Thursday, October 26

Correcting For Politics

I seldom write about the same subject two posts in a row, but the Wee Shu Min story (after her father, Wee Siew Kim, apologized for his apology) continues to develop as a topical case study about political correctness. Specially, he apologized for saying "I should not have said what I did about people's inability to take the brutal truth and strong language" and reinforced that he counseled his daughter Shu Min.

In the United States, it's called political correctness (PC), though the concept is not exclusive to the English language. The term is commonly used to describe language, or behavior, which is claimed to be calculated to provide a minimum of offense, particularly to the racial, cultural, or other identity groups being described.

The "earliest cited usage of the term" is said to come from a U.S. Supreme Court decision — Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) — where it clearly means that the statement it referred to is not ''literally'' correct. However, for most Americans, the real PC movement began in late 1980's and early 1990's. By the end of the 1990's, the term was equally loathed by political conservatives and liberals alike because more often than not it hindered communication rather than enhanced it.

Part of the reason Americans began abandoning PC usage came after the push to use "gender-neutral" job titles ("lineworker" instead of "lineman," "chairperson" or "chair" instead of "chairman," etc.). Some stuck. Some did not ("maintenance hole" never really replaced "manhole"). Some, it depends on who you talk to (many female executives have insisted on being identified as chairman vs. chairperson.) And some characterizations are moving targets, most notably among people over age 55, who have been reclassified from "elder" to "elderly" to "senior" to "older adult" to "active adult" in the last few decades. In addition, ''handicapped'' became ''disabled'' became ''people with disabilities.''

Besides renaming specific groups and objects, particularly around issues of race and gender, the real movement was aimed at watering down heated political speak about social issues, as if social issues can somehow be discussed without emotion or passion. And that is the real trap Wee Siew Kim is putting himself in. As I've written before, public figures and companies are seldom judged on a crisis, but rather on how well they manage the crisis (even if it really wasn't a crisis to begin with).

In Singapore, many bloggers seem to feel that the issue, not the words, deserve discussion. But unfortunately, they are learning just as Americans (or should I say people of the United States?) continue to learn, that too much focus on semantics will always overshadow the real issues, paralyzing entire communities and countries. Analyzing the apology and demanding an apology will serve as nothing more than a distraction over the real issue. Meanwhile, nothing is done.

Certainly, this is not a popular view, not even among some fellow citizens, but a solution for Singapore borders on the obvious. As long as a society prefers capitalism over communism, which has proven ineffective as the great equalizer it was claimed to be (communistic leaders often assume exclusive privileges over the people anyway), then there will always be people who covet what other people have, even if what they have or do not have was their own choice. Anyway, all that is missing, or seems to be missing, is opportunity.

Ergo, Derek Wee was possibly right in his assessment of a problem. However, Wee Shu Min was perhaps equally right to say the solution was not for the government to create jobs to meet the skill sets of the workers (which despite her colorful quips is really what she meant, I think). However, that is not to say that the government could not invest in a worker rehabilitation program that provides these unemployed workers with the skill sets they need to meet the demand of the job market. Then, those who choose to pursue marketable skills will be qualified to fill those jobs, currently being taken by foreigners.

The concept is simple enough. Give a man a fish and he has a meal. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life. And if too many people are fishing, then teach him another trade that is underserved. And if progress replaces that need, teach him something else. (Historically speaking, governments did not subsidize corrals when the automobile made them obsolete.)

But alas, all this is lost in the focus of whether calling something the brutal truth is appropriate or not. And meanwhile, the real effort to communicate is spiraling out of control because rather than propose a solution to the problem, Wee Siew Kim has to provide apology after apology because his daughter posted it rather than some other 18-year-old, who would have been largely ignored for making the same statements.

This basically means that 18-year-olds who happen to have parents in prominent positions are held to a different standard, are required to censor their ideas, and are not entitled to the same liberty and freedom of thought as other people. And if that is not discrimination on its face, then I do not know what is.


GoodMeat on 10/26/06, 6:51 PM said...

One thing I like to point out. Mr Dereck Wee is not a hobo that need to be taught fishing or taxi driving or boot polishing. Mr Dereck Wee is a graduate and was employed in a multinational company. The issue here is about discrimination against older workers passed their prime. It is the mindsets of the employers that need the re-education. And if this isn't an issue the government would take up, the this government should be deemed as a liability to the country.

Then again, we are the ones who voted them in. So WE are liable.

Rich on 10/27/06, 10:29 AM said...

Thanks so much for the comment. They are always welcome and appreciated.

I also appreciate that many consider the main issue to be age discrimination, even though, for the most part, I've focused on the communication aspects of the issue. To address your comment, I'll offer something more on the main issue.

Generally speaking, most employers determine whether or not an employee is an asset based on their skill sets and their ability to perform those skill sets. As a result, it is the employee's responsibility to themselves, not their employer, to remain an asset to their current company or seek another employer who would consider them an asset.

There are several ways to accomplish this, but for the purposes of this comment, I'll offer the two most obvious: either be the best at what you be so you cannot afford to be let go or learn additional marketable skill sets. Considering statistics indicate that the average person, at least in the United States, changes careers (not jobs, but careers) five to seven times during their lifetime, it not only makes sense, but seems imperative for employees to continually improve and enhance their skills in order to make such transitions.

In short, I am not suggesting Mr. Dereck Wee become a fisherman or a taxi driver or a boot polisher (although, I might add those are equally important jobs that must be done by someone). I am suggesting that older adults who wish to remain active in the workforce must ensure they have marketable skills that meet market demand because, in today's rapidly changing global environment, there are no guarantees what jobs and careers will be available in the future.

So, while I am not sure what might be good match for Mr. Dereck Wee, I do know he must pursue something if he wishes to remain in the workforce, regardless of his experience or degree. Preferably, these skills should have been nurtured while he was in his prime.

Further, I merely suggested that if the government did take a roll in providing the solution, the most obvious roll would be to provide workers with job rehabilitation to meet whatever jobs are in demand. I do not know what that might be, but this focus on the semantics, taking 'fisherman' literally for example, does nothing but detract from the issue, which is my original point. (Not to mention, I wonder why anyone would consider this occupation a 'substandard' job, especially if they've never done it.)

I also have to disagree that anyone is liable for another person, unless you have robbed them of their liberties, when that person is empowered to make their own life choices. Or why any government should interfere with individual choices, because only in interfering can it truly be held liable for those choices.

Certainly, you don't want people starving in the streets, but neither do you want government forcing employers to retain employees who cannot perform their skills, which would certainly give them to cause to relocate. Nor do you want a government to decide what job you will have. The only solution, once again, is that the individual must ensure their own marketability or plan and save for the day they are no longer marketable to anyone. And the best that any government can do in a free society is give them the tools and environment to do it. Otherwise, that society will no longer be free.

Even in this country, people tend to forget that this government was never designed to provide people with happiness; it was designed to allow for the pursuit of happiness by not interfering with individual choices.


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