Politically Correct
November 6, 2007

Oh, how most of us just dread that phrase, including me. It's become an epithet of everything that's wrong with Western society ... with people too frightened, too cowed, too weak to call a spade a spade. (I was in college before I understood that the previous phrase was not really talking about shovels and then I was horrified ....)

The way most of us now use the phrase "politically correct" came about in the 1970s. At that time, it was used to begin a movement to use neutral language with regard to sex (the he/she issue). But it goes beyond that original s/he issue and has truly attempted to move into neutral language. And here is where complexity meets intentions and confuses the whole damn mess.

An attempt to use neutral language is an attempt to be polite, to consider the feelings of other people. It is not an attempt - or it shouldn't be - to dilute experience and identity. It is not an attempt to emasculate anyone. It is not an attempt to do away with "plain speech."

And yet, over its evolution, it has often become those things by misguided people eager to right every wrong and react to every word in a far too sympathetic way.

Wikipedia discusses the word "deaf," for example. Often described as "deaf and dumb" - an obvious value-negative phrase - doubtless some well-meaning group decided that "hearing-impaired" was a better term. But like many do-gooders, they forgot to ask those within that group what they thought of each label. As it turned out, the deaf preferred that word and were offended by "hearing impaired."

Does it really matter if I call someone who can't hear me "deaf" or "hearing-impaired"?
Does it really matter if I call the latino kid down the street a "wetback" or "hispanic" or "latino"?

If I walk into a job interview and say something about the "spics" down the street, am I likely to get the job?

There is a time and a place for all kinds of language. We humans have, through centuries of development, found ways of communicating with different groups of people. We speak differently with our grandmothers than with our best friends. We do not necessarily speak any less truthfully with Grandma than with Tim, but we do not use the same word choices.

Using value-neutral language is the same concept. When we are with people we do not know, we revert to a more value-neutral language than that which we might use with close friends.

Another example:
homosexual, gay, gay woman, lesbian, dyke, queer, lesbo, friend of Sappho, fag, faggot, fairy, queen

In the company of people I don't know, if someone who loved a person of the same sex became a topic of discussion, I would assume that most people would default to a more value-neutral word. They would probably use one of the first four phrases to talk about this individual. Our society has, by general consensus, declared those terms as the least negatively charged phrases to describe someone who loves a person of the same sex.

However, whilst I was in high school in the mid to late eighties, I heard news report after news report with the phrase "crazed lesbian." "Today, a crazed lesbian broke into Sharon Gless' home." The two words seemed to always be paired together. For me, "lesbian" became a very value-negative word. As I went to college, I met a fair number of people in the field of writing and rhetoric. They were all about the power of words and the taking back the power of words as symbols. Thus, I heard the word "dyke" used in a very positive manner. Because of this set of experiences, my personal "value-neutral" phrase for a woman who is homosexual is not homosexual, is not lesbian. Either the word gay or dyke seems the most value-neutral to me.

Do I correct the random person on the street for saying "lesbian"? No! Not at all! I know that for the largest segment of the population, that word is fairly value-neutral. (Or as neutral as the topic itself can be.) I might grit my teeth a little because the word annoys me, but that's it. The random person on the street using the term "lesbian" is usually attempting to be either friendly or non-judgmental.

Among friends, I will use the word dyke. Not with all of my friends, just those who are relatively like-minded.

Why? Why do we put ourselves through these gyrations of multiple words all meaning the same thing? Why are we afraid to call a spade a spade?

It's about respect.

As a word comes into our common vocabulary with a new definition (gay, for example), it also begins growing its own history. With that history comes emotional ties. I respect someone I do not know enough to want to choose a value-neutral word in regard to them. I don't wish to upset someone I don't even know just by a sloppy choice of word. Of course, given the varied experiences of every human, it's impossible that I will always choose the correct term. But I try to make the effort and I try to listen and adapt my vocabulary when the language, once again, shifts.

For me, choosing one term over another has nothing to do with being "politically" correct. It has to do with being polite, with being empathetic, with being cognizant that our words can hurt.

