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"You can't say anything anymore!"

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

A theatre company made headlines when it went “woke,” as the St. Louis Star and Times reported that the Orpheum Circuit "has announced a policy of rigid censorship…it wants no one offended and will not permit any actor to make any offensive caricature, joke or allusion regarding any race or creed.” That story ran on August 30, 1915. So “cancel culture” is hardly a new thing, yet comedians and corporate CEOs alike keep complaining about how sensitive everyone is now. The phrase “political correctness” became ubiquitous in the 1980s as attempts to limit racist, sexist or homophobic speech in the workplace and society at large have been seen by some as a threat to free expression. University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson made international headlines in 2016 when he claimed that a Canadian bill to protect the human rights of transgender people would lead to him going to jail for refusing to use their requested pronouns. Agreeing to that courtesy, he insisted, would be “silent slavery.” Peterson’s colleague at U of T, Dr. Lee Airton told BBC News he was being deliberately alarmist: "This is not about freedom of speech...this is about reducing transgender people’s needs as excessive and illegitimate.” The debate over pronouns, Airton said, “is people very publicly working through their own lack of familiarity or understanding of trans people’s otherwise fairly ordinary lives.” Nevertheless, Peterson become a guru to an "anti-woke" movement, telling a global audience how he’s being censored in ongoing interviews, podcasts, TV appearances and two best-selling books.

Can I call him a guru? Probably not. A Guru is a Hindu spiritual teacher, a specific title bestowed on religious leaders, and also used in Buddhism and Sikhism. In the west, however, it’s become a nickname for Instagram influencers. Other people love the concept of having a “spirit animal” without recognizing that it’s a concept appropriated from Indigenous cultures. Anishinaabe journalist Chelsey Luger says, “I think it can feel very dehumanizing and disrespectful when something that is as storied and important as our clan systems is misinterpreted as this silly ‘spirit animal’ thing.”

Worse than misusing phrases and ideas from other cultures is burdening other groups with terrible stereotypes. For decades, the problem of ripping someone off in a transaction has been variously called “to gyp” or “to Jew” or “to Welsh” or “to Indian give,” all ways to demean various groups that many of us have unthinkingly used in everyday speech. That’s what workplace speech codes or “political correctness” or “wokeism” have tried to educate about. There’s no law against using such phrases — despite Dr. Peterson’s endless words on the subject — but it’s all, well, tacky. Dehumanizing and disrespectful. We can use better language than this, be better people than this. As many a grandmother has said, “It costs us nothing to be kind.”

Breakfast Culture Founder and CEO Jefferson Darrell and I will be talking about inclusive language with Dr. Jen O’Ryan and Evolve Benton in a lively free webinar on Wednesday, March 8 at 1pm ET. We’d love to hear what you think so please join us! Let's Break Some Eggs! – Scott Dagostino, JEDI Consultant, Breakfast Culture™ Inc.

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