On Being “PC,” Right Use Of Power & Language, & Why We Need To Work Harder & Also Extend Just A Wee Bit Of Grace

Lissa Rankin, MD
14 min readAug 20, 2023

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of relatively privileged people expressing distress about the way diverse groups of people behave together since the world fundamentally changed in 2020. Yes, it’s harder and there’s more pressure to be “PC,” which is challenging, because what is considered okay and what isn’t is a moving target. People with certain marginalizations have different opinions about the language they wish to have used to describe them, and while it might be easy to just ask how someone wishes to be identified one-on-one, in large groups, it’s not so simple.

While this can be frustrating, this change in how we can either weaponize language or use it to treat people with more dignity and respect is a good thing. People who typically suffered in silence have risen up, found their voice, and feel understandably empowered to call out every woke mistake, insensitivity, oppressive slight, or microaggression anyone in the group might make. And those of us with privilege and power who give a shit about not leveraging language that hurts, disempowers, and marginalizes people are struggling to keep up. That’s fine. We can feel frustrated, but we can’t stop trying to get it right. This is the work in front of us right now, and I hope we can all rise to the challenge rather than getting defensive or doubling down on feeling entitled to continue being sloppy.

I heard recently that an iconic and widely respected physician who speaks about trauma went public with how he agrees with Jordan Peterson that he shouldn’t have to be bothered with getting someone’s pronouns right. I also recently talked to a fellow influencer who told me she did not want to be challenged and would not tolerate being called out when others felt hurt and named microaggressions that she thought were picky and trivial, when “her intentions were good.”

As someone who facilitates groups, I get the frustration. I really do. I feel frustrated sometimes too. And yet, this is not a time to be lazy or sloppy or defensive. For example, I used to get away with saying “You guys” as a plural “you” (because English has no such proper word and because I quit saying “Y’all” when I left the South.) Like “Okay you guys, we’re going to go into breakout groups now for anyone who chooses to do so..” Yikes. No. Now, I’m trying hard to break the sexist habit because if I forget and say “You guys,” I upset women, non-binary, and even woke men who consider themselves feminists. So…”What do y’all think about going into breakout groups now” is my new/ old jam.

I know it’s awkward and uncomfortable, but I do believe that’s how it needs to be if those of us with power and privilege use imprecise, outdated language in ways that dominate, oppress, and hurt people. These requests to be more inclusive with language are a kind of boundary, and it’s not going to fly to just say we don’t care about the boundaries people are trying to set in order to feel safer and more respected with each other. A little healthy confrontation and calling out what might be insensitive, subtly or overtly racist, ableist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, heteronormative, or in any way oppressive is part of the messy shift into more equality, tolerance, safety, and compassion for all.

One of the challenges I see is that people facilitating groups and trying to create safe, brave, sacred spaces for group learning and experience where people in the group have access to their agency are sometimes in a double bind right now. For example, some people’s idea of safety in groups is a space where there’s no confrontation, conflict, or calling out, because their conflict avoidant fragility makes them trigger anytime it feels like people in the room are upset at each other. Other people, in order to feel safe, need to know it’s okay to correct someone if they use oppressive language or commit micro or macroaggressions, which might have some heat behind it if we’re not tone policing people who need to speak up.

Right now, it’s incumbent upon those of us in positions of power, privilege, and leadership to exercise right use of power and take firm stands about issues like white body supremacy, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA+ rights, the rights of the disabled, discrimination against women and women’s reproductive rights, and the racial implications of choosing to go out in public spaces if you’re willfully unvaccinated. But taking a firm stand about issues like these means you might piss off and activate some narcissistic rage in some privileged people with few marginalizations and relative entitlement who do not like being corrected, do not want diversity, equity, and inclusion, and do not want group spaces to include conversations about potentially polarizing issues that might result in heated discussions within the group.

