Why do people get so easily offended? And who has time for that? Donald Trump sure as hell doesn’t. At the first GOP debate in August, Trump boldly stated, “The big problem this country has is being politically correct. I don’t have time for political correctness.”
Transgender vs. transvestite. Cognitively disabled vs. retarded. All lives matter vs. black lives matter. God vs. Allah. Who really cares — and why?
Dr. Meghan Ashlin Rich, associate professor of sociology at The University of Scranton, and comedian Scott Bruce, from Drums, weighed in on the topic. So did Vicki Willing, a mom from Kingston, and Jenni Dougherty, a Penn State student from Olyphant. They attempted to answer the question: Is today’s generation more mindful of appropriateness or has society’s fragility amplified between generations?
STARTING THE CONVERSATION
In June, Jerry Seinfeld slammed the political correctness of today’s generation in an interview with ESPN Radio’s “The Herd with Colin Cowherd.” The comedian’s interview sparked a cultural debate about political correctness that seems to be pointing fingers at millennials for benightedly affecting the logic of what’s offensive.
“I don’t play colleges but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges, they’re so PC,’ Seinfeld said on the show. He went on to give an example condemning the over-sensitivity of young people. “My daughter’s 14. My wife says to her, ‘Well, you know, in the next couple of years, I think maybe you’re going to want to hang around the city more on the weekends so you can see boys.’ You know, my daughter says, ‘That’s sexist.’ They just want to use these words. ‘That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudice.’ They don’t even know what they’re talking about.”
On the home-front, Willing agrees with Seinfeld. She feels the millennial generation has taken the political correctness canon of prompting more diverse perspectives too far, holding protective parents like herself responsible. She admits she was over-protective when raising her children, Luke, 22, and Amber, 20.
“Today’s generation needs more protection,” Willing said. “They didn’t grow up being able to walk down the street or ride their bikes across town with their friends or go to the park without their parents. They know the world is dangerous and that their parents will do anything to protect them from being hurt — physically and emotionally.”
Dougherty said today’s generation is more sensitive and says defending them allows for further education on what’s right and what’s wrong.
“It’s not that we’re necessarily more sensitive with our feelings, but we’re more sensitive to issues of race or gender identity or religion,” Dougherty said. “We know what buttons shouldn’t be pushed. We just know better and are more educated about different views and different people than we were in the past.”
Dougherty said being more cautiously sensitive is a change from the ignorance of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. And change in itself poses a threat to people.
Rich works with millennials on a daily basis in her classroom. She said today’s generation is noticeably more sensitive than the Gen X-ers she grew up with in the 1980s and ’90s. Those sensitive students have compelled many colleges and universities to demand professors supply students with trigger warnings, she said.
“A trigger warning is, if you’re about to talk about something controversial — such as rape or sexual violence or lynching — that you give someone a warning about it before you talk about it, show a film or give a lecture,” Rich said. “It basically warns the students that for those who might be offended by this, you can leave.”
From a Gen X-er perspective, she said that sounds “too sensitive.”
But the real problem comes from blocking out cultural relevance, Rich said. Some millennials are “so afraid” to talk about sensitive issues they don’t allow dialogue to occur that can teach them what’s really offensive.
“When my students write papers, they’ll often say tons of offensive stuff,” Rich said. “I constantly have to say, ‘No, people don’t say colored people anymore.’ But they don’t know that because people don’t talk about race around them.”
The noticeable change in the shift of generations, Rich said, is how millennials are more aware than previous generations of what’s going on around them.
“Because of social media, more offensive actions are being exposed,” Rich said. “People have always been racist. People have always been shot by police officers. Now everything is being recorded so more people are able to see it and take offense by it. Today’s generation is more aware of racism, homophobia, transphobia.”
But they’re not necessarily more comfortable talking about it. Instead, many have the option to shield themselves from what makes them uncomfortable with the sign of a trigger warning.
IF WE DON’T LAUGH, WE’LL CRY
Bruce owns six Wisecrackers Comedy Club locations throughout Pennsylvania and New York, including one at Mohegan Sun Pocono. In the ’80s, he worked on the road with Seinfeld. He’s surprised Seinfeld ignited a generational debate about political correctness because he’s one of the least offensive comics in the game. “He could do a whole set about losing a sock in the dryer and make it funny without offending anyone,” Bruce said.
As a comedian for more than three decades, Bruce said people have always been offended. He doesn’t find today’s generation more easily offended than other generations. It’s the fanatics who are most easily offended, Bruce said.
“The more one-sided your thinking is — conservative or liberal — the more offense you take,” Bruce said.
Even though he said it’s a comedian’s job to be politically incorrect, Bruce believes political correctness has its place.
“It’s important to be politically correct and empathetic to people’s feelings,” he said. “But it’s important not to be too politically correct.”
Where’s that fine line? Bruce said it’s different for everyone. For him, the important part isn’t figuring it out. It’s about being able to laugh at ourselves.
“How many different countries have nuclear devices now? How many different people have been shot and killed with gun violence in the last year?” he asked. “There are so many horrible things going on the world that we have to laugh at ourselves and not get so offended. It’s the greatest tension release there is.”
Bruce said if we choose to get offended by something instead of laughing it off, we’ll cry.
Reach Justin Adam Brown at 570-991-6652 or on Twitter @wkdr. Follow him on Instagram @justinadambrown