Bill Knight column for Thursday, Friday or Saturday, June 23, 24 or 25
Downstate Illinois native Dick Stolley’s politeness was key to his getting one of the scoops of the 20th century when he bought the 8mm home movie of the assassination of President Kennedy, he’s said.
Stolley, then with Life magazine, wasn’t being “politically correct” by being gentle and considerate with the 58-year-old Jewish Dallas dressmaker Abraham Zapruder. Stolley, the eventual founder of People magazine, was being courteous. Using common sense.
And he got what he was after.
So when ESPN fired analyst Curt Schilling, or when the NHL suspended Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw, or when the Food network canned Paula Deen, all for making insensitive remarks, it wasn’t being “politically correct.” It was because they demonstrated a basic lack of courtesy, a lack of common sense.
Donald Trump during his presidential campaign has repeatedly implied that it’s perfectly acceptable to say anything, and he’s convinced many of his supporters that that’s somehow brave.
“The big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he said, as if insulting others is merely being forthright. (And: “big”? Really?)
As author and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister has written, “Someplace along the line we have managed to confuse freedom of speech with the freedom to be rude, crude, mean, hurtful or brutal.”
The term political correctness originated in the 1970s as a sarcastic reference by progressives who ridiculed old Communist demands of strict adherence to dogma, like saying, “I know this isn’t politically correct, but you’re attractive.” By the 1980s, the Right Wing exploited the notion to attack progressives for infringing on free speech, and Trump has accelerated that “anything goes” criticism.
Judith Martin in her “Miss Manners” newspaper column defined “politically correct” to mean “refraining from delivering wholesale insults to groups of people.”
Why is that even controversial?
Words can offend people, and common sense or common decency makes conversation easier, not harder. People who say they want to end political correctness may sincerely desire to defend the First Amendment against self-importance hiding behind thoughtfulness. But they’re also supporting vulgarity and cruelty as well as passionate debate. After all, many people use freedom of speech to be bigots or condemn others in anonymous online rubbish.
However, there are no Orwellian Thought Police punishing such trolls. Statutes don’t discourage boorishness; civilization encourages civility.
Sure, watching what we say can go overboard; it can get silly. (I once had a well-meaning copy editor ask me to change a story so “landlady” would be replaced with “landperson,” a far cry from stupidly calling women “chicks.”)
Plus, it’s not uncommon to realize the difference between absolute honesty and meanness, like responding to the question, “Do you like my hair?” (I remember a sophomore journalism student asking me what I thought of her lede on a news story, and when I blurted out, “It stinks,” she started crying.)
John K. Wilson’s 1995 book “The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education” put into context that political correctness is just folks’ internal filter on stereotypes about genders, races, faiths and all manner of differences that, really, make us all interesting.
Maybe the hubbub will pass. I recall Mrs. Riggs, my high school Latin teacher, scolding an unruly boy in class who’d been mercilessly teasing a girl: “Be polite. It’s good practice. You don’t know when it’ll be fashionable again.”
If you “charmingly” use freedom of speech to utter something you excuse as just being “politically incorrect,” don’t be surprised if people are offended.
And don’t be shocked if you don’t get what you want.