When conflict inevitably arises, because it will if nobody is laying down the lion’s paw and intimidating diverse groups into submission, I feel like maybe the best we can do is give people who are relatively more fragile permission to walk out or get off Zoom and take care of their own nervous systems if the conflict causes their stress responses to activate.Let that be okay that some people’s nervous systems have not yet been tempered to tolerate how it feels when conflict arises in a group or a leader gets put on the hot seat.

If you’re one of those fragile people who gets very upset when there’s openly aired conflict, I highly recommend Black trauma therapist and Somatic Experiencing practitioner Resmaa Menakem’s nervous system tempering work for folks with a lot of privileged statuses in My Grandmother’s Hands and The Quaking of America. I also recommend the nervous system tempering work in Monsters In Love about couples who need to get better at tolerating conflict so they can enjoy the joys of deeper intimacy and hold each other accountable to a level of integrity in ways that might feel uncomfortable.

Here’s the thing. Power is under fire right now, and that’s a good thing, because people with power and privilege have been abusing their power for far too long. As Oprah said, “Time’s up.” So now we’re in the heat of the reckoning with those (myself included) who have enjoyed and benefited from the privileges of unfair, unjust, and unearned power. It’s about time, because power hierarchies have to break down before we can rebuild something solid enough to withstand times like this, especially if we really mean it when we say “All people are created equal.” So it’s okay to challenge and hold our leaders to account right now. And if people with a lot of privileges don’t like being expected to get our language right, well then, maybe we shouldn’t be doing this work.

Even the word “leader” is problematic because leaders typically have most of the power in the room, and leaders need followers. So it’s normal that whoever is in charge is going to potentially bear the brunt of a lot of resentment in any group setting right now. That’s part of the power hierarchy we’re trying to break down. Facilitators need to up our game and listen to the marginalized voices in our groups and try harder to get things right, and if we feel frustrated, then okay. Go ahead and feel frustrated, but keep trying harder to do better.

It’s not easy to hold a safe enough space when so many people feel upset, triggered, unsafe, and unwell, and facilitators are human and blend with defensive parts when we get challenged, just like everyone else. I hear a lot of people in positions of power saying “But my intentions are good.” But intention is not enough; these are times to discern and judge whether those in positions of relative power can be trusted based on actions, not good intentions. Impact is what matters, not intentions.

Those of us with power and privilege have hard work to do, and this is not a time to be lazy or imprecise. One BIPOC friend just asked me to read the book White Women , and it’s my policy to say yes to all my BIPOC friends (and my BIPOC sister and BIPOC colleagues) when they are trying to make me a better, kinder, more sensitive ally. I know some people don’t give a shit and just want to keep all their privileges and not do the work to be more sensitive and actively anti-oppressive. But in spite of all the polarization, there is only one right side of history when it comes to human rights.

I hear privileged people say things like “We should stop polarizing and just unify.” But that’s a privileged statement. There was no way to avoid polarization during the US Civil War, because there was only one right side of history, and half of the country was on the wrong side of it. There was no way to avoid polarization in Nazi Germany. You either hid Jews and were on the right side of history during Nazi Germany, or you cooperated with the Nazi party and had blood on your hands.

We are in a similar watershed moment now. Everyone likes to think they would have hid the Jews instead of collapsing under the pressure to cooperate with the homicidal Nazi agenda. But less than 0.5% of privileged Aryan Germans actually had enough empathy to risk their own lives by protecting and hiding Jews. (Interestingly, the book The Holocaust Lessons on Compassionate Parenting by David Cooperson talks about the scientific studies that showed that those few people who did have enough empathy to risk hiding the Jews were spared corporal punishment as kids. But that’s another post.)

The point is that most people with power and privilege during Nazi Germany did NOT do the right thing or land on the right side of history when faced with a real moral choice. Most leveraged their privilege and let the Holocaust happen so they could keep their privileged status. Many privileged people in modern times (and by privileged, I don’t just mean rich, I mean white, male, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neuro-typical, educated, and yes, also socioeconomically advantaged) similarly lack empathy for those who are marginalized, oppressed, died disproportionately during the pandemic, and are still being oppressed by white supremacy in our increasingly fascist Trump-supporting American society. They want to keep their privileged status and they don’t care enough about those they oppress in order to enjoy those privileges to take any risk or lose any privilege.

