Recently I’ve been talking with some writers who are worried about political correctness – the pressure we may be feeling to choose a polite word in a sensitive situation.
Here’s one question we’ve been talking about: “How can I get my message across if someone else is telling me which words to use?” Here’s another: “Are we putting our democracy in danger?” And one of my friends wondered whether it’s possible to talk openly about sensitive subjects when we’re also thinking about being politically correct.
Instead of trying to answer those questions, I shared some memories. When I was a teenager, I read two remarkable books written by a former patient at a leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana: Miracle at Carville and No One Must Ever Know. The author – “Betty Martin” (she never revealed her real name) – described the heartbreak and loneliness she felt after she was diagnosed with leprosy as a young woman.
Eventually she and her husband (a patient she fell in love with and married in Carville) were cured. But the fear of being labeled a leper was so great that she kept their secret until her death in 2002 at the age of 93.
Soon after I read both books, I watched a TV documentary about leprosy. The TV host interviewed a physician who specialized in Hansen’s Disease (as leprosy is now called).
It was obvious that physician was dedicated to helping his patients return to health. But he had one complaint: he resented the pressure he was under to use the name Hansen’s Disease. “We should keep calling it leprosy,” he said. “That’s the correct name.”
I wonder if he would have felt that way if he had been of those patients. What would it be like to have even your own doctor refer to you as a “leper”? How does that help? Or – to turn the question around – what would have happened if had switched to the term Hansen’s Disease? Would he have been a less effective doctor?
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I used to drive by a house every day that had a large sign posted by the local police department: “Deaf and dumb child lives here.” It was a warning to drivers that this child couldn’t hear a car approaching or a horn honking. Good idea.
But was “dumb” really necessary? Suppose that deaf child – let’s call her “Sally” – had a brother who rode the school bus. Every day he and his friends saw that sign from the bus window.
Would some of the other kids on the bus have made fun of Sally? How would her brother feel? Would he have felt obliged to defend her? Do we really want to put those two children – “Sally” and her brother – into that situation?
* * * * *
Is our democracy stronger if we say that there are around 6500 lepers (rather than 6500 Hansen’s patients) in the US today? And should the feelings of those 6500 patients make a difference?
Is it useful to make sure that everyone knows that Sally is “dumb”? Would our society lose something important if the police had tried to be more sensitive to the feelings of a little girl and her family?
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I’m a woman of Polish-American descent. I do not tolerate being called a Polack, a broad, or a babe. If you were a professional writer, would those restrictions hamper you? If you met me in person, would you chafe because I insisted that you refer to me as Polish-American or as a woman?
No answers today, just questions.