I was in a get together of close office friends a few years ago. We were a close bunch, had each other’s back at work, and in life. Some of us were more experienced than the rest. We were there with our families.
We got talking about some office colleague. To start with, the conversation was around how stubborn she could be. Ethics were of utmost importance to her and at times she went too far. Let’s call her Meera. Meera ran the HR department. She had been with the company for quite a few years. And yet, she couldn’t see eye to eye with the leadership of that company. Also she was a straight talker. Her intent was never to hurt another, but her “matter of fact” speech stepped on many toes.
At this get together, most of us had been on the receiving end of it. But it had been a couple of years now that she had left the organization. One of us, made a few jibes at her personal life to explain to us why she didn’t feel the need to collaborate at work. This gentleman was placed quite up on the hierarchy, he was also a friend. But those remarks made many of us see him in another light. Quickly another friend tried to put a positive spin on it. He laughed and said “No! You are being harsh. She was alright, she had her values to uphold”. Then this gentleman went on to say “No! He understood women like her and this is how they behaved”. All this while he was sitting cozily with his wife, who didn’t look up from the drink in her lap.
It was “party talk” after all, one two many drinks. I don’t remember how that conversation ended. But that gets my goat every time I think I know someone. In our zest for being “politically correct” in public, we hide much of what we truly believe in. To not instigate another, or to keep the peace, we let people uphold their biases and stereotypical notions. Yet when a bias applies to them, these very people fly off the handle.
Political Correctness is defined as, “the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalise, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”
In recent years, political correctness has taken a wrong turn. Although the idea behind it is to be respectful of diversities or minorities, people have begun to use it to condemn flaws in people, and have in turn marginalised them by labelling them as misogynists, privileged, homophobic and so on. Yes, it is important to be sensitive and respectful of people’s identities, but my concern is that by calling them these names, we are reducing them to just those categories.
We stereotype or categorise people to understand elements of their personality that are foreign to us. For example, we classify some people by their diet. If they have a preference for foreign meats or sea weed, which is “unthinkable” for us, that becomes a category and “dog- eater” becomes a slur. If you think about it, it is another form of nutrition.
Homophobia is bad and it should be condemned. A lot of the fear around it is because people don’t understand what it is. In an effort to be “politically correct”, we have legalised same sex relationships and marriages, but because we don’t want to be uncomfortable, nobody has ever really understood what happens differently in those relationships. There’s very little difference if you ask me, it is just another relationship between two people who like each other.
But yes, people are flawed, you and I too and our behaviour and actions are a summation of our upbringing, context and exposure.
In this current climate of millennial outrage, we often forget that political correctness is not really a solution to racism, casteism, misogyny, and that by calling someone homophobic or dog eater or (muggle!) we are not solving any problems, we aren’t any closer to eliminating prejudices. To solve issues, you need empathy, you need understanding and patience.
You have to see a person as a complex whole, and not as a collection of reductive labels. Therefore, as important as political correctness is, empathy is indispensable.
I really wish that at that party I would have had the balls to stand up stronger for Meera. I did what I thought I could. I wasn’t silent, but I wasn’t loud enough. But now I know, that I could have done more. I could have pulled a Meera and given him a piece of my mind. But I chose to keep the peace, I chose to be “politically correct”.
That rarely ends well.