I don’t know how to help those people get on the right side of history, and that’s not who I’m actually writing this for, since none of those folks read what I write. There are people who are downright racist, prejudiced, and self righteous, like the Christian nationalists who have overtaken the Republican party. There are white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville and hate-spewing people who suck up Trump’s venom at Trump rallies. There are willfully unvaccinated people who felt entitled to gather together in large groups without masks during a global pandemic without any empathy for the fact that BIPOC, the elderly, and poverty-stricken communities were dying of Covid at disproportionate rates.. I don’t know how to get through to those people. They are 100% on the wrong side of history as much as slaveowners in the Civil War were on the wrong side of history.

But the people I still care about trying to get through to are the many good-hearted, generally liberal and progressive, empathic “spiritual white people” who fall into this category of thinking they’re woke while actually making choices and behaving in ways that demonstrate a lack of awareness or sensitivity or empathy or understanding of what it’s going to actually take to equalize the playing fields so all humans are treated as equal.

I know many spiritual white people really do care, in our hearts of hearts, about those who suffer, and we’re still learning and trying to be better allies, and we’re not going to dismantle systemic racism or all the other ways we might enjoy unearned privileges overnight. But for those of us who are trying, those of us who actually care and are actively trying to take a sledgehammer to the white supremacy, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, discrimination against the neurodiverse, caste oppression, and any other oppression of any other marginalized group, this is the time for us to step up and do better. Yes, we may be fumbling and messy and screwing up right and left, but let’s try to get this right and do our best to calm our defensive or lazy parts that just don’t want to have to try so hard to be kinder and more sensitive.

I know change isn’t happening fast enough, and we’re impatient to get the language right and stop the incessant microaggressions. So many people have just had enough of feeling so hurt by so many people who just aren’t very sensitive to the power moves and insults built into our “power over,” dominating, and oppressive cultures. It sucks. And I’m sincerely sorry for my part in this and apologize to anyone I’ve ever hurt or insulted or failed to be trauma-informed and anti-oppressive enough with.

I suspect all this chaos is part of the process. I know that in one-on-one healing, things often look worse before they get much better, especially when it comes to boundary setting, standing up for yourself, healing from narcissistic abuse, off-ramping from spiritual bypassing, and overcoming conflict avoidance. So maybe this is the group version of that transitional chaos, the ripples in the group field before the field settles out into something altogether kinder to more people, not just the fragile, privileged, majority group members who might be tempted to tone police and be conflict avoidant, but a real settling that isn’t spiritually bypassing, ignoring microaggressions, or just sucking up painful or offensive slights.

I am fully willing to be cut down to size and humbled if that’s what becoming a more mature leader in times like this means. I do think we need to decapitate and disempower the metaphorical heads of narcissistic leaders who can’t take the heat of times like these (I’m not suggesting murder, mind you, but it’s okay to quit pedestalizing those with inflated egos and expect them/us to behave better.) If people can’t stop abusing their power or feel unduly entitled and expect to get away with bad behavior, it’s okay to cancel those people and find better leadership to usher us into whatever is coming next. Fire them/us or hold them to account until they give up and quit, if that’s what it takes.

My one request is that I hope we can all try to be a little gentle with one another as we navigate messy transitions into what I hope will become a more just, more socially conscious, more fair, more sensitive world for everyone. My partner Jeffrey Rediger’s email signature quotes Partners in Health co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer, who said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

We will not solve this horrible tragedy, that we live in a world where some lives matter less, overnight. And I don’t know how we’ll ever overcome the insane power of the narcissistic individuals who truly believe they’re better than everyone else and are doubling down on keeping hold of all their power and privilege, with no remorse for what they’re doing. Some of those people wind up in our groups and communities, and they don’t wish to change. In fact, they want things to go back to the way things were, when they had even more power and ease atop the backs of the people they felt unduly entitled to oppress and marginalize.

