Political correctness is about honesty, respect

Published 9:15 am Friday, July 26, 2013

Column: Paths to Peace, by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Earlier this month a Tribune guest column railed against the backlash celebrity chef Paul Dean has received due to Dean’s alleged racism in a former employee’s civil suit against her. The columnist stated Dean’s mistreatment was “political correctness to the extreme” and concluded political correctness is “one of the most dangerous enemies of our time” and may lead to “the end of our country as we know it.”

Hyperbole, anyone? On the continuum of national enemies and threats, PC is apparently akin to terrorism, global warming and multi-generational poverty.

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

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To be honest, I couldn’t care less about Paula Dean’s career, but I am concerned about how easily one can dismiss questions regarding personal ethics and social justice by saying it’s all politically correct hogwash.

The Conservative Right in America has used the term “politically correct” or “PC” for the past 30 years or so to criticize the trend in universities and public discourse of being more inclusive of historically marginalized groups, expanding curriculum to include more subjects about and by members of these groups, and — among other things — not tolerating language offensive to these groups, no matter how acceptable that language might have been once been.

In short, being PC essentially means being respectful. We can still openly debate and disagree with one another, but American culture has evolved to a point where there are consequences for using free expression that degrades others. And that’s a good thing.

The problem with the PC label is that conservatives often employ it as a straw man in argumentation, a way of shifting the focus away from the real issue at hand. The anti-PC defense of Paula Dean is a good example.

While the columnist focused on Dean’s use of the “N-word” and the PC reaction to it, the heart of the actual complaint against Dean and her business partner/brother is the allegation that she promoted — or in the least tolerated — a workplace where sexual harassment was overlooked and black employees were treated as second-class citizens. (A copy of the civil complaint against Dean is available online.) Dean’s “N-word” usage was just the tip of the iceberg.

Time will tell whether the complaint’s allegations are proven true, but how convenient to dismiss the entire thing by suggesting the real problem rests with political correctness, that people are just too sensitive, that the true outrage here should instead center on how social pressure to be PC limits our freedom of expression.

Certainly, extremists can sometimes take political correctness too far, but that’s not generally been my experience. Being PC in my life means including works of literature by minority and female authors in addition to the more traditional works I teach by white male authors. It means insisting that students not use the words “gay” or “retarded” as synonyms for “stupid” in my classroom, and exploring together why respectful dialogue is so important. It also means addressing bullying in its many forms when I see or hear it at school.

A number of conservative columnists have recently suggested that liberal pressure for political correctness is fueling the outrage over George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict, that it’s liberal PC foolishness to think Zimmerman should serve jail time for shooting and killing an unarmed black teenager.

As with the Paula Dean case, dismissing questions about justice in the Zimmerman verdict as mere political correctness is misleading. These are legitimate questions, and I’m glad President Barack Obama felt inspired recently to address some of them.

President Obama’s recent thoughtful speech about the Zimmerman verdict included a very candid and uncomfortable acknowledgement that young African American men are “disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence” and that statistically speaking Trayvon Martin probably had a greater chance of being shot by one of his peers than by a stranger like George Zimmerman.

The president also discussed what is it like for black boys to grow up in a culture that perceives them all as threats. He asked us to consider how to change this when we do in fact have a disproportionate number of young black men in our criminal justice system. What effect does this perception have on young black men who are not threats? How might this case have been handled differently had Martin been of age and armed, killing Zimmerman rather than the other way around? And how might Stand Your Ground laws allowing individuals to use lethal force in responding to perceived threats — with no expectation or requirement to first attempt retreat — actually increase the frequency of tragic deaths like this?

While the Stand Your Ground law wasn’t formally invoked in Zimmerman’s trial, Stand Your Ground language was included in the jury instructions and is the standard for self-defense claims in Florida, so it clearly influenced the verdict. To minimize concerns about Stand Your Ground laws in general and the role race may have played in the Martin case as irrelevant or PC is disingenuous and does more to stifle honest public dialogue about the case than political correctness ever would.

The questions President Obama posed and the outrage many of us still feel regarding Martin’s death and the law necessitating Zimmerman’s acquittal are important topics for public discussion because despite what critics of “political correctness” may argue, race does matter in our country and in our legal system, so talking about it honestly and respectfully is extremely important.


Jeremy Corey-Gruenes in a high school teacher in Albert Lea, where he lives with his wife and two young daughters. You can reach him at jcorey2@gmail.com and following him on Twitter @jemcorey.