Community Voices

Tuesday, Jan 29 2013 12:34 PM

JOHN PRYOR: Political correctness gone awry, amok

At a recent luncheon, my seven randomly seated roundtable partners represented community leaders from multiple professions in public and private sectors -- and multiple political persuasions. All said, "Enough is enough! No more political correctness! We love to say, 'Merry Christmas' or 'Happy Hanukah' -- and detest it when someone says 'Happy Holidays!'"

Our common perception was that political correctness is out of control -- beyond any reasonable limit of rational "thought and action."

I use these latter three words because they parallel the title of a book written by semanticist S. I. (Don) Hayakawa. The title of his classic text is "Language in Thought and Action." His comments on "how man uses words -- and how words use man" are obviously relevant today.

Hayakawa was a popular professor at San Francisco State and ultimately became president of that university. Subsequently, he was elected to the U.S. Senate representing California.

The Californian recently published an op-ed on Hayakawa by Oildale native Gerald Haslam, who effectively captured Hayakawa's public persona. In 2011, Haslam authored (with his wife) a 400-page book on Hayakawa entitled, "In Thought and Action." It includes a description of the tenets of general semantics.

I'd like to add this notion of "thought and action" to the context of our all-too-politically-correct country today.

The most recent example is sportscaster Brent Musburger's choice of words during TV coverage of college football's national championship game. He uttered complimentary words about the beauty of the girlfriend of Alabama's quarterback. These words were accompanied by close ups of her sitting among other Tide fans and the quarterback's family.

Negative PC critiques emerged immediately from all media. Musburger's words were said to have been "over the top," and "strange," "out of place" -- and worse! ESPN apologized. Musburger did not. Most (thinking) women did not object. Many said they like to have their beauty recognized and complimented by gentlemen -- in a gentlemanly manner, of course, as Musburger clearly did.

This is merely the most recent of a myriad of words that "use man" in a counter-productive manner, with negative unintended outcomes.

There's no question that some words are "snarl words," as Hayakawa characterized them. They should be avoided. Of Japanese descent, he abhorred being called a "Jap"; it made him and other Nisei "feel dirty all over," as one Japanese lady commented. The same is true for those of other races and national origin.

Such "snarl words" are not what our table conversation was describing.

We were talking about euphemisms that have gone far too far -- words that even progressive author Michael S. Cummings has said, "... impede the kind of social change that could greatly improve our country."

PC words stop thought and halt research (action) prematurely at the "surface symptom" stage (e.g., gun control is the solution to stop school violence). PC prevents "drilling down" to identify true root causes of serious problems. Only then can viable solutions be found.

Another example of PC gone awry is the manner in which some try to employ genderless titles.

I cringe every time I hear titles such as "Chairperson" or "Councilperson!" Fortunately, titles such as "Senator Feinstein" or "Supervisor Couch" already work -- but so do titles such as "Assembly Member Grove" or "Council Member Smith," not to mention, "Kevin McCarthy, Member of Congress." We should avoid the silliness of the genderless word "person" in positions and titles.

Hayakawa's example of this PC absurdity was a women's softball team. What do you call the "first baseman" -- the "first basewoman?" Or "First Base Person?" Hayakawa cautioned against use of what we now call politically correct words before the term was coined.

The solution? Avoid "snarl words" certainly, but describe everything else the way you honestly and accurately see it without worrying about offending someone. For example, we should say:

* blind, not "visually challenged."

* failure, not "deferred success."

* illegal alien, not "undocumented immigrant."

* garbage man, not "sanitation engineer."

There are hundreds of additional examples you can readily find on the Internet, but you get the idea. Like most of the ladies who heard Musburger's compliment, they love to hear such non-politically correct words.

John Pryor of Bakersfield is a risk management consultant. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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