In a recent “Miss Manners” column, the venerable advice madam responded to a complaint from a military veteran about people wishing him (I assume it was a man; could have been a woman) a “Happy Memorial Day.” The writer asked: “Are there better forms of greetings for more somber occasions?”
My initial reaction to this column was that the writer was being a bit oversensitive. Aren’t people who wish him (or her) a Happy Memorial Day just trying to be friendly? Why can’t he just take the comments in the spirit intended?
My reaction was primed by an article I had read a few weeks before in USA Today. The article was about Emily McDowell, an entrepreneur who created a line of greeting cards for people suffering from cancer. A cancer survivor herself, McDowell’s cards contain sentiments that, from her experience, are appropriate. Some of the sayings on the cards poke fun at comments people with cancer are used to hearing – and that many of them consider offensive platitudes (e.g., “I promise to never refer to your illness as a journey, unless someone takes you on a cruise.”)
Do we really have to scrutinize everything people say, especially when their comments are well intentioned? Why force friends and family to walk on eggshells?
Then I thought of situations in which some might say I was a little oversensitive, for instance the incident in January in which the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch referred to his black colleagues as “colored actors” in an interview with Tavis Smiley. My thoughts at the time: OK, this guy is from Britain, but he doesn’t realize that “colored” went out of style long, long ago? Seriously?
I wasn’t the only one offended. Cumberbatch was forced to issue an apology for using “outmoded terminology.” Yeah, just a tad outmoded, mate.
And that was nothing compared to the anger I felt in 2011 when the conservative political commentator Glenn Beck defended his use of the term “colored,” deriding “African American” as a politically correct label.
When I thought about it, I realized that my reaction was based on the thought that a person who does not call racial, religious or other minorities by the terms they choose are, at best, woefully ignorant of the minority’s culture. At worst, they are callously taking away that person’s right to self-determination.
It seems to me that this is a crucial part of diversity and inclusion. When we do not take the time to learn about others, aren’t we dehumanizing them in a way? We are essentially saying to them, “You have to know about me, but I’m more important than you so I don’t have to know about you.”
Minorities simply do not have the luxury of being ignorant of the majority; not that ignorant. Can you imagine a black job applicant (while being interviewed by someone white) referring to the white race in an offensive term? He’d be lucky to collect his coat on the way out the door.
I decided that, on Memorial Day in 2015, I would not use the phrase “Happy Memorial Day.” This is a day that honors those who gave the ultimate sacrifice defending our country, and it might in fact offend someone to put the day on the same level as all other holidays.
Incidentally, that is the advice Miss Manners gave – be respectful, she said. She did not come up with a more appropriate greeting, and I couldn’t think of one either, but at least I knew what not to say.
I also am a little more mindful about what I say to those with cancer. Not that I have any brilliant insights about that either; all I know is that we should make an effort to get to know what people want us to call them and what people want us to say to them, or do not want us to say to them. Being respectful and sensitive is a little harder than not worrying about what anyone thinks, but it’s not just politically correct; it’s the right thing to do.