Political correctness label doesn't always fit

One of the true-false questions I put to my college journalism students is drawn from their textbook.

The statement on the quiz is: "Concern for bias-free language betrays an overly zealous political correctness."

The correct answer to this is False. The textbook suggests that we should be careful about biased language.

But many kids in the class get this wrong. My guess is that they have heard so much about political correctness that they buy into this dismissive attitude.

For the same reason, I figured I would attract more negative than positive comments on my recent column about concerns over the marketing pitch for an area haunted barn that said escapees from the state hospital were holed up there and torturing people.

I did an accompanying blog post about political correctness and agreed that some controversies — Konkrete Kids, for example — are ridiculous. But the fact that some complaints are far-fetched doesn't mean all concerns about misleading or degrading language and images are out of line.

Sportscaster Bob Costas laid this out in his recent commentary about the Washington Redskins. He has no quarrel with Braves, Chiefs, Indians, Warriors and other nicknames drawn from native Americans. They're not degrading, although you could argue that some of their logos are objectionable.

But Redskins? "Think for a moment," Costas said, "about the term redskins and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be if directed toward African Americans, Hispanics, Asians or members of any other ethnic group when considered that way. Redskins can't possibly honor a heritage or a noble character trait. Nor could it possibly be considered a neutral term. It's an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent."

Even more compelling, for me, was an email I received from Tim Clement, whose work is closely related to the issue that arose with the haunted barn. I decided to share the whole thing, because he explained the concern much better than I did in my column.

He wrote, " I work for the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation on a project that seeks to reduce stigma encountered by people with mental illness. I would like to thank you for bringing attention to the Psychopath Sanctuary Haunted Barn presented by Devil's Folly and I applaud your take on this situation and the decisions you have made regarding language usage. However, I would like to correct a misconception you may have about the nature of the complaints advocates like me make regarding exhibitions such as Psychopath Sanctuary.

"Without question, I am concerned that people with mental illness and their loved ones may be offended by something like this or that they may find it hurtful. But I am more concerned with another segment of the population: everyone else. When advocates protest an event like Psychopath Sanctuary they do so primarily because of the role it can play in reinforcing stereotypes, namely the stereotype that people with mental illness are violent and unpredictable. Endorsement of stereotypes leads to prejudicial attitudes, and discriminatory practices often result from prejudice.

"When advocates talk about stigma, this is what they mean. Research has consistently identified fear of prejudice and expectations of discrimination as two of the main barriers to seeking treatment. Roughly 25 percent of American adults have a diagnosable mental health condition yet 60-70 percent of them do not seek help. Stigma is not the only reason for this discouraging statistic, but it is a major one.

"I understand that a haunted house is not meant to be taken seriously, but we do have to remember who the intended audience is: children and adolescents. I do not think it is outside the realm of possibility that Psychopath Sanctuary could plant the seeds of fear and exclusion toward people with mental illness within the impressionable mind of a child. After all, if a child asks his mother if zombies, werewolves and aliens are real, she will tell him that they are not. But if he asks his mother if people with mental illness are real, she will have to say that they are.

"Even if she is very progressive and tells him the truth, that the vast, overwhelming majority of people with mental illness do not commit acts of violence, he still might wonder why they are portrayed as dangerous sadists if there is not some kernel of truth in that depiction. He may decide that 'those' people are to be feared and avoided. Fear and exclusion are two of the most common prejudicial reactions to people with mental illness, particularly those with serious mental illness like schizophrenia. The dangerousness stereotype is primarily responsible for this.

Dominic Giles [owner of the Halloween attraction] might think this is an instance of the PC Police trying to impose martial law in the interests of sensitivity, but that is not really the case. The problem here is not the potential for hurt feelings. The issue is the perpetuation of stereotypes, which can lead to prejudice and discrimination that causes real, material harm to the lives of those with mental illness."

bill.white@mcall.com 610-820-6105

Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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