The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the nation’s leading daily newspapers, bowed to public pressure this week to change one of its headlines – twice – for stating the obvious: Our new First Lady is sexy. The offending story, which ran right after the Women’s March, was published not in the political or national news or op-ed pages, but in the fashion section, whose very mission is to report on the style and fashion choices of prominent public figures and their cultural significance.
When the newspaper posted a tweet drawing attention to the piece, headlined “Melania Trump: The First Sexy First Lady?” the twitter-sphere erupted, with outraged feminists accusing the Inquirer of “sexist stupidity” that objectified women. A courageous staffer tweeted back, “We didn’t objectify Melania. She did that to herself when she posed naked for a magazine.”
One of the paper’s senior editors, however, issued the requisite public apology, groveling that many readers were offended and that “we can do better.” The original headline was softened to “Melania Trump Is Clearly Embracing Her Sexy As First Lady,” and then polished to an elegant politically correct sheen as “Melania Trump Brings Sultry Elegance to the White House.”
Having just returned to the United States after working for a multinational company in Switzerland for the past 15 years, I’m appalled by how quickly, easily and routinely criticism of normal adult speech elicits a knee-jerk reaction of bending over backward to apologize. I’m encountering a lot of outraged people since my return who are fighting mad about a lot of different things, many of them petty, in my opinion, like the Philadelphia Inquirer fashion story, and others much more significant, like the new administration’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act and ban on Muslims from several countries from entering the country.
Among the things that outrage me is the hair-trigger, hypersensitive political correctness that has wrapped its long, tyrannical tentacles around our nation’s public discourse and locked it in a death grip. For the record, I did NOT vote for Donald Trump. I find his style, demeanor, and rhetoric crude and hateful, and I oppose many of his policies. But I understand why his supporters fervently believe that the gender, identity and ideological thought police in this country have gained far too much influence and must be checked.
Whatever You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You
This all began before I left the country in 2001 and grew out of all proportion while I was away. In the late 80s or early 90s, my company in the U.S. put all managers through a program concocted by the HR and law departments, with some high-priced outside help. It was called “Managing in an Equal Opportunity Environment” and its obvious purpose was to reduce the likelihood of sexual harassment and -discrimination lawsuits. The takeaway was, NEVER, EVER, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, WHETHER WITH A CLOSE PERSONAL FEMALE COLLEAGUE OR BRAND NEW ASSOCIATE, SAY, IMPLY OR CONVEY ANY IMPRESSION THAT YOU FIND HER ATTRACTIVE, APPEALING OR WELL-COIFFED OR –DRESSED – NOT EVEN THAT YOU LIKE HER SHOES.
I found the effort to avoid costly lawsuits understandable, but the iron-handed gag order on what has always struck me as normal human discourse ridiculous. I liked complimenting my female colleagues, including my lovely, statuesque boss at the time. It made me feel good and never seemed to offend anyone. So I continued it throughout a corporate career spanning nearly 35 years, while always maintaining what I sincerely believed was a genuine tone of collegial appreciation and good will.
I was always careful not to cross the line into speech or behavior my judgment told me was inappropriate. I also, by the way, have always been an equal-opportunity appreciator of good looks, complimenting male colleagues and bosses as well for nice haircuts, well-appointed suits or just looking especially sharp for an important meeting or presentation. And aware of my own predispositions, I was always extra careful to evaluate male and female employees alike strictly by their work performance.
As popular and highly regarded a role model of decorum as our outgoing president Barack Obama apparently, agrees with me. In April 2013 he caused a firestorm when, speaking at a fundraiser in suburban San Francisco, he had the audacity to comment that the prominent jurist, Kamala Harris, in addition to being brilliant, dedicated, tough and fair, “also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.” Harris has since gone on to become the junior United States senator from California and has experienced no apparent ill effects to her career or reputation after the former president’s grievously sexist remark.
But as has become so disappointingly and fecklessly customary in American society, President Obama apologized for his instantly lambasted non-offense. He called his good friend Harris to apologize to her in person, and the media, as always, shouted his mea culpa from the rooftops as a sharp rebuke to anyone who might contemplate such an offense in the future.
PC: The Great American Export
What is especially sad for me is that this sort of political correctness was a decidedly American thing when I began my expat assignment in Switzerland in 2001. My European colleagues actually made a sport of subjecting me to bawdy adult humor, like the “Breast Test” they pressured me to take, examining 20 side-by-side pairs of mammaries online to determine which were natural and which enhanced. They reveled in exposing me to this stuff, thinking my delicate American sensibilities would be offended and I’d cower in discomfort. I didn’t. But boy did things change in the ensuing years when more and more Americans made the leap to the global headquarters and the acquisition of a major U.S. company cross-pollinated our culture and caused us, too, to muzzle our humor and how we spoke to and about our colleagues.
This was very much on my mind when, a few years ago my boss, a European man, asked me to write him a brief memo providing my candid assessment of a male and female colleague whose professional development plans he’d soon be discussing with senior members of HR and business management. The woman was tall and slender, nice-looking, always professionally and stylishly attired and extremely competent in all aspects of her work. She was a formidable presence, but also pleasant and congenial; she engendered trust and confidence in her business partners and followership in her staff.
The man, a former business news anchor on Swiss television, was also tall and slim, nice-looking and competent. He was extremely well-liked, in part, I thought, because of his infectious charm. He had a way of winking at you spontaneously in casual conversation that just made you feel comfortable and close to him. During his evening newscaster days, I’d sometimes come home to watch him and appreciate that endearing wink and winning smile to the camera, even though he spoke in Switzerland’s unfathomable German dialect and I never understood a word he said.
Just to be provocative, and because I knew my boss could pick and choose whatever he wanted from my memo in the professional development meeting, I snuck the word “attractive” in my brief assessment of my female colleague’s leadership qualities, and likewise described my male colleague as possessing attractive qualities and a charming personality that made him a great collaborator and effective consensus builder.
My boss confided in me later that he decided to be intentionally provocative by sticking pretty closely to the words I’d written to describe my co-workers’ possession of the type of “leadership presence” and engaging personas so valued in the corporate environment. As my boss recounted the story to me, the men in the room let the words roll off them like water off a duck’s back. The women went frantic, hectoring my boss about his outrageous indiscretion and telling him the use of words like “attractive” in evaluating women’s work performance was not only inappropriate, but quite possibly actionable.
The World We Live In
And so it is in the world we live in today. We are all infected with “unconscious bias,” our human resources departments lecture us. Our brains are infested with stereotypes that cloud our judgment and skew our sense of fairness. We are indoctrinated to believe that women are caregivers and men bread-winners; we’re wired by nature or culture to give tall people preference over short ones, beautiful people the edge over homely ones. Study after study validates the omnipresence of our prejudices and we must be on constant alert against their insidious effects.
I get all that. My only question is, does putting a gag order on calling things what they are make them what we would like them to be? This seems to be a big part of what political correctness is all about. And it doesn’t work. Facing up to what’s really in our minds and discussing and dealing with it does.
Throughout my 35 year career in corporate communications, I have always tried to follow two rules: Never dispute the obvious, and speak up to state the obvious when no one else will. I retired last month, but I’m standing by those rules.