Let’s Be Clear
When I started practicing law some 20 years ago, I did something just as normal as breathing.
I had been called into the tail-end of a client meeting to serve as a witness to signatures. I dutifully brought my pen with me, nodded when I was introduced, witnessed the signings, stood up to walk out, put my hand on the door, and spoke. “Merry Christmas,” I said. The client smiled kindly and wished the same for me. I was not particularly religious, and what I really meant was, “have a nice afternoon.” But I was a rookie and uncouth. As the door closed, the secretary who had also been in the meeting took the opportunity to inform me in the hallway that the client was Jewish.
I was horrified.
But let’s be clear here. What horrified me was my own lack of decorum and taste; my own my-way-is-the-default-way-of-life mentality. It never would ever have crossed my mind that she was Jewish. Even though I knew Jewish people, worked with them, considered them my friends. I thought, but who doesn’t say “Merry Christmas”? My intent was innocent even if my wording was not. But my stomach didn’t feel innocent.
The client was a class act. I later learned that she was one of the elite rich in New Orleans. That she donated anonymously to local charities in large amounts on a regular basis. That she once gave anonymously to the City of New Orleans so as to allow the city to keep open public pools for the city’s children. If I said her name, you’d not know it. She was too modest for having hospital wings and parks named after her. But I assure you her kindness and generosity continue to have an impact on today’s New Orleans. And I had disrespected her. Unintentionally, but all the same.
This woman continued to be a client until her death, by which she shared her largess not only among her children but with local charities, and again anonymously. She did not hold a grudge against me, the partner who called me in, or my firm. She never uttered a word to any of us to indicate she was the least bothered by what I said. In fact, knowing her as I came to, I don’t think it did offend her. I think she was so used to it, she decided decades earlier to let it pass. Upset or not, she had the good manners not to point it out or otherwise assert her different religious view on me.
Bringing me to the point. Not using racial slurs or saying a greeting you feel somehow makes you deny your religion is not “political correctness”; it is common decency. This is not a cookie-cutter world. The world is a Ferris wheel of religions, races and colors. Our mothers taught us at the ripe age of three to respect our elders and each other; to say nothing at all if we didn’t have anything nice to say; to live by the Golden Rule of treating others as we would have them treat us. Because when we assume everyone else in the world is our own race, religion or other discriminating characteristic (or don’t care to even contemplate that possibility), and act accordingly, we are violating each and every one of those simple rules our mothers taught us as children. Being politically correct is about harmony and respect — respect for the person regardless of their sameness or differences from ourselves. Being PC isn’t as much about anyone’s religion or race as it is about being polite and kind to your neighbor, your client, your boss, your sibling. Not because they share your beliefs or race and not because they do not share those things. But because they are human beings worthy of common decency.