I’m not politically correct and in general political correctness annoys me. I’m also not naïve enough to know that I don’t routinely censor myself The wrong phrase or description can quickly bring the wrath of a whole religion, race, nation, or minority group. While some people tend to be sincerely trying to avoid offending people by their choice of words an equal number of people are just worried about being sued or vilified. There is a strong overlap of groups who are offended by certain words. and groups that are given special protection by law.
These groups are fluid and change over time. For example, if homosexuality ever becomes a suspect class, the number of jokes, comments, and even discussion of homosexuality in the workplace would radically change. New terms might have to be invented to avoid using words any new protected class may view as a slur. Writing about minority groups is like crossing a politically correct minefield, one wrong step and you will offend someone. For example, according to the New York Times style manual the term “a gay man” is correct but describing a group of gay men as “gays,” apparently is not. “Sexual orientation” is correct, while “sexual preference” is discouraged. The National Center on Disability and Journalism has made a list so that any writer may be as politically correct as they dare. Interestingly, while “gay male” is correct, “disabled male” is wrong. Instead, the person is expected to be put before the disability. I’m sure I just blew up two or three mines in this paragraph alone.
Two things this week made me think more about protected classifications. First, in the show Boston Legal, William Shatner was having a blind date with a lawyer me met on “FaceSpace.” He had a photo of his date, who looked quite striking, and then she arrived, all 4’4” of her. Over the course of dinner, he inadvertently called her a midget, which I have since learned is a derogatory term, and she sued him for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Of course, Boston Legal is just a TV show and just because someone calls you a bigoted, racist, or rude name isn’t actionable in most circumstances. Apparently right or wrong, you can still use “little people” as they prefer to be called to be the joke on a popular TV show. As odd as it seems, if you are under 4’5” you probably have a genetic condition and can’t be discriminated against because of height. However, if you are just short yet with no genetic abnormality – you are fair game.
I also read this week that obesity does not have to be regarded as a disability. A quick search of web sites that cater to persons with disabilities (apparently “the disabled” is yet another slur “revealed that obesity need not be referred to as a disability or given special journalistic treatment. As recently as this month, a federal appeals court ruled that an employee who was morbidly obese, he weighed 450 pounds, had to prove he had a disability. To prove his weight was a disability he had to prove it had a “physiological cause,” which he failed to do. In the end, the appeals court found that discrimination based on a mere physical condition (morbid obesity) was not prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act. To be clear, the court did not rule that obesity is never a disability, as obviously there are a myriad of physiological causes for weight gain and retention.
For all you English majors out there, editors, and of course attorneys, this is one of those crazy cases were the comma makes all the difference. The case centers on whether an EEOC regulation properly included the term “physiological disorder or condition” as opposed to the term “physiological disorder, condition “ As I have said before, words matter, and in this case, punctuation mattered too. In this case, one comma might mean that obesity is not a disability under most circumstances -With the percentage of Americans who are obese around 30% and rising, and those who are overweight at 60%, the political pressure to change a few words or punctuation marks will surely increase. Fat jokes may one day become a thing of the past if the “circumferently challenged” have their way.