Wednesday, November 08, 2006


Today, I spent several hours writing a response to an article. Here is the article, followed by my response.

Holiday Political Correctness Solves No Problems

Tom Speaker

Get ready, everyone. December is just around the corner. Soon, it will be time to light the nondenominational holiday tree.

"Nondenominational holiday tree?" you ask. "I thought it was called a Christmas tree." Indeed it once was. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where political correctness and over consideration of people's feelings supersede history and common sense.

The "nondenominational holiday tree" actually has very Christian roots. Its tradition traces back to Western Germany in the 1500s. The trees were called "paradeisbaum," or "paradise trees." They were annually brought into homes Dec. 24 to celebrate the Feast of Adam and Eve. The trees reached America in 1700 and became popular by 1850.

Christmas trees have clearly been a part of the Christian culture for hundreds of years. Given Christianity's ubiquity in America, people often try to neutralize the trees so that everyone can feel accepted. But this leads one to wonder: How would other cultures and religions feel if their own symbols and traditions were universalized? Would people sit and smile if the Jewish menorah was renamed the "Nonreligious Nine-Branched Candelabrum?" How would Muslims feel if the star and crescent was retitled the "Cosmological Simplistic Representation of No Specific Creed?"

The Christmas season (whoops, holiday season) isn't the only example. This brand of over-sensitivity and revisionism is permeating society to ridiculous degrees. A few years ago, the University of Dayton sent out a letter stating that the term "freshman" has too many negative connotations and must be replaced with "first-year" so that people aren't afraid of their class identity.

Several people see the phrase "mental retardation" as too pejorative (given the widespread use of insults such as "you're retarded"), and now it's nearly impossible to determine what to say - is it "challenged," "developmentally disabled," "developmentally delayed" or "mentally subnormal?"

Some feminists view the terms "woman" and "women" as symbolic of the historical and continuing subordination of their sex and suggest that society find replacements for the words, such as "womyn," "wimmen" or "womon." One European circle even proposed eliminating sex in profiling altogether.

The problem with modifications such as these is that they change history and terminology so that people will feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, taking such action prevents people from adjusting to the world on their own and facing its realities. It is one thing to erase blatantly offensive labels (such as the infamous N-word), but history and neutral commonplace words are something else altogether. Holiday trees, nondenominational or not, still have Christian origins.

The "developmentally delayed" will face ridicule, no matter what they are called. And whether you're a "first-year" or a "freshman," some people will always assume that you are naive and inexperienced.

People will be more prepared for the real world if they deal with these stereotypes, prejudices and facts of history on their own instead of through a sensitive vocabulary.


A mixture of genuine curiosity for one portion of his article and blatant disagreement with the other motivated me to write a response to the November 7 publication, “Holiday Political Correctness Solves No Problems,” by Tom Speaker.

Mr. Speaker calls the current culture we live in a place where “political correctness and over consideration of people’s feelings supersede history and common sense.” Highlighting the once called, “Christmas tree” now synonymous with the “non denominational holiday tree,” Speaker uses this example as illustration of society’s “over sensitivity” to be politically correct. After providing references about the origins of the Christmas tree, he jumps to, “How would other cultures and religions feel if their own symbols and traditions were universalized?”

Christmas is two things. The Christmas holy-day, in its religious origin, celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Christmas, the holiday, has evolved to be winter celebration of seasons, Santa Claus, and other proverbial winter icons. The tree holds significance for both. The effort to call the Christmas tree other names may very well be an effort to be mindful of non-believers, agnostics, or atheists, but it is certainly not in the name of religious diversity and faith inclusion. Even if the symbolic broadening of the Christmas tree is done in the name of “political correctness,” it’s still problematic to use a symbol with Christian heritage. The underlying assumption is that everyone recognizes and agrees with this symbol.

On October 26, the University Multicultural Council sponsored a Religious Diversity forum where calendars with different religious holidays and symbols were distributed. This simple gesture, featuring Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Wiccan, Jewish, Jain, and Orthodox Christian traditions, demonstrates there is indeed a societal and University need to be more inclusive and open-minded of other religions and cultures. It is not a call for Christian symbols to change its history. It’s not a call even for Christmas-goers to share the holiday fever. It’s a call for all individuals, to bring themselves to a higher level of integrity and intentional respect for other religious practices and beliefs.

What I found most disturbing is the article then jumps to language use as further illustrating how “ridiculous” and PC our society has become. Speaker cites the University of Dayton’s stance that the term “freshman” is too negative and must be replaced with “first year” as pictorial hypersensitivity. Perhaps the administration of UD should not be criticized for taking action against the underlying problems of hazing and other problems that come with seniority issues. Perhaps UD viewed the term, “fresh-man” as too narrow and ignoring issues of gender identity and is attempting to model a new viewpoint.

Speaker also goes on to write, that “several people” find the phrase mental retardation as “too pejorative,” and complains “it’s nearly impossible to determine what to say.” What I found backward is that Speaker finds fault with “mental retardation,” an actual diagnostic terms for persons born with lower levels of cognitive ability and not with the population that nonchalantly uses “you’re retarded” as a degrading verbal hit. But, according to Speaker, these human beings “will face ridicule, no matter what they are called.” It is the incredulous ignorance and abuse of our language, not our "political correctness," that is superceding common sense.

Also, Speaker identifies problems with the terms “woman and women.” As a feminist of color, I am curious as to what group of feminists Speaker is referring to when he writes “some feminists and one European circle.” Feminism is a naturally evolving term with respect to race, class, gender, age, ability, and religion. It is a lens to view a world of difference to promote equality for all persons. Some of my feminist peers and colleagues do prefer alternative spellings, such as “womyn.” However, their reasons are not to “change history and terminology so that [they] will feel better about themselves,” it is a personal preference to express their own dissent in opposition to systematic privilege based on gender. It is an action to heighten awareness, hardly an attempt to feel better about themselves and the state of patriarchy.

It’s the lack of cultural competency, not vocabulary modification that is the real problem. Malicious labels, insults, and misinformed use of words create a prejudicial climate that panders to the lowest opinions in our communities. Speaker states that vocabulary adjustment will not change the world, but I disagree. As Martin Heidegger states, “Language is the house of being, and [you] must exist in that house.” It’s not just about the language, it about the climate those words create.

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