Political correctness gone mad?

25 Mar 2024
Carrie Birmingham

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Not dissimilar to Neo in the Matrix, I regularly face a red pill, blue pill moment.  I have to choose between being a progressive consultant supporting workplaces to be respectful and inclusive (choose your positive adjective) whilst knowing that on the inside I have a potty mouth  & a naughty sense of humour.

This came into sharp focus when I was asked to talk about toxic culture and “banter” at the NEC Emergency Services show.  How did I avoid coming across as a patronising “do gooder” who doesn’t live in the real world? How did I embrace both sides of me and be authentic?

This subject is not for the faint heartened; you have been warned!

Not like me

Margaret Heffernan argues that we are wired in our bodies to find ways to be with people like us: it brings us comfort. It’s rarely conscious, but we snuggle into friend, work or neighbour groups that are like us, and in doing so we are affirming our values and thoughts. This instinct to cluster together with like-minded people reduces our exposure to different people. I know it’s tempting to deny this, but pause to think for a moment about the people you spend time with, the people where you live.  How different are they really?

This dynamic is compounded by the internet which gives us the capacity to put our views out there, and simultaneously fuels the fear that if you say the “wrong” thing you will be cancelled, with social media rocks being thrown at you, and no form of redress.  So we whisper to the friends like us, about things we don’t really understand; “What is non binary anyway?”.  Often this is met with a shrug of the shoulders, an eye roll and a quip about snowflakes.

This shows that in order to modernise, it is our personal responsibility to stretch out of our like-minded bubble and read/listen/watch things that expose us to different material, different viewpoints in a way that we can understand better how the world is evolving.  I have been choosing to take the red pill, and get out of my echo chamber.  When I feel the discomfort of this, I am reminded of this quote and it helps push me on:

“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Anaïs Nin

Let go of nice

The desire to be “nice” keeps us frozen. It makes us afraid to make a mistake. In her great book, Suzy Levy describe how this niceness means we don’t want to offend or be insensitive.  We want to see both sides of the argument, and hence assume an element of neutrality.  But that neutrality is an illusion, and an indication of privilege.  As a straight, white woman, I simply don’t understand how it is to hide my sexual orientation at work.

I notice my own discomfort listening to Regina Jackson & Sairo Rao describe in glorious details how white women’s niceness reinforced racism, “a critical component of being nice is being silent in the face of racism”.  This book brought home the reality that I need to use my privilege to act.

Suzy’s invitation is that I need to be brave because, “inclusion is an act of doing,” and this means speaking up when I hear or see things that exclude those that don’t have systemic privilege, at home, with friends and clients.

Get curious

So when I am being brave and highlight to my husband that something he said is, “not acceptable” his common defence is, “I don’t need to follow with that PC nonsense, the world has gone mad”. Because it means accepting that things you have been saying for years are no longer acceptable.  I notice his indignation at the suggestion of being wrong.

This was brought to life in a recent uproar when Ricky Gervais used  the word ‘mong’ and his subsequent apology when he really heard and understood the offence it caused to the mother of two disabled children.  But his first response was defence of his use of the word as being “harmless” and for me this is at the heart of the challenge we face.

It means accepting that if it is offensive to someone, then harm is being done.  Even if it wasn’t intended to be.

It means letting go of our need to get it right, which I notice is very strong at the point of writing this blog (or maybe it’s the fear of being cancelled!).  It means embracing that you won’t get it right and rather than defending when you don’t, being curious.  Which means asking questions to understand the meaning of a word to someone or their lived experience.

I recall the wave of hot shame which rose up in me during my recent neurodiversity training, when my ADHD trainer Katie pointed out my ableism. She had asked us to outline what we understood about the smorgasbord of neurodiversity (autism, ADHD, dyslexia) and all my focus was on deficiencies.  This focus  blinded me to the strengths enabled by neurodiversity. In that moment of shame, I took a deep breath and put my feet on the ground so that I could ask Katie to help me understand, resisting the temptation to explain why I was right.  I notice that following this insight, the words I use focus on how people are wired rather than how they are somehow deficient.

After all, language offers an insight to the beliefs that we hold and so they do matter.  By being prepared to let go of words that I have used historically, I am showing my openness to evolving viewpoints, to other’s experience.  This includes letting go of the term “PC” as a clumsy catch all, and instead calling for inclusion and understanding.

Accident & Emergency rooms are renowned as being places where black humour is rife (& in my experience HR can be the same); after all there is a humour in the emotionally difficult subjects and experience.  Profanity and humour can bring light into the dark and I know my humour has helped me cope with some tough situations, and I hope it has helped others too.  So I can bring my humour and lightness to things that matter, I take the blue pill, but in choosing to also take the red pill, I am taking a risk of offending.  To enable me to bring my full self to my work, it feels like a risk worth taking and I am hoping my vulnerability around this will enable others to bring theirs.

So what?

As you read this blog, ask yourself:

  • How can you stretch out of your like minded bubble and expose yourself to different viewpoints?
  • How can you let go of the desire to be “nice”?
  • How can you practice curiosity, even when you are deeply uncomfortable because you may get something wrong?
  • How can you take the red and the blue pill?