I Believe You Meant To Say, 'Vertically Challenged'
by Peter Szabo


Political correctness is something that I have always strongly opposed, but I was never able to articulate why. When I had the opportunity to write about it for Wrtiting Studio 105 I jumped at the chance. It gave me a chance to think through my feelings and analyze why I feel the way I do. I can now point to specific aspects of it that I oppose, and even have my own ideas on how to fix it.


"Political correctness" and more specifically, "affirmative action" are terms that are often used but rarely understood. To many, these words are situated alongside bureaucracy as symbols of what is unfair and wrong with our government. "Yeah, I hate PC!" is the voice commonly echoed across the country. Those people are all a bunch of "goodie two shoes." They don't even think about what they are doing; they just insist their way is the right way without ever considering the alternatives.

Maybe political correctness has gone too far, but how can we really tell when it seems everyone has a different interpretation of what it really is? Some say it is affirmative action when an employer favors a black man over a white man. Others maintain it is one way to ensure equality to all races. Still, others say it is a movement that was once effective, but has lost its appeal. However, no one ever really says what political correctness is. It can be generalized by saying that it is essentially the feeling that everyone should be treated equally. Still, everyone just forms their own idea of what it is, and an opinion as to whether or not it is helpful. Then along comes the affirmative action debate, which many believe is another way to make the country politically correct.

But, again, what is affirmative action? According to Dinesh D'Souza, an author and outspoken member of the PC debate, it is a tool that many blacks used in the '70's to get equal access to jobs. Affirmative action forced employers to give potential black employees equal consideration with potential white employees. Then everyone jumped on the issue and said, "We are the 'new' blacks," as D'Souza put it on a recent episode of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Women began using affirmative action, then Asians, and all other minorities used it as a rallying cry to get the fair treatment they wanted. Now many people use it as a crutch to stand on when applying for a job. Some people, though they know they are not qualified, will apply for a job because they know a company must hire a certain number of minorities. It seems affirmative action is now a way to get back at the white majority, for things that were done long ago. In short, affirmative action has snowballed into a much bigger issue, and it is not being used for what it was originally intended.

After long debate, Proposition 209 was recently voted into law in California. However, it took many people a long time to interpret the meaning of this bill. It is related to affirmative action, but supporters of both sides of the proposition argued fiercely over how it would be worded on the ballot. A recent poll by the Los Angeles Times showed that 59% of voters favored Proposition 209 when they were told it "would ban discrimination and preferential treatment."

However, support dropped 11% when people were told it "would effectively eliminate state-run affirmative action programs." This shows us that people have good views of affirmative action, but do not relate them to discrimination.

Supporters of the proposition say that using the term "affirmative action" is too vague, and that is why they lobbied to get "discrimination and preferential treatment" on the ballot. Opponents say these words are misleading because racial and gender discrimination are illegal, and obviously, people will vote against it. They wanted voters to know specifically that affirmative action programs would be eliminated. Supporters countered again, saying that not all affirmative action programs would be eliminated, only ones with racial and gender preferences. Both sides went to state court, with supporters gaining more of an edge. The ballot described the proposition as a "prohibition against discrimination or preferential treatment."

But now that we have established that people seem to be in favor of affirmative action, but are unclear about its definition, we should examine how this might tie in with political correctness. Affirmative action is just one of the many issues that have been clumped together under the term. It has also come to be the origin of what has forced people to rethink what they say every time they open their mouths. As Matthew Berger points out, "It forces one to rewrite the English language and abandon the principle of being straight and to the point. It makes people feel good about themselves.


Typically, this is a useful objective, but you do not want people to feel too good about themselves, because they might not change their negative characteristics. This is a valid point, as I will illustrate later. But for now, Berger points to an example of stupid people not being stupid anymore. Rather, they are mentally challenged.

