Dear Broward County Judge Jeffrey Levenson:
I have a nit to pick with you.
As reported last week by the Miami Herald, you had a regrettable moment in court recently while presiding over the case of a man alleged to have had sex with a teenage boy. The episode, which occurred while the boy was not in the courtroom, began when you asked what position he played on his football team.
The prosecutor told you he was a linebacker. Whereupon Assistant Public Defender Brian Reidy, attempting to crack wise, said, “Tight end.” And you chimed in: “Wide receiver.”
When the prosecutor said she was unamused, you promptly apologized. “I take it back,” you said. “It was politically incorrect, and I really apologize for that.” Reidy later issued his own letter of apology for what he called an “offensive” comment. I applaud you both for having the integrity to “man up,” as they say, and take ownership of your errors.
In which case, you’re probably wondering about this nit I’m here to pick. Well, it’s not about the attempted joke, or even the apology, per se. No, I’m bugged by two words: politically incorrect.
Maybe I’m just being a word nerd, but your use of that term in this context was grating. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.
See, I remember well when political correctness began to reshape American English maybe 30 years ago. It struck me as among the signature excesses of touchy-feel liberalism, this effort to purge the language of all terms that were, or could be perceived as, exclusionary, undignified or objectifying.
Over the years, I’ve made peace with much of it. I say “African-American” even though I find the term cumbersome and imprecise. I say “letter carrier” instead of “mailman” because yeah, not all postal workers are men. I say “person with AIDS” instead of “victim of AIDS” because no one wants to be defined as a victim. And so on.
But some of it I’ve never been able to buy. I dismissed admonitions to say “differently abled” in place of the perfectly adequate “disabled.” I laughed off a PC Bible that omitted all talk of sitting at the “right hand” of God out of deference to the tender feelings of the left-handed.
Such excesses make me fear PC will fatally neuter the language, robbing it of clarity, vigor, frankness. So I’ve always had a tender spot for those outlaws unwilling to sacrifice directness for correctness. To put it another way, if you say “black” instead of “African-American,” I ain’t mad.
The problem is that over the years, so-called political incorrectness has become less about restoring clarity to language than about providing cover for offensive words, ideas and actions. Language should let you say what you mean, but if what you mean is mean-spirited, we ought not diminish that by calling it simply “politically incorrect.”
But that’s what has been happening. Consider: Nobel Prize winning scientist James Watson says blacks are intellectually inferior. Media call it politically incorrect. Don Imus insults women and blacks. Media call it politically incorrect. Rush Limbaugh makes fun of Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease tremors. Media call it politically incorrect. Rosie O’Donnell mocks the Chinese. Media call it politically incorrect.
The net effect is to equate that which is demeaning, malicious and mean with that which is merely risqué. I submit that there is a qualitative difference between using language that has been superseded and flat-out bullying those who are marginalized.
So, while I’m grateful you apologized for what you said, I need you to understand: It wasn’t “politically incorrect.”
It was just wrong.
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