The civics lesson


Terms that perfectly capture their intended meaning sometimes end up as clichés. They get overused because no other words serve the purpose quite so well.

The term “politically correct” is a perfect example. It’s status as a cliche is used as cover by those accused of politically correctness. They dismiss the charge on the grounds that the term itself is hackneyed or trite.

This week I received a personal email from a Daily Item reader who will remain nameless. He told a story that exposed the dark side of political correctness – and there was nothing cliched about it.

“The recent foolishness about renaming the Board of Selectmen so they would be ‘politically correct’ made me remember something I would like to share with you,” he wrote, “as it may shed a different perspective on the term, ‘politically correct.’

“Some 40 years ago,” the reader said, “I was attending a meeting at a gun club. (Oh my God, yes – a GUN club.) As a matter of fact, the meeting was about starting a free course on firearms safety for the general public, sponsored by the dreaded NRA.

“Prior to the meeting,” the Item reader continued, “a member was reading aloud a newspaper article in which someone in Berkeley California wanted to rename manhole covers ‘personhole covers’ so they would be ‘politically correct.’ Several men around the conference table laughed at the article, but one member suddenly became visibly angry.

“He quickly shot to his feet and pointing his finger at the group he yelled loudly, ‘THIS! THIS IS HOW IT STARTS!’ He then walked from the room with me following as I had no idea why he had become so angry.

“Abe, what’s going on? I asked. He quickly slid up the sleeve of his shirt and stuck his forearm which held a crude blue tattoo of several numbers in front of my face.

“‘THIS – THIS IS POLITICALLY CORRECT!’ he snapped loudly. ‘This I get at Auschwitz,’ he said. ‘In 1933, I was a young Jew living in Leipsig. Before Hitler came to power, I could walk down the street and say, Good Morning, Mrs. Schmidt, or Hello, Mr. Muller.

“‘After Hitler comes to power, now when I walk down the street, I have to say, Heil Hitler, Good morning Mrs. Schmidt, or Heil Hitler, Hello Mr. Muller. Now when you answer the phone, you answer it, Heil Hitler, Hello. If you are not politically correct, you will be in big trouble.’ he said.”

The Item reader remembered being stunned by what his friend had just told him. He recalled the rest of the conversation.

“Abe, I had no idea. You were in Auschwitz?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, Auschwitz,” Abe replied. “Auschwitz wasn’t that bad…but Bergen-Belsen was really bad. I survived three concentration camps. In 1947 when I go back to Leipsig, now I don’t have to say, Heil Hitler to anyone. Now, I have to say Good morning Comrade, or Good day Commissar – because now THAT is what is politically correct!’

“Abe then said, ‘When you are forced to be politically correct, they have controlled not only what you say, but what you think. You have to ask yourself, politically correct, but whose politics? Democrats? Republicans? Liberal? Conservative? Socialist? Communist? Nazi? Whose politics?’

“‘Politically correct speech is oppressed speech,’ Abe said. ‘The United States Constitution says we do not have to be politically correct and I will never bow to such a thing,’ he said.

“He then looked at me and said, ‘Promise me you will never use politically correct speech because it is wrong and no one knows better than me what it can lead to.’

“To this day, some 40 plus years later,” the Item reader told me, “I refuse to use politically correct speech because a very wise old man gave me a civics lesson.”

It’s a civics lesson a lot of people could benefit from these days.

I was recently lectured by a Millennial on the topic of political correctness.

“Politically correct,” she informed me, “is a dated term used by people who are afraid of inclusion and tolerance.”

Tell that to Abe, the Holocaust survivor.

[This column originally appeared in the April 19, 2018 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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