Political correctness: if it has gone too far why do I still feel marginalised?

Phrases like “political correctness gone mad” and “the PC brigade” still get thrown around today, even though the term was first coined in the 90s. For many it can be a difficult to determine if something is merely teasing or if it went too far. Some people might not realise that what they said crossed a line until they receive shocked looks or even a verbal warning. Gay is a just another funny word for stupid these days, right?

Not only could thoughtless comments be hurting someone’s own as well as their company’s reputation, colleagues and clients can potentially sue them as well. Harassment in the workplace is a serious problem that can destroy the victim’s health and well-being. Calling someone “too PC” is not helpful in these circumstances.

But when is someone “merely” bullying, and when are they harassing? There’s a big difference: harassment is against the law, and employees are protected under the law, whilst employers owe a duty of care to their employees. Therefore delving a little deeper into the subject is worth the time. Let’s investigate!

First of all, what is political correctness?

political correctness
adjective: politically correct; commonly abbreviated to PC or P.C.
alternative: political correctitude
antonym: un-PC, not politically correct
Meaning: the avoidance of forms of expression or actions that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.
In mainstream political discourse and media, the term is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive. (Source: Wikipedia)

But are these policies really excessive? 

By definition, when somebody says something un-PC they do not care if they offend or upset other people with their attitudes towards sex, race, or disability. Jokes will be at the


expense of the person who is the butt of the joke and can range all the way from a mild jibe to a seriously upsetting statement that is presented by the offending party as a personal opinion based on undeniable facts.

Since before Donald Trump burst onto the political scene and onto our television screens, he has been spouting un-PC warblings like the proverbial elephant in a China shop, uncaring as to who he offends. And his supporters love him for it, popular opinion is that he is finally somebody who just “says it like it is”. He said about a contestant on his TV show “it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees”, he has called Muslims terrorists and Mexicans rapists. And enough people agreed with him to elect him as US president.

Whatever happened to freedom of speech?

The idea behind Trump’s “refreshing” attitude is that he speaks for those who feel they have been silenced by their employers, the state or society at large. The perception is that ever since feminism and the PC-brigade came around the public has been stopped from speaking their mind. The problem is that what most people consider freedom of speech is not a simplistic right to say whatever you want. Threatening, abusive or insulting words and hate speech (including clear definitions of hate speech like supporting terrorism or holocaust denial) are illegal in most countries. Talk publicly about your love of Islamic State or paedophilia and you will find your freedoms restricted faster than you can say “unlawful censorship”. Further restrictions come in the form of anti-defamation laws and obscenity laws.
Let’s assume for a minute your colleague knows where the line is between illegal hate speech or obscenity, and personal opinions. So why can’t they make a joke about your transgender colleague using the women’s bathroom? Or point out facts like that the IT guy with the long hair and diamond stud earring looks a bit gay? Various  reasons.

5 reasons why those “jokes” are not funny:

  1. Non-PC jokes and comments alienate those who are already vulnerable. If the joke was made about someone who was not vulnerable it wouldn’t be half as funny. Therefore the target is being further pushed away and their helplessness is increased.
  2. The joke only works because the other person is deliberately  being made to feel offended and/or upset. They are either being deliberately insulted or the other person is pointing out something they perceive as a flaw which the target would probably wish was not mentioned out loud.
  3. The person making the joke falsely assumes that those listening are either thinking the same thing, or would be amused by the “joke”. They are forgetting that not everyone is on the same level and something one person perceives as weird others view as completely normal.
  4. Not every thought needs to be said out loud. Most people have filters for a reason. Always image2(1).JPGspeaking ones mind is not an idiosyncratic trait, or something to be proud of. It leads to increasing unpopularity when it is no longer tolerated.
  5. Comments on people’s disability, marital status, sexuality or race are not workplace topics. They are, for want of a better term, “below the belt”. Other people’s business can be discussed in private but all too often even doing that and sharing unpopular opinions with friends and colleagues leads to them avoiding the offender in future.

Why people need to be stopped from disguising opinions as facts

The aim of political correctness (and anti-harassment laws) is not to dismiss all criticism. Fair criticism is healthy and has a place in both politics and society. But the difference between social commentary or political jokes, and racist, homophobic or misogynistic comments is what or who the target of the comment or joke is. Usually they are based on characteristics that the person at the butt of the joke was born with, did not choose and has no way of changing.

A lot of politically incorrect and hateful comments are based on logical fallacies. And by definition, an argument that is formally fallacious is always considered wrong.

“The papers reported the rape of a woman by a Mexican gang. Jose is Mexican. Therefore Jose is a rapist.”

“Angela is the only black woman in the office. Angela got promoted. Therefore she only received her promotion due to diversity policies.”

“I think homosexuality is wrong and against the bible. Thomas is gay. Therefore Tomas is disgusting.”

Whether they are disguised as “opinions” or “facts”, the examples above are really just extremely insensitive or misjudged opinions based on preconceived notions. Behaviour like this needs to be reported and dealt with, whether it leads to a warning or a dismissal for the perpetrator.

I’ve been a victim – what do I do?

When it comes to bullying and harassing behaviour in the workplace, it’s not the intention of the perpetrator that matters, it’s the victim’s perception. Whether a joke was meant to shock or simply amuse, if it ended up offending someone no defence of “I didn’t mean it that way” is going to stick.

You can find more information on the Government website here: https://www.gov.uk/workplace-bullying-and-harassment. Try and sort it out yourself first, directly with the person in question. If that doesn’t resolve it, speak to your manager, their manager or HR. Many large client sites have anonymous whistle blowing lines that allow you to raise your concerns without fear of reprisal. If you are a member of a union, you can also get help and advice from your local union representative. With enough notice they are usually able to come to meetings with HR, line managers and the offender as support and to advise on legal matters.

If the issue still cannot be resolved, you can raise a formal grievance with your employer. They then have to follow the grievance procedure laid out by law. If you want advice you can call the Acas Helpline on 0300 123 1100.

What’s the difference between bullying and harassment?

Examples of bullying include spreading malicious rumours, unfair treatment, picking on someone, regularly undermining a competent worker, or denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities.

Bullying is not illegal, but harassment is. And harassment is about those PC subjects I mentioned above: your age, sex, disability,gender (including gender reassignment), your marriage or civil partnership status, pregnancy and maternity, your race, religion or belief, or your sexual orientation. Being non-PC is not refreshing, big or clever, in the worst case scenario it can be perceived as harassment.

So what should employers do?

Having a clearly set out anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy with clear “zero tolerance” rules is a great help. It not only spells out what is and what isn’t acceptable chat in the workplace, it promises support and help for those who can find themselves the victim of bullying and harassment.

Whilst these policies cannot always prevent harassment from taking place, they are a good start. The Acas Helpline can also help employers with advice on how to deal with employees who continue to offend others.

The bottom line is: harassment will always get you fired, while having a penchant for insensitive jokes or malicious rumours will get you fired eventually. Neither have a place in a modern, tolerant workplace. People who use terms like “political correctness gone mad” or “PC brigade” are making excuses for their unacceptable behaviour. There is a difference between joking and harassment, and if you knew the difference you wouldn’t be making excuses, you would apologise and let everyone move on.

Have you ever been the butt of an insensitive “joke”, or even had to leave a job because of unacceptable behaviour or comments? Or have you been unfairly told off when someone got offended by something you said? Leave a comment below and subscribe for more posts! 

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