In the World of Safety, Political Correctness Endangers Lives
When I was a kid I worked with a man who was mentally retarded. He wasn’t “special”. He wasn’t “mentally challenged”. He wasn’t “alternatively gifted”. He wasn’t “a little slow”. He was retarded. The word was never meant to in any way denigrate, degrade, or insult him. It was a medical term in wide-use at the time. We didn’t call him “retarded” we called him “Larry” and we treated him just like anyone else, while at the same time understanding that Larry had limitations and would, from time to time, need help. We just accepted it. In fact, the word “retarded” rarely came up except maybe when someone asked about why he behaved the way he did.
Then one day along came political correctness. I am a lot of things. I am a lot of ugly things; but I am not politically correct. I have always tried to see people as people and I have found that people who have some sort of handicap generally don’t want to be seen as well…whatever cutesy label you want to put on them. I have always suspected that the ultra-politically correct secretly harbor a bigotry that they mask through carefully designed meticulously measured language designed to hide the fact that when they see a person in a wheel-chair they don’t see a person they see a cripple.
I once worked with a woman who forbade us from using the term “flip chart” because apparently “flip” can be used as a derogatory term for a Filipino. Frankly, I had never heard the term and it made me wonder about the woman who brought my attention to it. I have never known a bigot that didn’t know every ugly pejorative for the people he or she despised. I worked at another company where we were forbidden from using the terms bullet point (it denotes violence even though the word predates the projectile by several hundred years), negative (we had positives and deltas), and a host of other words. It was counterproductive and stupid. I never thought about shooting someone because someone said “bullet point” and damn it all, some things ARE negative. Some things are problems and NOT opportunities.
I recently saw a comedian who was a self-described “midget”. He told the story of an indignant woman who came up to him and berated him for using the term “midget”. At first he was genuinely concerned that she might have a loved one or friend who was in the same condition as he; but she didn’t. She was merely a busybody. So after tell her to do a very nasty thing he told her. “You don’t get to be offended on someone else’s behalf”. He went on to say that when you get offended on someone else’s behalf it’s like saying “you’re too stupid to know that you are being insulted, but don’t worry I’ll take care of it.”
A blind man can decide what he wants people to call him (probably his name) but he can’t decide what all the blind people in the world want to be called, and the sighted community needs to get out of the labelling business.
It all comes down to intent. Words only have the power we give them, but when it comes to safety sometimes we have to call things like we see them. Sometimes the most effective way to get through to someone is to say “doing that is dangerous and stupid” not “doing things that way isn’t optimal and perhaps not the wisest choice”. Academics love political correctness, but the people I’ve met in mines, on shop floors, in distribution centers and on oil & gas rigs tend to see the politically correct safety person as fools who can’t relate to doing an honest day’s work. And this divide erodes all credibility and trust in the person. When you are taking life-saving advice from someone you really need to see them as credible and smart. What they say has to make sense and it can’t be covered in a frosting of BS. We need to feel that their true intentions are to help us to stay safer in an intrinsically unsafe world.
Safety professionals need to stop hiding their contempt and patronizing attitude toward workers and tell it like it really is.