Political correctness is a polarizing issue these days. People seem to either think it is vital to respect others, or they renounce political correctness altogether. Those who value political correctness are often seen as oversensitive, and individuals who are against it are thought of as hateful and discriminatory. While I certainly understand why someone would want to watch their language to respect another individual, I believe there is danger in political correctness when we expect it too much of other people.
First, it is impossible to know every offensive term or action to every group and culture. While it is admirable to try to be sensitive to individuals of diverse backgrounds, no one person will ever be able to avoid every word and deed that is offensive to another group. There are also instances when we would have to make assumptions because someone’s background may not be obvious, or they may be part of mixed groups that do not show respect in the same ways. While I would love to be respectful of every individual with whom I interact, as long as I interact with individuals who are different than me, I will inevitably say or do something that will be offensive to someone at some point.
I’m not saying that we should avoid political correctness altogether or that it’s pointless to try to respect someone just because we can’t respect every person on the planet equally. However, I think we need to shift our focus. Our culture seems to focus on taking offense these days. Everyone wants to make a list of phrases or actions that offend them, and we like to point out how people have wronged us. Maybe we should instead be thinking of how we can be more understanding and forgiving of others. Do we really expect every person with whom we come in contact to know every little thing that will offend us?
I spent some time teaching English in South Korea. While I was there, I felt it was important that I learn the culture and the gestures of respect that were not intuitive to me. However, there were plenty of times when I made mistakes. I would use language that was too informal for the situation, or I wouldn’t make a gesture to signify respect even though I genuinely wanted to show respect. I was always grateful of my Korean friends who were understanding and did not expect me to know every aspect of their culture. They saw that I was making an effort, and that was enough for them.
I think our society could learn something from my Korean friends. Instead of constantly demanding respect in our specific way, perhaps we could use more understanding and forgiveness. We will all make mistakes. We will all ask an insensitive question when we really mean to learn more about someone. Instead of pointing out everyone’s mistakes, why don’t we try to overlook minor offenses that were not intended for harm? If someone’s motives don’t seem unkind even if their action or statement is uncomfortable, they probably don’t intend any harm. Yes, it is good to learn about others and how to make them feel welcome and comfortable, but let’s not forget the value of forgiveness.
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