by John Borst, PP Rotary Club of Dryden, ON

Recently, a number of articles have appeared in the popular press regarding the issue of political correctness within society and most specifically, in our educational institutions.

Today it was Christie Blatchford writing in Canada’s National Post, a piece titled “B.C. teacher fired for having the wrong opinion“. On December 3rd it was Margaret Wente in Toronto’s Globe and Mail writing “The radicals have taken over: Academic extremism comes to Canada

Of course, nowhere has the discourse on “political correctness” been more vociferous than in our neighbour, the USA. Perhaps it reached its zenith in this fall’s presidential election. Some recent examples are Jim Sleeper’s Sept. 3rd’s “Political Correctness and Its Real Enemies” in the New York Times Sunday Review and Cheryl Connor’s “PR Nightmares: When Political Correctness Goes Too Far” on September 04, 2016 in Forbes. Then, yesterday the Washington Post has this interesting piece by Alex Nowrasteh, “The right has its own version of political correctness. It’s just as stifling.”

Nowrasteh, gets pretty close the political correctness one experiences in Rotary circles, if one says something of a controversial nature or especially if there is even a hint of politics involved.

He writes:

But conservatives have their own, nationalist version of PC, their own set of rules regulating speech, behavior and acceptable opinions. I call it “patriotic correctness.” It’s a full-throated, un-nuanced, uncompromising defense of American nationalism, history and cherry-picked ideals. Central to its thesis is the belief that nothing in America can’t be fixed by more patriotism enforced by public shaming, boycotts and policies to cut out foreign and non-American influences.

I first came across Rotarian “political correctness” in May 2012 when I naively wrote a piece titled “It’s Time for a Woman President in 2014-15!” and posted it to the RI discussion group at LinkedIn. I suspect it may still hold the record for most comments at over 1800 as the discussion went on for months. The conversation became so heated and uncivil at times that the moderator actually removed posts from the list and even withdrew one member’s privilege to post.

More recently the posts “Rotary and a candidate named Trump” and “Five lessons for Rotary gleaned from the 2016 election” have provided numerous examples of Nowrasteh’s “political patriotism” only in this case it is “Rotary patriotism” or a combination of both types of patriotism.

jefferson-silence254x339The most common form of “political correctness” in Rotary is to claim that an idea does not meet the standards of the 4 Way Test. In its PC form, its goal is to shut the discussion down. Embedded in the accusation is an effort to shame a Rotarian as well. At its most extreme a member might be even be asked to leave Rotary.

The next most common form of political correctness is to claim that a topic is too political for Rotary. This really intensifies if there happens to be an election in the offing or in progress.  The technique for some is to simply shout out the ban on “politics” without reference to the subtlety of meaning outlined in the Rotary constitution and bylaws.  In the case of the 5 lessons post, the fact that it was about Rotary rather than the election itself seemed to be missed by many readers.

Such a post attempts to constructively criticize Rotary so as to improve it, however, many comments make reference to the good service that Rotary is doing and that Rotarians should not bother with such “political” matters. Such comments are firmly grounded in Nowrasteh’s concept of “patriotic correctness”.

Any all-inclusive ban on matters of politics, including Rotary itself, would mean there is no need for the Council on Legislation as there would be nothing to discuss.

Similarly, many responses make reference to my being Canadian as if I should not have an opinion on how Rotary is governed or managed or even tangentially American politics. Such comments support Nowrasteh’s claim that Rotarians are behaving in a “politically correct” way “to cut out foreign and non-American influences.” Often this is only implied but once in a while is just bluntly stated.

As members of an International service organization, discussion groups such as those on LinkedIn and now My Rotary provide forums for Rotarians to discuss topics at the grass roots level, in ways not possible in the past. This obviously presents new opportunities and new challenges. As the articles above attest this problem is affecting all areas of society. A service organization simply cannot avoid it.

Thus we need, for the good of Rotary, to read posts more carefully. We need to let our heads dwell on comments, sometimes for days, and not just react to our first emotional response. We need to let the 4 Way Test be our guide, not our hammer. We need to respect and accept the fact that “politics” both internally and externally is an integral part of how all types of organizational structures improve. Without discourse only tyranny reigns!

The use of “political correctness” is first and foremost an attempt to shut down “discourse”. It is dangerous whether in the academy, the state, a corporation, a service organization or a club. As Rotarians, we can and have to do better, but the bottom line is we can’t be silent either..