This phenomenon of "(insert your favorite word here) challenged" has gone too far and is out of control. In fact, there is a newly updated book containing PC terms, The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook.. It has all the appropriate terms for people who are blank challenged. For example, "looters" are now "nontraditional shoppers" (72). Terms like mentally, physically, vertically, horizontally or fashion challenged, are just ways of masking the truth. While some might argue that "fat" or "dumb" are very hurtful words, does it matter if overweight people are called something else? They still are what they are. To change how someone is referred to does not change the person. It does not even change our attitudes toward them. Some people might say it does, but the speaker's thoughts are only being hidden behind a different phrase if they use the term "obese" rather than "fat."

Another time people cannot say what they want is when they are in public. There are numerous wrong ways of referring to people. For example, some Indians want to be called Indians, some Native Americans. And some blacks want to be called black, while some others prefer African-American or Negro. Shaun Hicks sums up many peoples' feelings when he says, "Basically I've gotten to the point where I'm afraid to say anything because I'm afraid I'd be called politically incorrect."

Some people are afraid to say black because there might be someone who prefers to be called African-American within earshot who will take offense to that, or vise versa.

There is an example of this type of thing in John Taylor's essay, "Are You Politically Incorrect?" Taylor sites many modern examples of political correctness, but emphasizes the case of Professor Stephan Thernstrom at Harvard. In his "The Peopling of America" class he referred to Native Americans as Indians and read from the diary of a southern slave holder. Even though he explained to his students that Indians prefer to be called Indians, and that there were no known slave diaries which gave black slaves the same treatment as their white slave holders, two students complained that he was being "racially insensitive" (133). They contacted the school paper, which ran a story before getting a comment from the professor, permanently ruining his reputation. As Thernstrom said, "It's like being called a Commie in the fifties, whatever explanation you offered, once accused, you're always a suspect" (135).

Professor Thernstrom knew what he did was right, but the students going straight to the paper before going speaking to him did damage. Thernstrom tried to come up with ways to prove he was right, but could not. He tried to think of ways to continue teaching the course, but could not. He realized that the same allegations might surface in the future, so he decided to drop the course. Now, because of two students, who themselves could be called "overly sensitive," future students will not have the option of taking a popular course at Harvard (135).

Another example of what happens when people speak the truth in public is David Brinkley's commentary of President Clinton after the newly re-elected president gave his acceptance speech. Many people saw the speech as extremely vague, dry and conservative. Brinkley called Clinton's speech "wonderful, and an inspiring speech full of wit, poetry, music, love and affection-plus more goddamn nonsense," Brinkley added that the president was a bore and didn't "have a creative bone in his body." These comments, as one can imagine, were not well received by many people, especially Clinton's supporters. However, was Brinkley only speaking the truth, albeit a truth that many people did not like to hear? Have we become so uptight that a man cannot even comment on a speech without drawing loads of criticism himself? Mike Barnicle seems to think so.

In a recent column in The Boston Globe, Barnicle stands by Brinkley for saying what he said, and criticized society for harping on the journalist. Because we have been so dumbed down in the last couple of decades, and because so many of us see the television set as part of the family and not as an appliance, viewers were outraged. We sit like morons in front of talking wallpaper every night, watching actors get hacked to death and commercials that verge on pornography.


We have problems with a wise old man making a few astute observations about a politician; we get angry and write letters to the editor. How bizarre. Brinkley's only crime was telling the truth on television rather than on a street corner.

Should television personalities be held to a higher standard than mainstream America? Why should there be a standard if in either case the person is telling the truth? How can we criticize without expecting to be criticized back?

A simple solution is presented in Eugene Genovese's essay, "Heresy, Yes- Sensitivity, No." He covers a multitude of topics in his essay which opposes political correctness, but he presents alternatives to most of the things he is critical of. The solution I am referring to is to always speak with respect; "I insist only that students challenge my point of view in accordance with the canons of (Southern) courtesy, and in obedience to a rule: lay down plausible premises, argue logically, appeal to evidence. If they say things that offend others, the offended ones are invited to reply, fiercely, but in accordance with the same courtesy and in obedience to the same rule" (127). This solves the problem with calling someone fat and hurting their feelings. Call them fat, but not in an offensive manner. If you argue over whether to call them fat, horizontally challenged or obese, it does not change what they are. You can insult someone just the same by calling them fat or obese by the tone of voice you say it in. A downgrading tone could be used in both cases. Tell people they are fat, for in fact they are, but do so respectfully. This will help the person and will also teach the speaker to speak in a respectful manner.

