Saturday, 20 October 2007

Political correctness

TWO months ago, there was a story that made big headlines in the United Kingdom.

A female employee of British Airways was dismissed from her job—not for poor performance, attitude, or anything else that we may associate with reasons for being fired. British Airways let her go because she insisted on wearing a small cross pendant to work.

Just last week, another British Airways man was re-admitted to work after having been suspended for a few days. The worker was not suffering from performance-related issues either. His offense? Hanging a picture of Jesus Christ on the wall of the employee staff room, which upset one of his Muslim colleagues, who then complained to management, leading to the man’s suspension.

This coming holiday season, many towns and cities will spruce up and decorate their public places, for the Winterval festival. They will put up festive trees in the town centers and hang festival lights along the main thoroughfares.

Notice the absence of something here? That’s right, Christmas isn’t in it.

Christmas is banned. Or at least the mention of it is. And why? Because according to the Birmingham City Council, which invented the term “Winterval,” Christmas is not an “inclusive” celebration. Not inclusive because it is a Christian holiday, and excludes Muslims, Jews, people of other faiths — and of course the non-believers — from participation.

And who could forget that infamous incident, sparked by a cartoon that was printed in a Danish magazine, rather misguidedly depicting the prophet Muhammad in “contemporary” images?

The incident was answered by outrage scarcely seen anywhere, eclipsing even the violent reactions to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. So serious was the fallout that it involved not only the governments of Denmark and the major Islamic states to diffuse it, even the European Union, the United States and the United Nations had to weigh in on the issue as well.

What is the common thread running through all of these incidents? PC. That’s right, PC. Political correctness or PC, as it is now more commonly referred to, is the common denominator.

Whether it is a Christian’s inability to wear vestiges of her religion, a rebuke to a young man’s desire to be constantly reminded of the image of his creator, a denial of a community’s right to celebrate a festival that it has always done for hundreds of years, or the curtailment of an editor’s freedom to publish cartoons for the education of the wider public — political correctness is behind them all.

In an increasingly diverse world, where populations mix and move freely, it is only appropriate that individuals and communities should treat each other with a certain amount of respect, and certainly with a great deal of empathy and understanding.

But there is a great danger to all this — the danger that free speech and freedom of expression — the bedrock on which our free and democratic societies are founded — will become the greatest victims.

Free societies entail give and take, and a certain amount of humor when it comes to opposing groups and interests talking about, or dealing with, each other. But this has to be two-way traffic, and not merely a one-way flow.

We are a good example of this, as a people.

Our jokes are peppered with humorous instances focusing on race, ethnicity, disability, and many other subject matters that are, by today’s standards, totally inappropriate. Michael V’s “DJ Bumbay,” a song parodying our stereotypical image of the Indian entrepreneur is a good case in point.

And yet, we have not learned to deal with situations where the joke is turned on us. That now infamous “Desperate Housewives” line comes to mind.

It would be a dull world indeed if every time we wanted to say, write, publish or sing something, we must first spend the time to think about each and every interest group that might take offense with our actions. Certainly, that would wipe out a great number of Filipino jokes that have ever been told.

And so, as we face the brave new world of ever-increasing globalization, we should perhaps go forth and be guided by the new Golden Rule of political correctness —“do not joke about others, what you do not want others to joke about you.”

Published in the Sun Star Daily, Saturday, October 20, 2007 (

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