Monday, October 1, 2012

The Cultural Compliment Conundrum

I can't believe I have to suffer under the weight of "political correctness." I don't subscribe to the idea that there are "proper" ways to say things, in regard to race, culture, sex, etc. I do, however, believe, as I have said many times, in self-policing; in thoughtfulness and manners. And I try to do my best. I know, however, that things are going askew when I want to say something that I see as a compliment, and I feel self-conscious about how to say it -- fearing someone will not see it as "politically correct."

This happened today. I was driving home from food shopping and I drove past an old Indian man, in a neighborhood with a thriving immigrant Indian population, and he was walking a walk I had seen there many times: He was in traditional Indian dress, hands behind his back, steps measured and slow. I wanted to say something about this, so I posted this to Facebook:
Elderly Indian men seem to walk with such an easy, un-arrogant type of dignity.
"So what?" you say. "There is nothing offensive in that. What were you worried about, Chris?" Well, that was the third draft of my statement. It's not like the first or second draft called for ethnic cleansing, or's just that I feared it might sound too much like an over-generalization. I didn't want to sound like I was painting a caricature of an old Indian man. I wanted to draw a portrait of a certain kind of dignity that I feel is particular to older Indian men.

Am I paranoid? If so, it might be for good reason. I remember, once, at a the end of a Christmas party, we were talking about the old TV specials when we were kids, and a friend reminded us of one, in particular, in which all of the kids who went to Santa were dressed in the traditional costumes of their countries. "How politically incorrect that would be now," my friend concluded.

Why? Aren't cultural traditions something to be proud of? Of course, the line is there -- we don't want to tie those traditions to negative statements of behavior, and does happen. But, damn it all, I think it is fine to point out admirable things that one has seen in people of certain races and backgrounds. So why do I feel as if I'm walking on the proverbial egg shells when I make statements like that?

I just know it warms my heart to see elderly Indian men taking their evening constitutionals. They have a "way" that elderly perambulators of other cultural backgrounds do not.

The funny thing is, I just cut a whole paragraph, here, in which I listed other things I like about people of other racial and cultural backgrounds. But, ah, never mind,

There. I've said it. Well, some of it, anyway.


  1. A few years ago, I was put in charge of buying Christmas gifts for the very diligent Central American maintenance team at my workplace. I looked at the sizable pile of cash I collected and knew the choice was obvious: three $50 Chipotle gift cards.

    Inevitably, a couple people piped up: Should we really be sending the message that we think Hispanics always eat tacos and burritos?

    I had to point out that those of us who actually talked to the maintenance guys knew that they ate at Chipotle, without deviation, without exception, with visible satisfaction, five days a week.

    I'm all for sensitivity based on actual knowledge of a culture, and it's rarely a bad idea to double-check one's blind spots, but the constant state of generic hypersensitivity and the assumption of ignorant or malevolent motives? I don't have much patience for that anymore.

  2. Chris: as usual, you are right on the mark. Here is a conundrum that comes up for me at this time of year: is "Indian Summer" now a politically incorrect term? A friend of mine was once advised by one of the thought police (someone who was not a Native American) that she should refrain from using the term because it was offensive to Native Americans.

    And don't forget (I know you already know this): we live in a country where the paramount right that is protected is the right not to be offended. Free speech? Nah. Freedom of religion? Nah. But God help you if you should offend somebody.

    1. Thank you, Stephen. We are off the rails, in so many ways. A friend of mine, elsewhere, also pointed out that one might consider speaking his mind and then remembering that a sincere apology is an effective part of the process, if it goes wrong. There is always a graceful recovery to be made, but I think we forget than part, too.

      Great to hear from you, as always.

  3. In 1990, I had a summer job where I was required to conduct telephone interviews with disabled people, felons, and recent welfare recipients.

    Her first week on the job, one of my co-workers decided to share with us what she had learned in one year at her small, overpriced liberal arts college: that under no circumstances should we refer to anyone as "disabled." Never mind that we were using the phrase in its strictest legal and legislative meaning; nope, an 18-year-old summer intern insisted that the company change all of its phone surveys to use the term "differently abled." (When the company said no, she altered her own scripts; the disabled people she spoke with found her kind of silly.)

    I've seen this again and again in business, in academia, and in life: It's almost never about actually being sensitive; it's about the scolder asserting power by insisting on ever-changing rules that only he or she, fully enlightened, is competent to assert.

    If we would all agree on, and codify, the rules--which used to be called "manners"--we'd all be less likely to offend others anyway, and we'd be free of these insufferable busybodies.

    1. It does seem to come down to an exercise in proving one's superiority, doesn't it? -- find the most overly analytic take on what is offensive and then act as if everyone else is a fool for not having recognized it. It gets tiresome.

  4. In Marianne Robinson's book The Death of Adam one essay, "The Puritan and the Prig" (contrasting them to the advantage of the former), says this cogently at at greater length.

    1. Thanks, George. Sounds like my kind of reading. I'll give it a look.