Last holiday season, I received a number of text messages on Christmas Day from several of my friends wishing me a Merry Christmas. I was surprised by this because if my last name is any indication, I do not celebrate Christmas.
Throughout my childhood, my parents dreaded taking me gift shopping during the holidays. Every time a cashier or sales representative wished us a Merry Christmas, I ferociously shot back that we don't celebrated Christmas. My parents were usually mortified while the employee was a combination of embarrassed and dumbfounded. I, on the other hand, was mildly offended. I thought it was slightly rude to assume that everyone celebrates Christmas since that might not necessarily be the case. Obviously, as I got older I learned to deal with such instances because I was embarrassing my family and I realized that religion can be something that is not easily identifiable. As a result, my snide remarks to unsuspecting employees subsided, and I learned to not take the Merry Christmas wishes so offensively.
But even during this past winter break, on a trip to the grocery store, my mother was asked if she was buying groceries for Christmas. My mother just kind of laughed the question off as we quickly grabbed our groceries and left. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be angry with my mother for not responding accurately, or if I should have been annoyed with the cashier for asking a politically incorrect question. Even though my spiteful childhood remarks have ceased, I still find myself wondering how I am supposed to feel when confronted with instances like this.
I will be the first to admit that being a religious minority is something that isn't obvious or apparent. But using such phrases as "Merry Christmas" when the religion of the person is unknown, is limiting, normalizing, and offensive. But such language is sadly not confined to religion, which only furthers the negative impacts people's words can unknowingly have on others.
For example, I constantly hear people say "That's gay" or "You're retarded." Using such language is plainly hurtful, especially to the person who overhears your comment and thinks of their mentally retarded sibling or their best friend who just came out as homosexual. But those who are offended by such comments act as if they don't hear anything for fear of appearing overly sensitive or as if they take things too personally and literally.
Sadly, I do have to agree to a certain extent with those who argue that it is unrealistic to rid this kind of normalized offensive language for our daily speech. Let's be honest -- who hasn't said something unknowingly offensive before? But I completely disagree with those who argue that such language is not offensive because it is used in jest and is not meant literally. First of all, although such language is most likely used figuratively, that cannot necessarily be assumed.
In some countries, homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, and stories recounting ethnic killings continue to make global headlines. I don't think I can get much more literal than that. But for those who disagree with this point, are you still not going to be offended when your child is diagnosed as mentally retarded, when your best friend is sexually assaulted or when your esteemed colleague is a victim of a hate crime?
I'm going to assume that phrases like "You're gay," "That's so retarded" or "That test raped me," will then be deemed hurtful and upsetting. Moreover, using such phrases like the ones just listed is normalizing. It assumes that every person is heterosexual, mentally competent or part of a religious majority, which can sometimes be untrue. Peoples' sexual orientation and religion are not obvious characteristics. In other words, determining whether a person is a sexual or religious minority is very difficult to do just by looking at them. But this is why using inclusive and politically correct language is immensely important. Think of it this way -- if you are heterosexual and someone assumes you are either gay, lesbian, or bisexual, wouldn't you feel excluded and maybe even offended?
But what disturbs me more is why it sometimes takes a personal experience like having a homosexual family member or having a best friend who is in an interracial relationship for someone to realize the offensiveness of language. As you have hopefully read, this is partially the case in my experience. But I do think individual experiences should play a smaller role in determining the offensiveness of one's words. Rather, people should realize that such language is insensitive and politically incorrect. Each person is just as likely as the next to be offended by these remarks, and undergoing a personal experience should not be the reason people recognize the hurtfulness such language can inflict.
Obviously, censoring everything every person says is unrealistic and nearly impossible. But everyone can and should realize that another person might be offended by what he or she says and in turn, learn to be more inclusive and politically correct. This would be a small step toward eliminating the normalizing and confining words and phrases that plague our every day speech.
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