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Editorial: Politically correct or polite? Just chill and be merry
Culture wars rage over coffee cups, greetings, politics, campus speech
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There are 13 different Starbucks coffee cup designs for the holiday season, a year after the coffee retailer faced an angry backlash over its plain red motif. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Leave it to a savvy business like Starbucks to learn its lesson.

Last year, the coffee retail giant got its beans roasted by angry critics when its annual holiday cup motif was scrapped for a plain red design. The vitriol made it seem as if the company had skewered Santa Claus with a peppermint stick, all of it over the shade of a coffee cup.

It became the latest salvo in a dispute over how the holidays should be noted, one that is largely conducted on the battlefield of social media, as most are now. Even our new Tweeter in chief-elect got involved in the discussion during his campaign and recommended a boycott.

Fortunately for Starbucks, it peddles a product so addictive even its perceived heresy couldn’t derail its caffeine-fueled success. So it survived the skirmish to brew again.

Sufficiently chastened, Starbucks got the message and went festive this year with cup designs including snowflakes, reindeers, ornaments and holiday colors to head off finding more coal in its stocking.

Even then, someone posted a spoof on a satirical website claiming the stores offered “Satanic Holiday Cups.” Most got the joke, but a few folks overripe to indignation jumped back on the outrage bandwagon.

Such is life in an age when every little thing tweaks touchy feelings. Thus, a question to ponder as we enter the season of (long overdue) goodwill and caring: Where do we draw the line between a politically correct evasion of truth, for holiday greetings and beyond, and merely being respectful of others?

Oversensitivity can run the gamut. Some who decry society’s default to “political correctness” are the first to take up torches and pitchforks when they feel their own beliefs or icons are disrespected. In many cases, such “attacks” are merely baby steps taken by a pluralistic society to recognize that the fabric of America comes in many colors and creeds.

This topic bubbles up in the annual scrap over whether saying “Happy Holidays” or another neutral phrase rather than “Merry Christmas” is meant to delegitimize the religious aspect of the holiday. Clearly any effort to secularize the occasion of Jesus’ birth is indeed a pointless exercise. Christmas is a religious holiday and always will be to those who hold its meaning as sacred.

Yet most of the time, those who opt for “Season’s Greetings” merely seek to include all who celebrate holidays other than Christmas. Or may be using the generic “holidays” reference to describe the season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and all that falls in-between.

Public schools, as a government entity, changed Christmas breaks to “winter holidays” to avoid having anyone feel left out. While that seems another way not to step on tender toes, the First Amendment says the state can’t specify a particular faith, even as Christmas was long held as an exception. But whatever it’s called shouldn’t matter as long as kids get the time off to celebrate.

Businesses have a different motive; they are careful not to favor one holiday over another because they want everyone’s patronage. A store owner who sticks to “Merry Christmas” may seem to not welcome Jews, Muslims or others as customers. Whatever the colors of their occasions, all their money is green.

Anyway, people of various religions seldom are offended by the celebrations of others, as long as the intent isn’t to exclude anyone. Sanctuaries of faith often are where calm voices of tolerance are heard, far from social media free-for-alls where every perceived injustice is stirred by internet trolls. It’s a good reason to log off more often and tune in to the voices around us, where saying “Merry Christmas” will bring only smiles, not an angry backlash.

Still, other disputes over what constitutes politically correct overreach rage on. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s brash, outspoken demeanor appealed to many as a tendency to “tell it like it is,” though others felt he and his backers crossed the line into boorish, rude behavior in how others were treated. That debate has continued without a pause for breath weeks after the election.

On the other end of the spectrum is the nonsense seen on college campuses, where any comments that challenge the swimming schools of thought can nick students’ thin skins, and are branded “hate speech.” So “trigger warnings” lead to “safe spaces” where judgmental debate is discouraged. It’s a whole new level of sensitivity that borders on psychosis.

Surely people of common sense can agree on basic standards of conduct that treat everyone with respect and acknowledge backgrounds, beliefs, lifestyles and customs different from their own. It means being inclusive to all, but not sounding the alarm at every perceived slight that is innocent at its core. Debating public issues openly and disagreeing respectfully isn’t “hate speech” and those who feel threatened by it should grow up and get over it.

If society can ever move past these silly spats over trivial matters, perhaps more will zero in on the true message of the holiday season, Christmas and all: peace on earth, love for all God’s creatures and goodwill toward men. If the color of a coffee cup is the focus, it’s time to reboot our thinking.

As for us, we’re glad to wish you a Merry Christmas, since that is what the season is all about; we hope you have Happy Holidays, whatever your religious beliefs; and we look forward to any Season’s Greetings extended our way.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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