Political Correctness Gone Wild

A number of incidents that occurred this past Christmas season drew a generally negative reaction. The first was the decision by Target to ban Salvation Army collectors from the front of Target stores. The second was the decision by Federated Department Stores to ban the use of the phrase “Merry Christmas” by its sales personnel. The result of both of these efforts has been a negative impression in the minds of customers of both organizations—and that impression probably had a negative impact on their business during the most important retail season of the year.

Wal*Mart saw its chance and took it. Wal*Mart not only encouraged the Salvation Army to establish collection posts at its stores but also promised to match Salvation Army contributions up to $1 million. This decision resulted in a positive p.r. for the nation’s largest retailer while its prime rival was caught in a no-win p.r. event.

Meanwhile, other anti-Christmas events were taking place. School districts throughout the nation eliminated traditional Christmas carols from school programs. Various groups claiming such activities are attempts to establish a religion—an activity prohibited by the U.S. Constitution—brought districts that did not follow this practice into court.

Some practical thinking is in order. According to recent articles in Time and Newsweek, the United States is the most religious country in the world. Alexis de Tocqueville writing on America over a century ago made the same observation. Roughly 80% of the population of the country today is Christian. Why in God’s name—if you’ll excuse the expression—would any merchant initiate a situation that would offend so many potential customers?

Respecting the religious sensibilities of a large portion of the population is good sense and good business. Creating a controversy where none should exist is poor judgment and poor decision-making. But such is the mindset of the politically correct corporate crowd.

For the most part, we are a country that practices religious tolerance. After 9/11, many predicted there would be wholesale attacks on Muslim religious institutions. Nothing of the sort happened. Perhaps part of the reason we are so tolerant is that so many Americans came—and still come—to the United States to escape religious persecution. From the Pilgrims of the 1600s to the French Huguenots and Irish Catholics of the 1800s, to the Jews escaping the pogroms of Europe in the early1900s to the Cambodians and Vietnamese of the 1970s, to the Cubans and the Haitians of the present day—all have religious persecution as a core reason for leaving their homelands and coming to the United States.

The hospitality, common sense, and generosity of spirit that characterizes the people of the United States—as evidenced by our charitable giving and response to disasters anywhere in the world—should be allowed to work in the marketplace as well. If not, then just rely on enlightened self-interest and wish your customers a merry Christmas, happy Hanukah, joyful Kwanzaa, or blessed Ramadan. Like any good retailer, tailor your greeting to the marketplace.

Let’s keep the lawyers out of it and enjoy the season—whoever and whatever it celebrates!

fdallahan@reedbusiness.com