People make verbal blunders all the time. In today's politically correct, equality-driven society, there is little room for blunders anymore. Last Tuesday, Alex Trebek told a 15-year-old Teen Jeopardy contestant if she never realized her dream to be editor-in-chief of a magazine, she could get married instead. Who would believe that Alex--the man imploring us weekly to support starving children in Africa--would tell a bright, young woman that marriage was the best option to magazine editor-in-chief? Light the torches and call the feminists, those crazy men are at it again!
Well, a little liberty was taken with these facts. Contextually, important details were ignored to make a point. In reality, the contestant wants to be editor-in-chief of a magazine because she is a passionate writer who also likes to order people around. Strange, but true. She's 15, give her a break. Alex tried to imply, with his innocuous banter, that women control marriages by ordering their husbands around. So, if Chrissy somehow never managed to attain her dream job of editor-in-chief, but still felt the need to order someone around, she could do that by getting a husband. And who says traditional stereotypes of men and women are dead?
Alex's blunder puts a new face on the political correctness movement; it actually shores up the notion that we really should think before we speak. Not many people in the university community will tolerate a racial joke, but there are still people who tell them under certain circumstances and feel it's okay. Not many people will tolerate sexual harassment, but there are still people who feel it's okay to tell a sexist joke over drinks at the bar. Context is the name of the game. Where, when, how and with whom something is said determines its value. Some say political correctness fails to take into account context and that minority groups--feminists, ethnic groups, racial groups--take innocent comments too seriously because they were never intended to deliberately hurt someone.
Alex's innocuous comment can be put into context they would argue. We know what he meant to say; we know he wasn't intentionally telling Chrissy that the best back-up plan for not completing her career track would be wife. Given the context, the blunder is forgiven. However, even Alex was aware of his faux-pas given his temporary bewilderment over the lack of audience response and the confused, mildly perturbed look on Chrissy's face. Adam, the little league umpire next to Chrissy, wasn't nearly close enough to hide the awkward moment with inane baseball references. Had Alex saved his humor for a dinner party full of aging professionals, perhaps the joke might have succeeded. But Chrissy's generation knows they can do whatever they want. Nobody, not even Alex Trebek, can make them believe bossing a husband around is equivalent to being a magazine editor-in-chief. It didn't have to intentionally hurt or ridicule--the subtext has been there for generations.
Political correctness serves to remind us that we should think before we speak and that time, place and company makes the difference between a hurtful comment and a witty riposte. That's its first job. Its second job is to expose the true core of context at the level of society, and deeper still, at the level of humanity. Alex's comment reeks of the reason why changing society is such a long and arduous process. In order to change society, we have to change the way we think. In changing the way we think, we have to change what we say, change what we feel--we have to change the context. Changing context starts with movements like political correctness. One reason racism and sexism proliferated for so long is because they were ingrained in the core of society, ingrained in emotions, thought and language. Political correctness provides the tools to monitor what we say and, in a way, what we think
The power of the spoken word lies in its ability to spur people into action. Political correctness brings into consciousness what was so sharply etched over time. It attempts to squash the easy-speak of the past that has, so often, lead to damaging action. You can't be a feminist or a humanist or fight for equality when you so casually spew out the stereotypes spawned by an inconsiderateness for the well-being of all humanity over generations. Now decide if Alex's comment was harmless, or if it should have been saved for another time and place.