fat men. And politicians no longer lie; they ‘misspeak’.
Political correctness is the term used to avoid language or actions that will offend, disadvantage or marginalise members of certain groups, usually minorities. It does have its use, but I must confess that I am not a fan of it. I believe that the truth must be told, and political correctness seems to have got way out of control, especially in the United States of America. It seems like in America, everybody is touchy. Jews, blacks, gays, women, special-needs people and atheists, among others. Yes, these people have histories of being marginalised, oppressed and discriminated against, but nowadays it is so easy to get yourself in trouble without even realising that you are causing offence.
A friend of mine was studying at a university in America a few years ago. One day, while in the library, he asked a young lady to assist him with finding a document. She successfully located it, and on receiving it from her, my friend expressed his gratitude by saying, “Thank you, sweetheart.” About an hour later, he was summoned to the dean’s office.
The woman was deeply offended by his term of endearment. She could have simply told him to refer to her by her name. But apparently, his remark to her was so sexist, misogynistic and demeaning to women that it warranted a report, and a stern warning.
Yes, gender-related issues are huge, to the point where in many American councils and organisations, terms using the word ‘man’ as a prefix or suffix have been ruled as being politically incorrect. So, for example, ‘manhole’ is now referred to as a ‘utility’ or ‘maintenance’ hole.
And there are some words that you just do not say, unless you wish to be chastised. ‘Retarded‘ is one of them. I grew up hearing that word being used to describe persons whose mental development was delayed. Retardation literally means the act or result of delaying.
But now retarded is a bad word. In 2010, President Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, criticised a plan proposed by some liberal groups and referred to it as “f***king retarded”. The offence was not dropping the F-bomb, but the use of the word ‘retarded’. Some people lost their minds and there were calls for his sacking or resignation. He later apologised.
As a Jamaican, I sometimes see depictions of us by foreigners that I find to be hilarious, but not everyone is amused. In 2013, Volkswagen produced an ad in which a Caucasian American spoke like a Jamaican. The first time I saw it I laughed for about a minute straight. But some persons were offended, including some Americans who referred to the ad as racist. I guess they did not know that Jamaican is not a race and that white Jamaicans exist.
Later that year, two San Diego-high school football coaches and a teacher, dressed up as members of Jamaica’s famous 1988 winter Olympics bobsled team for Halloween. The men, all Caucasians, had to darken their skin to resemble the Jamaican athletes. One of the coaches posted a pic of them on his Facebook page, and was reported by a civil-rights group. As a result, all three were suspended for two days without pay.
A member of the actual bobsled team, Devon Harris, contacted one of the coaches, and told him that he and the two teammates with whom he spoke were flattered by what the coach and his friends had done, and that people are “too hypersensitive”.
As for Christmas, that is cause for much contention. In some places in the United States, simply wishing someone ‘Merry Christmas’ may cause offence. It is more politically correct to say ‘Happy Holidays’ or ‘Season’s Greetings’. In the United Kingdom, the term ‘Winterval’ was proposed in the 1990s. Christmas trees have been renamed ‘Holiday Trees’. In 2007, Santa Clauses in Australia were banned from saying ‘ho, ho, ho’ because, among other things, it sounds too much like the American slang for prostitute.
The boundaries that separate appropriate and inappropriate can be rather blurred. One of my favourite comedians, Bill Maher, recently said that you can make fun of Kim Kardashian’s behind but not her stepfather’s breasts. And it is kind of true.
All of this political correctness has serious implications for comedy, especially the genres of stand-up comedy and satire. You make a joke about gays and you are homophobic, about Jews and you are anti-Semitic, and about blacks and you are racist. And don’t even think about using the ‘N-word’, unless, of course, you are black, in which case it is okay, especially if you pronounce it ‘nigga’. I have never understood that principle. I remember seeing a video of Richard Pryor in concert where he said that he stopped using the word after visiting Kenya, as he found it to be offensive and saw no reason to use it himself.
But many comedians are concerned, and have to be playing hopscotch around people’s feelings. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld recently said that college campuses are too politically correct, and that it is damaging for comedy. Chris Rock actually stopped playing college campuses. And it is understandable. Political correctness is a big deal in American colleges. One campus banned the use of the word ‘freshman’ because ‘it’s sexist and promotes rape’, and in some campuses free speech is restricted to small, designated areas known as ‘free speech’ zones.
It is important for the survival of the human race that we try to coexist with one another and, in doing so, the principles of respect, love, empathy, compassion and kindness should be embraced. We ought to take the feelings of others into consideration as we go about our daily lives. But all this political correctness can make it difficult for us to breathe.
Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.