Recently, a physician colleague of mine well versed in DEI issues and trauma picked up the phone and called me to talk about this topic. She said she wondered if some of this chaos isn’t the emotional overwhelm and extremely triggered death throes of a dying species in a freeze state of survival terror as we watch the world we once knew hurdle catastrophically towards our own demise as a species. Maybe that’s at the root of why our nervous systems are so trigger sensitive, and yet we’re largely dissociated, disembodied, and in denial about what’s happening, so it’s easier to just fight amongst ourselves over DEI-appropriate language and vaccination status, rather than actually feeling the legitimate terror of what’s happening as wildfires consume us, glaciers melt, seas rise, floods float cars away, the air fills with smoke, hurricanes blast us, tornadoes rip our homes and bodies to shreds, volcanos blow, earthquakes rattle, and plant and animal life suffer from man-made devastation. Those of us whose hearts are still open and empathic at all can barely contain the grief. So maybe it’s easier to rip each other a new one than cry together.

Or maybe oppressed people have just hit a limit of resentment, outrage, frustration, and horror at the rising levels of inequity between the have’s and the have not’s, and all that justifiable rage just needs a release valve somewhere. Maybe anger is easier to feel than grief, because we are overwhelmed with how much we need to grieve what’s happening on our planet right now.

I just applied to train with Francis Weller, someone I’ve admired and studied with for many years, for his Grief Ritual Leadership Training. He wrote in his invitation to this training, “As you well know, we are living in a time of uncertainty when the familiar markers that once offered assurance and security are fading. From all observable indicators, the season ahead will be challenging. We have entered what could be called The Long Dark, a time of endings, decay, and dissolution. It will be a prolonged season-a generation or two-during which the earth community will undergo tremendous challenges and the cumulative losses will touch everything and everyone. Grief will be the keynote for the foreseeable future.”

In the application, I wrote, “As a physician, I am experienced with end of life care and holding space for grieving, but only on the one-on-one level. I’m also experienced with midwifing labor, suffering, pain, and birth. As our species faces what lies ahead, I would like to feel better prepared to help midwife the losses that lie ahead in a group setting, rather than just one-on-one. Maybe it’s too late to help our species survive, but those of us trained in end-of-life care might be able to help Hospice a dying species through its own demise.” (I haven’t read it yet and wrote this before hearing about this book, but someone I trust who I asked to read this post before I published it suggested I read Hospicing Modernity .)

Maybe there’s still hope for us, but there’s only hope if we get out of the power over/ power under game altogether. Some of us are going to need to be uncomfortable as power levels out, marginalized voices rise, and overly valued voices take up less space. And regardless of what position we held in our narcissistic families of origin and where we now find ourselves in the power hierarchies- golden child, invisible child, or scapegoat- this is a time of reckoning for sure. More empathy for us all and stronger boundaries and accountability to contain those who have lost touch with their empathy is the only way through this, I suspect. Some people in positions of power will not like this, and that’s okay. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to tolerate this transition if we expect to continue to be granted the privilege of being in positions of relative power.

These are exciting times if we can stomach all the messy, chaotic intimacy of it all. In the mean time, I just want to thank those of you who have stuck with me here, schooled me, called me out, been gentle and caring with me, taken risks to hold me accountable, volunteered your time to try to help me get it, and put yourself out to try to make me a better leader. I really mean it when I say that you’ve all contributed to making me a better, wiser, kinder, healthier, more boundaried person since 2020. I am sincerely grateful.

Originally published at https://lissarankin.com.

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Lissa Rankin, MD

Lissa Rankin, MD, New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, The Fear Cure, and The Anatomy of a Calling.