School Climate & Safety Opinion

Is it Political Correctness or Simple Kindness?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 04, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term ‘Politically correct’ is “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated”. Lest we be shy about our values, we believe a better definition would be “conforming to a belief that language and practices that offend any human being should be eliminated.”

We must be careful, as educators, not to allow being ‘politically correct’ be interpreted as weakness. In our business, neither strength nor bravery can be associated with demeaning or deriding others. Both in children and adults, labeling and name-calling allows the speaker to express hostility, vitriol, or mockery. Name-calling is brutal and hurtful and inflammatory. For some, the shell of defense may be so hard that the receiver does not note the expression as immediately hurtful, but the message resulting from the barbs dig in and their accumulation is damaging. It is not cool to call someone ‘stupid’, or ‘cheap’, or ‘one of those people’... to name just a few. Our sensitivity to how we express ourselves in private spills into our work with children.

The phrase “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never harm you” simply isn’t true. Maybe it made some children tougher but it hurts us all. We are all human beings. We all have confidence and insecurity, and there are ways into our own dark places that are not prepared to dismiss the harsh and offensive words of others. And for some children this takes root for a lifetime.

Beyond No Name-Calling Week
No Name-Calling Week, its origin in the book, “The Misfits”, has grown through the efforts of GLSEN to be a celebrated week of kindness in which name-calling is banned. It is a laudable movement, and one that recognizes the damaging effects of name- calling. Yet, as the week slips by, what do we do?

The current election cycle offers opportunity for schools beyond “No Name-Calling Week”, not for reasons of right or wrong...but because it becomes an art of expression. Analysis of the speeches ...and of tweets...can become the work of faculty and students, embedding kindness and awareness of the effect of language with the study of democracy and the election process. Even the youngest students can recognize name-calling or bullying. They can feel it before they know what to call it.

Opening Hearts of Faculty and Students
How do we open the hearts of faculties and students if we do not emphasize the art of gentler expression? We have written often about our belief that without bridge building and welcoming language, an environment is not safe, and certainly not safe for risk-taking and experimentation as the 21st century calls for change in schools. “How we think affects how we talk, and how we talk affects how we act and relate” (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski. p.116). So the attention to how we speak is truly the attention to how we feel. It seems that how we feel is not as private as we may think. This does not go unnoticed in our schools and it must not go unaddressed.

And with all things, it can begin with the leader. If the leader is unwilling to examine her or his own feelings and language, bias and beliefs, then asking others to do so lacks integrity. The same is true of teachers. If teachers do not examine from where in them their language springs, yet corrects students who use name-calling to express themselves, it will lack integrity as well. Students have highly developed radar detectors to identify insincerity in adults.

No name-calling is not only about teaching students. It is about all of us; how we feel, what we believe, how well we can express ourselves, and how much we care about those with whom we are speaking or speaking about. This is by no means something else to be done in our schools. Without it, there is little chance for safe environments to grow; both safe from physical and verbal violence. We need safe environments for the best chances for our diverse student bodies, for those who are gifted and those who are challenged, for those who are white, brown, black, Hispanic, Muslim, rooted or mobile. Fundamentally, we need to establish rules for conversation and expression. What do you say about beginning with simple kindness?

Ackerman, R.H. & Maslin-Ostrowski, P. (2002). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.