On Intent, Impact, and "Political Correctness"

Hey friends. Check my math on something:

This article recently made the rounds: “Large Majorities Strongly Dislike PC Culture”

Most members of the “exhausted majority,” and then some, dislike political correctness. Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” 

And this attitude transcends race, age, and geography. As a 40-year-old American Indian in Oklahoma put it: 

“It seems like everyday you wake up something has changed … Do you say Jew? Or Jewish? Is it a black guy? African-American? … You are on your toes because you never know what to say. So political correctness in that sense is scary.” 

In the extended interviews and focus groups, participants made clear that they were concerned about their day-to-day ability to express themselves: They worry that a lack of familiarity with a topic, or an unthinking word choice, could lead to serious social sanctions for them.

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I have long said that what some people call “PC” really sounds to me like basic kindness. When people share how they self-identify, or how they want to be addressed, it seems like a no-brainer to honor that. It costs me nothing to do so, and it matters. That is basic Golden Rule stuff. 

But I also empathize with those who find it hard to keep up with changes in culture, and who worry about giving offense without meaning to. A new friend of mine is gender non-binary and goes by the pronoun “they.” Despite wanting to honor this person’s identity, I have slipped up many times. I’m also realizing how often I use the word “guys” to describe a generic group of people. It doesn’t bother me to hear the term, but people I care about bump on it. It costs me very little to be more inclusive with my language. I’m grateful for the grace of others to both point out when I fall short, and to understand that I’m trying and will screw up along the way. We could all be kinder to one another.

Even as I seek to do my best to honor others, people of color who are friends and colleagues have helped me see that impact matters more than intent. People can mean well—can intend to act in a positive way—but the effects of their actions are what matter most. I get that. As a woman, I can think of times when a man has tried to stick up for me in a way that goes beyond being an ally and tips over into paternalism. They meant to help, but their actions had the effect of portraying me as helpless and needing a man to rescue me. Impact over intent. 

But I also think that, in Maya Angelou’s words, when you know better, you do better. What if one genuinely doesn’t know better? What the survey about PC suggests is that many people want to do the right thing, they just don’t know what it is. I have long loved Thomas Merton’s prayer/poem that begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.” He writes, “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” We are flawed, limited, imperfect human beings, often fumbling to do the right thing. I can’t dismiss the power of intent. 

I’ve long wondered, then, is there a way to deepen our cultural conversation beyond impact and intent?

I recently attended a conference for coaches, where I attended a workshop on building trust in teams. The presenter offered four aspects of team trust, gleaned from the book The Thin Book of Trust:

  1. Sincerity: do you mean what you say?

  2. Reliability: do you honor commitments?

  3. Care: do you hold others’ interests in mind?

  4. Competence: do you have the ability to do what’s asked of you?

A lightbulb went off as I considered whether these four traits might help us bust through the impasse I see over what many call “PC culture.” If someone has shown themselves to be generally sincere, reliable, and caring, I will be less inclined to take instant offense when they do something that has a harmful impact. That’s not excusing their behavior, that’s viewing it in a larger context. 

A person is sincere when they say, “I’m really trying here,” and you know that they truly are.
A person is reliable when they set a course of action and you see them follow through on it. 
Care is demonstrated in any number of ways, but an overall relationship of care can be a container to hold the many missteps and screwups we make because we’re human.

As for for the fourth quality, competence, well, some folks are willfully ignorant, and don’t care to learn about the world around them and how it’s changing. But others simply don’t know what they don’t know. The goal, then, is to help one another develop cultural competence, in ways that flow from our own sincerity, reliability, and care. (It’s also why social media can be so detrimental to dialogue about these things. How do I know how sincere, reliable, caring, and competent random person on the internet is? Instead we blast first, ask questions later.) 

What do you think?