While at the tattoo parlor last night, getting my shoulder worked on, I had some thoughts on the issue of political correctness that so dominated the election season. After all, this was a transaction between two people who, until that moment, were strangers to each other, and this transaction, by necessity, entailed a certain amount of pain. In the past, in smaller societies such as the traditional medieval village, one would tend to be on familiar, if not intimate, terms with most of the folks with whom one engaged in transactions social and financial. And if you are honest with yourself, you know that you do moderate your language, vocabulary, and demeanor in response to your audience (Grandma doesn’t like cussin’, you know). This, however, does not prevent the communication of complex, or even contentious, ideas–in fact, it facilitates them by making your views more palatable to the listener.
But now, we live in a vast and complex society and lack that intimate knowledge of the inner lives of most of the people with whom we interact. Political correctness emerged merely as a mode of communication that acknowledges this reality. It’s not about sparing the poor, tender feelings of overly sensitive folk (you don’t feel that way around Grandma, do you?). It’s about the simple recognition of the humanity of people outside your immediate social sphere. And that is important because, in this complex world of ours, you do not know who has the power to cause you pain. As I said above, getting a tattoo is a transaction that has pain as its component. In this transaction, I was the customer, the client, the man paying, and thus I had some modicum of power. However, the artist also had the power to increase the level of pain I experienced in this transaction. Thus, it was supremely important that we engage in this with some base level of mutual respect. Not that we didn’t chat while this was going on or even disagree on a few things, but maintaining respect in this process kept the pain at a minimum.
Most transactions entail some little pain: it hurts to part with good money, it hurts to admit that you are wrong. But respect for someone else’s existence can minimize that, not only for the other person, but also for you yourself. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, the life you save may be your own.