The same goes for Professor Thernstrom and his students. Unfortunately, his students did not extend him respect despite the fact that he was respectful in giving his lecture. They did not respectfully argue back, but they went directly to the newspaper. This broke down the line of communication and hurt everyone involved. Instead of worrying about altering what we say, we should think about altering the way in which we say things.

A new debate that seems to be taking the place of this freedom to say whatever you want, says William Henry in his essay The Politics of Separation, is a banishment of all hate speech.

"In place of freedom of speech has come a demand for freedom from speech, if that speech is deemed offensive by any victim or group" (74). It is an extension of the above argument that insulting someone for the sake of insulting them is not acceptable. However, the problem arises when we try to define these insults, or "hate speech" as it is often referred to. Henry's definition, "anything that any recognized minority or victim group chooses to find offensive" (73), shows us the problem. What any group chooses to find offensive. How can there be any limits to this when it is so subjective? This would allow any group to simply say they found a particular phrase or comment offensive. Since even the courts have said that hate speech is unconstitutional, this gives groups power behind an accusation of hate speech. And since it is so open to opinion, there is no way to concretely say that one thing is hate speech while another is not.

In Genovese's essay, a review of Dinesh D'Souza's book Illiberal Education, he not only tells how he feels about the book, but he also gives his own ideas on political correctness. He takes D'Souza's ideas and carries them further. He talks about the much debated affirmative action, examining its pros and cons. The biggest argument that he offers against is UC Berkeley's practice of having lower standards of entrance and financial aid for blacks than whites, who both had lower standards than Asians. He rips Berkeley for this system, feeling it is an extreme case of affirmative action gone wrong. At the end of the essay, though, he presents alternatives for this system. He uses D'Souza's "equality of opportunity" (130), whereby students are considered not by their particular racial group, but more by their class. "Equality of opportunity" refers to giving everyone an equal opportunity to getting the position of aid.

I think that this is a much better system. Having blacks, Asians, Indians, or Latinos at a school for the sake of "diversity" is not only detrimental to the people you are discriminating against, but also unethical. The case cited of "discrimination against qualified white students in favor of less qualified black students who receive financial support despite coming from affluent families" raises even more problems (130). To not only favor the lesser qualified blacks but to also give them financial support is a disgrace. This looks very much like the school is bribing the black students to attend their university. It is also the surfacing of "reverse racism," discriminating against whites rather that blacks.

Therefore, D'Souza's system makes a lot more sense. Show no favoritism, but rather give the money to those who both need it and deserve it. This would limit the unqualified students getting aid, but also only the most qualified getting it, thus finding a balance of the two. Similarly, unqualified white students, who have for years been admitted to prominent universities because of their affluence, should not be given preferential treatment. This would not be a total reworking of the system; it would only require a few adjustments to the existing systems, most notably getting rid of quotas so it could actually work. It is not some far-fetched idea that sounds good in theory, but once applied would fall apart. It seems as if D'Souza has put a lot of thought into his proposals and it seems that they would work.

I feel that giving openings at colleges or jobs to minorities simply to fill a quota is wrong. The openings should always go to the most qualified people. When affirmative action is practiced, often times white people will miss out because the institution or company needs to fill its quotas and be able to tell people that they do not discriminate against minorities. This is something that is very close to me. When my mother applied for a job at Children's Hospital in Boston, she was told that she was the only person who had applied. She was more than qualified to receive the position, but was told there was one way she would have trouble getting the job. If a black woman with equal or lower qualifications came along, the hospital might have had to hire her to avoid being called racist. This is what upsets me about "political correctness." Let the most qualified person be hired or accepted, without having to worry about legal consequences. This example is another way in which "reverse discrimination" is emerging.

This reverse discrimination of hiring minorities over whites is becoming a major issue. MacLean's magazine ran an article in 1991 by Barbara Amiel, A challenge to the new chancellors, in which she wrote about two cases in which two minority chancellors with questionable qualifications were hired.

