By Phil La Duke
Is political correctness putting workers at risk? I’ve been wondering if in our ever so polite drive for inclusiveness we aren’t actually creating a climate where, in an attempt to give no offense we are putting some workers at risk.
Several weeks ago I wrote an article in response to a remark made by an Oil & Gas company executive who said, “You Can’t Fix Stupid”. The post set of a storm of responses and I think we may have wandered off point. The following post is not for the faint of heart, so those of you are easily offended do us both a favor and stop reading now.
To describe my writing as provocative is to perhaps under sell it; I have always written in a way that elicits a visceral, emotional response. I believe that only when we really get to the point where we are uncomfortable can we ever shift our thinking. Some people find my style refreshing and some are put off to the point where they can’t even consider my point because they are so offended by how I worded things. The “stupid” post was one of those topics.
In addition to the usual cadre of mouth-breathers who write poison pen hate mail dripping with grammatically incorrect and poorly spelled threats to “get me” there was a backlash I hadn’t expected. My message was pretty simple, “we can’t use stupidity as a root cause for injuries”. I wouldn’t have thought something so innocuous would set of such a rage.
One of the threads on LinkedIn had people shouting “at-a-boys” although, since so many never actually READ my work and react to a brief synopsis or even a title, most were supporting me for the wrong reasons. Most of the posts talked about how there wasn’t any such thing as stupidity. They were answered by the inevitable link to the Darwin Awards or similar smug, oh you bet there are stupid people. Then one poor unfortunate group member posted that she had seen some incidents that could only be described as stupidity. I posted a response that was censored; I was stunned. This post was not filled with my characteristic sarcasm, and I didn’t use course language, or attack anyone in any way. Why then would some self important, puffed up group manager decide that my post wasn’t suitable for grown-ups to read and discuss like mature adults? Because I said that there were INDEED stupid people in the workforce, and these people deserve to be protected with the same diligence and priority that one would show in protecting so-called, “smart people”.
Most of the posters claimed that the workers weren’t stupid, rather inadequately trained. I spent most of my career working doing training of one sort or another with adults and I can assure you that no amount of training will ever miraculously transform someone who is “stupid” into someone who is “smart”; this is an immutable law of basic physiology, it just can’t happen.
According to http://www.edublox.com/iq-test/iq04.htm 25% of the population are below average in intelligence. (NOTE: I want to thank Steve Ramsay for implying, at least I inferred his meaning, that this statistic cannot be correct; average would mean the half way point. Let me explain the reason for what appears to be, but is not, an error. The site lists anyone with an IQ score of 80-110 as being “average” which accounts for about half the population, leaving 25% above average and 25% below average; but if you prefer to think of 50% of the people as below average and 50% above average go ahead (leaving no one EXACTLY average), it better proves my point and tells me which side of the line you fall) In other, less politically correct terms, 25% of the population is “stupid”. As I said in my original post, “there are people with Down’s Syndrome, brain damage, or simply fall at the lower end of the intellectual continuum, that prevents them from doing tasks that others are able to do easily. Many of these people hold jobs and function just fine in the workplace despite their relatively low intellect.” Add to this that some tasks require far more intellectual capability than others (I freely admit that there are jobs out there that I am just flat out too dumb to hold.)
Apparently, this statement, however true was scandalous and could not be seen in a public forum. Some of you reading this agree and some of you do not; good. Disagreement is the foundation of public debate and an informed democracy, if all the population does is agree nothing good can come of it. To be clear, there are a lot of hurtful and ugly words that we use to describe people who are below average in intellect, and I didn’t use any of those words in my post. The mentally impaired are also the subject of a lot of tasteless jokes, and I didn’t make light of anyone who was below average in intelligence. Despite this, my words were squelched. I don’t really care about having a post censored; if one posts in a thread controlled by another one has no expectation of freedom of speech, so in much the same way that I submit my work to editors who change things, omit things, and even add things, I accept the fact that occasionally a group manager (likely with no more ulterior motive than to save him/herself a barrage of hate mail) will prevent a post from making it to the thread.
But how can we protect people who aren’t as bright as we would like from harm if we pretend they don’t exist because we don’t want to hurt their feelings? We can’t. We can pretend that they just need extra training, but that won’t change the fact that many people aren’t mentally equipped to do a job and in pretending that they can if they just try hard enough puts these people at risk. What’s more, workers who are not intellectually capable of doing a job also put others at risk. I am not advocating discrimination against anyone who has limitations that make working more difficult, and—at least in the United States—there are laws requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities. What I’m saying is that political correctness is putting workers at risk. If we pretend that there are no “stupid” people working in the workplace because we don’t want to be seen as insensitive then we won’t take measures to protect them.
Stupid Is As Stupid Does
The beloved film character, Forest Gump, struggles through life because of his slow wits, but when people call him stupid, he responds with “stupid is as stupid does” and I think there is a lot of truth to that sentiment. Let’s face it, no matter how intellectually gifted we think we are (and Joseph Halliran, will tell you that most of us think we are a lot smarter than we are) we all do stupid things from time to time. Everyone makes mistakes; that’s why they put erasers on pencils. This political correctness that forces us to pretend that everyone is smart, well intentioned, and makes good decisions leads to the idea that people who are injured doing something dumb sort of deserve it. This political correctness leads to the belief that people die doing something stupid are doing society a favor, in fact, that is the very premise of the Darwin Awards—people who die doing stupid things are improving the gene pool. We can read them and have a good laugh, or we can read them and ask ourselves how is this different from the Nazis executing people with intellectual (and physical) disabilities? I for one think that as ugly or uncomfortable some people find this topic it is something that we in the field of safety need to openly discuss. Not everyone can be a genius, but we don’t have the right to rejoice in the death or dismemberment of someone who is less intellectually gifted as the average person. So the next time you think about shutting down unpopular speech in the interest of political correctness or decorum remember that in so doing you may be putting a worker at risk.
I’m not saying that we should encourage bigotry or bullying or any speech or act that demeans those who struggle with a disability but when you pretend that everyone is on a level intellectual playing field you diminish and trivialize the struggle intellectually impaired individuals face, and when you are a safety professional who does this you might even get them killed.