Leaders have to be politically correct

The term politically correct’ in modern usage, is used to describe some language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society.

I recently heard a two year old recently reciting all the old nursery rhymes I knew. But I stumbled as he recited them, because he was singing them differently from the way I learnt them.

Baa Baa Black Sheep for instance was Baa Baa Pink Sheep.  I couldn’t help asking the parent why the black sheep had become pink. I was told that black was no longer politically correct. So children were now being taught new politically correct versions of old nursery rhymes. Another one that got me was the line ‘one for your master and one for your dame’. Master was again no longer politically correct because typically the word was used in the context of ‘slave’.

So children of the next few decades are going to be brought up in politically correct ways that we have been forced to re-learn.This has an important lesson for leaders.

When Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel was quoted to have said that his app was only for rich people and not for poor countries like India and Spain he was being politically incorrect.

In fact, Economics was one of the first disciplines to take cognizance of politically correct language. When I did my post graduate degree in Economics, our economics text books did speak about rich and poor countries, developed and under-developed countries. But economists quickly recognized that it was politically correct to call under-developed and poor countries as developing. After all development is a continuum so it does make sense to categorize countries as developed and developing.

Someone said America is plagued by “political correctness run amok.” We were told this by Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, when he tried to defend his old boss for tweeting an anti-Semitic Internet meme depicting a Star of David atop a pile of cash.

Mulayam Singh Chairman of the Samajwadi party after the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case when India was enraged and demanding death sentences for rapists said “ Boys will be boys, they make mistakes, why hang them?” This led to a massive outrage amongst the people of India.

Tarun Vijay an ex MP of the BJP, compounded a racist incident where Nigerian students were beaten in Delhi’s NCR. Indians in general were being accused of being racist because of the incident. Vijay was invited by news channel Al Jazeera’s online show The Stream to discuss the string of recent attacks on African students in Greater Noida. During his defence of India and its culture, the former Rajya Sabha MP made the controversial remark.

“If we were racist, why would we have all the entire south…Tamil, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra…why do we live with them? We have black people around us,”

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent out a strong message to the party leaders a few days ago to practice silence. Modi said: “The Microphone is not a machine that forces people to speak. When in power they should practice the art of silence.” But perhaps Prime Minister Modi could have added that more than silence, it is about being politically correct when you speak, that is more important.

If you judge that a group wishes to be known by a particular term and that the term is widely understood and that using any other would seem odd, old-fashioned or offensive, then use it. Context is important. Coloured for example is a common term in South Africa for people of mixed race; it is not considered derogatory. But in other parts of the world it could be. Times and terms are constantly changing. Expressions that were in common use a few decades ago are now objectionable.

Political correctness of course in the long term might inhibit both language and expression. Imagine trying to describe someone who is ‘short’ as vertically challenged, or ‘crime’ as the street activity index, or cannabalism as intra species dining!

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc (solsarc.org ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( whiteboardindia.org ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.

2 Comments

  1. I think political correctness should remain exactly where it’s meant to be: politics. I hate how PC language has crept it’s way into casual conversations and debate, nowadays. You should rarely swear and use slurs, but we shouldn’t have to worry about possibly offending entire groups of people when just talking casually.

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