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.


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?

Technically, the Governor of Alabama is Correct

Apparently the governor of Alabama had a hell of a first day, telling an audience on Martin Luther King day:

If you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have, if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister. Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.

So in Birmingham, do they still love the governor? Ooh, ooh, ooh.

When I was growing up, my mother encouraged me to apply three criteria before saying something: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? I think Governor Bentley's comments violate the kindness thing, especially on a day honoring Dr. King, whose rhetoric clearly invoked the brotherhood and sisterhood and common dignity of all people, who did not have a religious prerequisite for his movement---just ask this guy.

As for the third criterion, Bentley's comments were wholly unnecessary, and at the very least, raise some eyebrows from an establishment-of-religion perspective. We are all members of the human race, and as such, are very much bound to one another. Bentley's comments seemed dismissive of that and have caused hurt feelings with very little utility.

But on the first point---and it's going to get me in trouble for saying so---his comments are true.

Gov. Bentley made his statement from a church pulpit and was clearly speaking from his own Christian perspective. And in that sense, he is absolutely right. Christians are sisters and brothers to one another in a particular and peculiar way that we just aren't with people of other faiths, or no faith. When we are part of the body of Christ, our relationship with one another takes on a different character. (For one thing, we're stuck with each other.) I happen to agree with Stephen Prothero, to the extent that I can without reading his book (I've read stuff about his book). That is, I agree that interfaith relations have suffered over the years from a bland syncretism: "we basically all believe the same thing, we just come at it differently." Maybe that's true, maybe it's not, but we've been too quick to get to the commonalities instead of really dwelling in the messiness of the differences. (Prothero is far from alone in this critique, by the way.)

As a Christian, my beliefs and practices are distinctive from my Taoist brother. I'm not saying they're better, mind, and on this point, I'm fairly certain that Gov. Bentley and I diverge; he'd probably say Christianity IS better. I support those non-Christians in Alabama who will be keeping on eye on things down there. But yes, being a Christian means that Gov. Bentley is my brother in a very particular way that my biological brother is not. That doesn't mean that I love Gov. Bentley more than I love my brother. Not even close. But there it is. And that is the scandal of the gospel, is it not? That there is a new community in Christ? Isn't that part of what Jesus meant when he said that families would be divided against one another?

To carry his analogy forward: my best friend and soul sister Gini is not related to me by blood or marriage. I love her like a sister, but she is not, technically, my sister and never will be. To say she is not my sister is not to call her evil. It's not a moral failing on her part that she happens not to be a member of my family, it's just the simple reality of the situation. (Maybe he's calling non-Christians evil, but I think you've got to read into his statement something that may or may not be there.)

It's also insulting to people of other faiths, and people who have chosen no faith at all, to say, "You know what? I know you're on your own spiritual path, but we're gonna claim you as one of us."

Let's be clear. You won't hear me making categorical statements from any pulpit or blog about who is and who isn't my brother. And I agree with a friend of mine who said (paraphrased) that if there's a heaven, Gov. Bentley is going to be pretty damn surprised at some of the people who end up there. And I really have to wonder at the judgment of a man who felt that his very first day, and at a MLK service, would be a peachy time to make a statement that was sure to bother and offend people. That doesn't change the fact that the statement is, on a fundamental level, correct.

Image: Why yes, that is the stained glass window from the series finale of LOST.