Avoiding the Buzzers

A few summers ago, I sat down with my friend, Mike, for dinner before we returned to our respective schools for another semester. Mike is a really smart, sweet guy; he’s the one in your group who would make all of your friends late for something because your parents wouldn’t stop talking to him.

Mike is also an observant Methodist. When we sat down, I decided to ask Mike about something that I had always wanted to know, something that used to actually terrify me when I was younger. “Mike,” I said, “do most Christians think Jews are going to hell?” My teammates from my high school football team are some of my best friends. I was the only Jewish guy in the group, and a lot of my teammates had never spent any time around Jews. I occasionally felt as if there were subtle gaps in our understanding of one another.  Mike paused, collected his thoughts, and said, “Unfortunately, a lot of them do.” He then proceeded to give me a very thorough explanation of why that was and why it was not an entirely ubiquitous belief throughout the Christian faith. I was very pleased with how the conversation went; I learned what I wanted to learn and I felt we grew closer to one another thanks to the honest, direct interaction we shared.

Looking back, I wonder how that conversation could have gone – or whether it would have even taken place at all – had we both decided to be politically correct with one another. I may have avoided directly asking the question out of fear of offending him by generalizing and including him in a group stereotyped for their closed-mindedness. Mike may have worried about making me feel bad and not given me a complete answer. Or, he may have immediately gotten defensive and focused on how he himself was different from the “bad” Christians who held a discriminatory belief rather than answering the question I had asked. In either case, we both would have been so preoccupied with meticulous phrasing to avoid offending one another that we would have had a hard time being honest about the issue.

Political correctness has good intentions: it seeks to facilitate effective communication and relations between people of different groups, and ensure that people from different backgrounds are comfortable around each other. It also seeks to alleviate undue stress from those who come from traditionally oppressed backgrounds. However, its method of achieving those goals—namely, eliminating any and all potentially offensive words, ideas, and stereotypes from our conversations—is actually counterproductive.

In our effort to avoid insensitive interactions, we have swung the pendulum too far. In the past two weeks alone, students at the Claremont Colleges have witnessed first-hand the excessive, albeit well-intentioned, outrage and backlash from those insisting event or club names were somehow insidious. On Sunday, the Pitzer senate rejected the “Yacht Club” application on the grounds that it held offensive associations to exclusive institutions and an activity that would exclude lower income students. Despite the fact that the club would make boating and sailing available to all on campus, it was dismissed as a “classist” activity that would be inaccessible for students who were not wealthy.

The week before that, Pomona’s student government voted to defund Harvey Mudd College’s “Mudd Goes Madd” paint party on grounds that it was offensive to students in the mental illness community. Obviously, the party’s planners intended for “Madd” to mean wild with enthusiasm and fun at the party, Pomona’s student representatives insisted that this reference to “going mad,” a phrase traditionally used to discredit those with mental illness, was furthering the institutionalized ableism encountered daily at Harvey Mudd and at the 5Cs at large. These examples of hypersensitivity coming from institutional bodies are also seen on a group and interpersonal level of the students who compose them.

“Mudd Goes Madd” is not the first time we have seen an event name raise ire from the politically correct community. Two years ago, the America-themed Pub was widely disparaged on social media for being supportive of America’s racist and imperialist past. According to these students, the event celebrating America was an ode to deplorable events such as the Jim Crow laws or Japanese internment camps. Students insisted that any prideful nationalism could not be teased out from the more sinister part of America’s history. Any figurative flag-waving to be had at this event was tantamount to directly celebrating disparities and injustices present in American history or modern society.

Allow me to contrast this in a personal example. Oktoberfest is a 5C party that happens every fall that includes beer and elements of German culture in reference to the annual Oktoberfests that happen every year in Germany. Oktoberfest began in Munich and evolved to be a celebration of Bavarian and German culture. If I, as a Jew, were to take the same stance as those who protested the America-themed pub, I would say that this party is morally repugnant. How dare they celebrate the culture of a country that orchestrated the genocide of millions of my people? And how dare they celebrate the city celebrated as the birth of the Nazi party outside of which the first concentration camp was built? However, I don’t do this because I know that when people say “prost!” and eat bratwurst it is not equivalent to saying “Heil Hitler.”  The same way that attending an America-themed pub does not demonstrate your implicit support for the Trail of Tears.

Do you remember the game “Operation,” where you try to pick out the bones from the man on the table while avoiding the buzzers? Let’s think of successfully removing the bones as the effective communication and learning that happens between different groups around sensitive issues. Some buzzers, like pejorative words, are meant to be there because they invariably hinder effective communication. However, in our effort to avoid these buzzers, we have actually made them much larger. By introducing entire concepts and lexicons we have to avoid mentioning directly or even alluding to, we require people to be expert surgeons in order to extract those bones. For example, “mad,” is not a pejorative word but since it can be drawn in connection to the issue of mental illness, it is put on the no-fly list. In light of situations like this, many people elect to not even attempt to communicate and learn because of the high likelihood they will get buzzed.

As long as you are respectful, it is okay to ask and say what you mean. There is a big difference between someone asking me, “Why do Jews run the banks?” and “Why do you think there are a disproportionate number of Jews who work in banking and finance?” However, the two questions both seek to understand an apparent disparity between Jews and other groups of people. Someone who is curious about phenomena like this should be able to ask questions and gain a better understanding of these sorts of situations without fear of being crucified for alluding to something that may be offensive. Phrasing is important, but there needs to be a balance so people can feel comfortable and genuine learning can occur.

In his book Synchronicity: The Inner Path to Leadership, Joseph Jawaorsky, founder of the American Leadership forum, which specializes in collaborative leadership, encourages people to engage in dialogue with each other. “Dia” and “logos”–the Greek roots that form the word “dialogue”–mean “meaning flow through,” suggesting that people should come to a conversation without preconceptions and have an honest flow of thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, he notes, you must drop the “undiscussables,” which create roadblocks that hinder effective communication. Our generation finds itself at a point with innumerable undiscussables where we must duck and weave throughout any conversation for fear of the consequences.

This concern is not a political issue; it is an emotional and a human issue. If we avoid entire topics because we think it is not appropriate to ask or talk about them, odds are we will miss out on a lot of really meaningful and educational conversations. This problem is particularly prevalent on college campuses. Some might say that it is better to try to create a “safe” environment completely devoid of triggering words or ideas so that people, especially those of traditionally oppressed backgrounds, can have an easier time learning. However, others, including President Obama, maintain the idea that those “safe” environments are not how you learn and better yourself. In a recent press conference, President Obama said that college is a place to broaden your horizons and learn how to better evaluate information. That environment is at its best when a lot of different ideas are presented and collide. He mentioned that students should not be coddled, and you should not be able to silence someone because you are too sensitive to hear what they have to say. Learning is not always comfortable, but it is better to hit a buzzer once in a while than to risk not learning at all.

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Image Source: Flickr

3 thoughts on “Avoiding the Buzzers”

  1. Excellent. Truly excellent. We are blessed when we are surrounded by good spirited people who disagree with us; we learn about them and more about the world

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