Consider the shift from Indian to Native American. The people already indigenous to North America were called Indians because the whites thought they'd landed in India ... the term Indian, therefore, was grossly wrong and reflected a heritage completely different. And, while it might not be as fun for kids to say they're playing Cowboys and Native Americans ... it would be, in my opinion, even better if the kids said they were playing Cowboys and Comanches instead.

You see, I think that even referring to all the indigenous people as Native Americans is a disservice. There are at least 335 recognized "tribes" in the U.S. alone, many of them sharing few similarities. Those 335 can be subdivided into bands which don't necessarily have a lot in common. I would rather talk about the Navajo or the Acoma Pueblo than talk so generally about such a diverse group.

And absolutely ALL of this mess goes back to our biological and psychological imperative to categorize. As humans we are creatures of patterns. We look for the patterns in life, events, people and we attempt to box them. We know, intellectually, that people fit into multiple boxes, and yet it's easier to categorize Catholics one way, Jehovah's Witnesses another. To categorize latinos one way and whites another.

But I am more than any of the boxes one might stick me in.
The English teacher in me cringes at the dangling preposition in that previous sentence. The writer in me knows that this more colloquial way of speak-writing finds a larger audience.

To my mind, attempting to use a value-neutral term is to respect and acknowledge that while we are discussing a generalization (people born in Latin America), we are not necessarily putting someone in a derogatory box. We are attempting to acknowledge that we are all more than just one box.

And people ask me why I hate About Me boxes ....

Posted by Red Monkey at November 6, 2007 1:06 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Pixelation said:

Wait a minute... what's that phrase mean? Wikipedia says it just means to call something what it is (although it mentions a vaguely racist phrase in one of the first uses).

As for political correctness, I'm not sure it's such a big deal anymore. I just generally stay away from racial epithets and leave it at that. Our language is male-centric and 'he/she' just sounds weird. I think the pendulum has actually swung the other way now and most people are tired of political correctness (there's still some holdouts, I'm sure).

Box-putting is a normal part of language, isn't it? I mean, otherwise, we'd need a different word for each time a grain were removed from a heap of sand.

Red Monkey says: While I agree that s/he or he/she sounds weird and stupid, there are other ways to get around that. For example, when I taught writing classes, I had my students rotate their generic examples. If they used "he" to describe a generic example in the first paragraph, the next time they had a generic example, they used she. It's a very simple and unobtrusive way to include everyone.
And I'm not so sure that "political correctness" is on its way out, except, perhaps, as a phrase. It was a stupid phrase to begin with, which is why I began shifting my language to "value-neutral" as the piece went on. But I still hear from many, many people that they should be able "to call a "spic" a "spic" and that those people shouldn't take it bad because that's not how it's intended."
Which is why, of course, I brought up the whole discussion in the first place, and particularly that this is all about respect. I know too many people of one culture who hang out with some people of another culture who think they can use the same words ... wait, generic is going to get convoluted. Let me use a specific example. Veronica is latina. Hangs out with a lot of black guys. Thinks that because she calls Brian the n-word, she can call any black man she sees the same thing. And if they react negatively, she thinks they simply are too sensitive and should just chill out.
So I don't see "political correctness" as the issue here. Basic respect and politeness and manners are at issue here. An understanding of the historical connotations of words and how they affect us, even, perhaps, when we don't want them too ... that is at issue here.
November 7, 2007 3:12 AM


Tracy said:

What an interesting, thoughtful post about an issue that drives me up a wall! I've felt that the term "politically correct" has been used as a tool of political propaganda to negate any act of human thoughtfulness or decency since I was in college, circa 1990. Even having gone to a very lefty political college and having worked in places like alternative newspapers, I've seen relatively few people act like "thought police" over cultural labels and identities. I have, however, seen an awful lot people use the term "political correctness" to disregard or censor meaningful discussion about how human beings should treat or speak to each other. I agree - it's simply about respect.

November 11, 2007 11:34 AM
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