Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Subtle Incivility of Political Correctness.

I received the politically correct email copied below from a management listserv. Political correctness has become a standard of acceptable behavior in universities. In a way, it resurrects medieval courtly courtesy.  

According to Debra Kelly on Urban Ghosts, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance courtesy books were popular to help people of different social ranks deal with each other.  Each era has its own interpretation of etiquette and appropriate behavior. According to Tim Nash in The Finer Times, vagrancy was a capital crime during the Middle Ages, and people were suffocated in water, boiled in oil, had their fingers torn off, and had their eyes burned out for this and more serious offenses.

Improving our skill at dealing with others is an important and useful goal, but when rules of etiquette become legally enforceable and punitive, they become authoritarian.   

Among the etiquette issues that were salient in the Middle Ages were avoiding bringing your horse into the house, checking yourself for fleas, and avoiding the attentions of your lord's wife by feigning illness.  In his poem Liber Urbani Daniel of Beccles advises us not to play with our spoons, not to steal a host's spoon, and not to put our used spoons into the serving dish.     
Today, the field of management plays an equivalent role to that of Daniel of Beccles. According to the email, sent by a management professor on behalf of the special issue of a journal, incivility abounds, and it costs firms money.  

In particular, the professor is concerned that insufficient attention has been paid to selective incivility because of gender, race, ethnicity, minority sexual orientation, minority religion, immigrant status, and so on.  The extensive list of workplace regulation on the books, which includes the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991, the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Pregnancy Disability Act, child labor laws, and the Americans with Disabilities Act--not to mention abundant state and local laws--have apparently failed to help. The professor's solution seems to be to extend the academic rules of politically correct etiquette to the workplace. Soon, management professors will be advocating corporate safe spaces.  

Nash points out that in the Middle Ages the poorer classes tended to suffer the worst punishments, and the same is likely true today. The elite etiquette advocated by politically correct professors targets working class prejudices and mostly white males.  A university professor in today's America is at least three times more likely to have been born in a foreign country than to be a Republican. Republicans are marginalized in academia to a greater degree than any class of individuals is marginalized in the private sector.

The professor proposes that identifying sources of slights to a wide range of groups is an important management issue.  My guess is that it is one of two things: (1) one more useless academic study that will do little or nothing to help real world managers but will generate conferences and publications of no importance outside the management field or (2) one more effort to generate laws that target working class men (and to a lesser degree working class women) and to marginalize them, much as the medieval rules of etiquette and criminality targeted and marginalized the lower classes.  
The professor's email reads as follows:

Recent news headlines and political discourse underscore the relevance and salience of incivility in our everyday lives and workplaces. Incivility seems to permeate our work lives, manifesting in experiences such as being ignored or disregarded, being excluded from professional opportunities, or having your judgement unfairly questioned over a matter for which you are responsible ...Research over the past 20 or so years has started to document the prevalence, costs, and correlates of incivility, finding that targets suffer personally and professionally and that organizations face financial and productivity loses...

While we have made great strides in understanding general experiences of incivility, less attention has been paid to how these experiences affect those with stigmatized identities. In 2008, Cortina introduced the concept of selective incivility to describe how subtle, ambiguous acts of rudeness may function as a covert manifestation of bias against devalued, stigmatized, or marginalized people in organizations.  Such biases may be based on one, or multiple, identity groups such as gender, race, ethnicity, minority sexual orientation, minority religion identification, immigrant status, transgender identity, disability status, language, or accent.

Initial research in a test of this theory found disproportionate uncivil treatment may provide an explanatory mechanism for the lower rates of women and racial minorities found in the upper echelons of organizations...However, not all research finds increased risk of incivility for stigmatized groups...

The purpose of this special issue is to foster constructive insights into the selective incivility phenomenon. We welcome papers of an empirical or theoretical nature that investigate questions such as (but certainly not limited to):
•    What are the ways in which selective incivility may act as vehicle to communicate larger organizational and social values and ethical norms?
•    What kinds of cultural considerations should be taken into account when conducting selective incivility research internationally? How do we meaningfully include cultural norms into our work?
•    How do intersections of multiple social identities affect risk of experiencing mistreatment? Do certain identities act as a mitigating factor?
•    What are group and organizational-level factors that might predict experiences of selective incivility?
•    What are individual differences that may explain how targets respond to selective incivility? Incivility, by definition, is ambiguous: Does labeling the experience as discriminatory matter for target outcomes?
•    What factors predict instigation of selective incivility?
•    How might organizations address the issue of interpersonal slights being experienced by some employees more than others? 

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