"The new chancellor at York University is Oscar Peterson. Peterson, who is black, is a brilliant jazz pianist, and one could imagine him as dean of the university's school of music. But what possible qualifications-other than his fashionable status as a minority member-does he have to be chancellor?" (11)

Amiel sites a similar situation at the University of Toronto in which a Jewish woman was hired. "I can't help feeling that Wolfe's religion and the fact that she is a woman are her major attributes" (11).

Fortunately, in the recent presidential debates both President Clinton and Senator Dole said they opposed quotas. I am happy to see a shift from the mandatory hiring of x number of blacks, y number of Asians, and z number of Mexicans for every 100 white people. As I said before, let the most qualified have the jobs.

The extent to which political correctness has gone has led us to embrace some seemingly offensive people, like Dennis Rodman and Howard Stern. Stern is a radio talk show host and self proclaimed "king of all media." He is famous for his degrading remarks toward women and offending people. Rodman is a basketball player who has recently gotten more attention for his cross dressing and hair colors than his basketball play. People are now so afraid to really say what they feel that when someone comes along who is willing to say and do what they want, they are admired.

Rodman and Stern do just that. They both are not afraid to be a little different, though Stern insists he only says what everyone is thinking. As Richard Zoglin said in an article in Time, "Stern's gross-out radio act, like his book, is all about saying the unsayable" (72). When his first book came out people turned out by the thousands at book signings. "Quite a response to a 435-page autobiography filled with explicit sex talk, nasty put-downs of such celebrities as Johnny Carson and Arsenio Hall, and rampant ethnic slurs." (71) Rodman is not afraid to put on a dress and high heels and go out in public. In fact, he enjoys it. "Normal" people, of course, would never do that for fear of being considered gay or a transvestite. Similarly, Stern will call women what he wants and talk to them however he wants with no ill feelings. Many men might want to do this, but do not, probably for fear of a sexual harassment suit. When we fear what will happen when we speak, we are left to listen to and read about people who don't care about the results of their speech. We have become a society so afraid of what might happen when we open our mouths, that we end up not saying anything and marveling at people who do.

As far as political correctness goes, it has served its purpose. It gave minorities an opportunity to have the same chances in employment as whites. That being said, it should now be taken away.

We have reached the point where we have to title a show Politically Incorrect for a panel of media personalities to be able to say what they want. Reverse discrimination is abundant and whites are beginning to suffer. Schools are accepting minorities in great numbers so that they can say, "we are diverse." But at what price? At the expense, often times, of more qualified students who were looked over so minorities could be let in. I am not saying only let whites in, the same applies if the decision comes down to a black student and an Asian student and the Asian is taken to have equal enrollment of the two races. Show no preferences, and as the saying goes, "may the best man win."


Works Cited

Amiel, Barbara. "A challenge to the new chancellors." MacLean's. 24 June 1991. 11.

Barnicle, Mike. "Oops! Truth Slipped Out." Boston Globe. 12 Nov. 1996, B1

Berger, Matthew. Personal interview. 11 Oct. 1996.

Boxall, Bettina. "A Political Battle Grinds On as a War of Wording Ballot." Los Angeles Times. 1 Oct. 1996, 3 (A)

Genovese, Eugene. "Heresy, Yes- Sensitivity, No." Conversations. Ed. Jack Selzer. 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn, 1997. 120- 132.

Henry, William A. III. "The Politics of Separation." Time. Fall 1993. 73-75.

Hicks, Shaun. Personal interview. 13 Oct. 1996

Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Comedy Central, Los Angeles. 23 Oct. 1996.

Presidential Debate. NBC. WSTM, Syracuse. 9 Oct. 1996.

Szabo, Ildiko. Personal interview. 12 Oct. 1996.

Taylor, John. "Are You Politically Correct?" Conversations.Ed. Jack Selzer. 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn, 1997. 133-150.

Zoglin, Richard. "The Shock of the Blue." Time 25 Oct. 1993: 71-72


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