From a reader:
Dear Jonah, I am a mediator, and not long ago I was delivering a training module on conflict resolution to the staff of a large government agency. In my talk, I included the time-honored saying, “the pot calls the kettle black.” Afterward, the African American woman who was the leader of the training program (a good friend of mine, incidentally), came to me in something of a dither. “Do you realize what you said?” she asked. “That is very offensive to black people.” I was taken aback. I explained to her that this little saying is from Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, one of the most famous novels of all time, and that it is the perfect metaphor to use in discussing conflict resolution, in which a principal objective is seeing the other person’s point of view. She was unmoved by my explanation, saying “I don’t care where it came from, this is clearly a racist remark, and I know it offended many in our audience.” I said, “Look, Linda, the saying refers to a pot and a kettle hanging on hooks over a fire. That’s the way they cooked in medieval times. It means that both pot and kettle become blackened by the fire. The analogy is that when you criticize someone else while ignoring your own faults, this is like the “pot calling the kettle black.” Both pot and kettle are black. Of course, she simply responded that it doesn’t matter what the real meaning of the saying is, it is the perception of the audience that counts. Ironically, at the afternoon training session, a black lawyer lectured the audience on their rights under Title VII, urging them to file complaints over discriminatory practices. This was precisely the opposite message we were trying to convey: that disputes between employees and their supervisors should be settled through mediation, and that filing of an EEOC complaint should be the very last resort. The executive director of the agency and her assistant (who had hired our company to do this training) were horrified at what they viewed (correctly) as agitation, which in fact resulted in two complaints filed by employees the very next day. So, the class on conflict resolution ended in conflict, not resolution Thus the pot of political correctness is stirred with baleful results. The whole thing was so ridiculous that I promptly resigned, joined another firm, and remain there happily to this day.