In Defense of Political Correctness
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I cannot pinpoint the exact year when I started hearing about this thing called Political Correctness. I know I was fairly young (pre-teen, I think) and no one ever gave me a firm definition of what “Politically Correct” meant. I knew it had something to do with language and the names people were supposed to use for each other. Native American instead of “Indian”, Homosexual or Gay instead of “Fag” or “Faggot”, and African American instead of “Colored”, “Negro”, and, to some extent, “Black.” (The last one I do not agree with for myself, obviously. That’s another post.)
I remember that even from the beginnings of Political Correctness, people have made light of it, if not outright joked about it. Some of the ways people were expected to refer to others seemed overwrought – “Differently-abled” instead of handicapped (or cripple), “Vertically Challenged” instead of dwarf or midget or some other (admittedly) offensive way of referring to people born shorter than ‘normal’. However, I’ve always felt that a group, especially a minority group, has the right to guide the language concerning themselves, especially in the public square. What people do in their own homes can’t be dictated (nor should it be). If a group of people wants folks to refer to them as Differently-abled, then folks should. Even if folks on the outside don’t like having to do so.
Still, this particular language came under fire early on in Political Correctness. And, as time went on, Political Correctness and accusations of it became somewhat of a pejorative. (PC police, anyone?) Now newsbeings like Lou Dobbs can say on national television that Politically Correct speech is nothing more than a way for ‘people’ to control the speech of others and no one corrects him. There’s not even outrage. He set PC against the First Amendment, demonized it, and squished it under his huge ass.
For many years I allowed the belittling of Political Correctness to sort of roll off my back. It used to be that I would have an immediate negative reaction to people using PC like a curse word. Lately I was surprised to find myself sort of unconsciously agreeing with the “PC is bad!” sentiments I heard. Once I recognized that I yanked hard on the reins – whoa Nelly! Where did this attitude come from?
My guess is that, since I have never been clear on what exactly “Politically Correct” is and have never fought for my particular PC label, I have not properly cemented the concept in my mind. Therefore, my opinion of it is easily, if not sneakily, swayed. I wasn’t paying enough attention. When I sat down and thought about how I really felt about Political Correctness, I decided that it really is a good thing. A thing worth fighting for. It’s not negative, it’s not a curse word, and it’s not about suppressing free speech or policing anyone’s thoughts.
I think it’s time that people started defending Political Correctness. Articulating what it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s still important. Political Correctness is about language and the power language has. I’m a writer. I believe — no, I know — that language is a powerful weapon. Changing language is one of the key ways to change society for the better. Language is one of the key ways in which people in power maintain the status quo. Changing language, by itself, won’t solve the world’s problems. No one thing will. But there are always key factors. Language is one.
To start, let’s explore what Politically Correct is supposed to mean.
Not surprisingly, the article on Political Correctness at Wikipedia is a battleground. (If you’ve never clicked the ‘Discussion’ tab on WP entries, especially ones that have boxes at the top stating that the article may be flawed in some way, you’re missing out on some very interesting – and funny – drama.) Right now, the opening paragraphs of the entry state:
Political correctness (often abbreviated to PC) is a term used to describe language or behavior which is intended, or said to be intended, to provide a minimum of offense, particularly to racial, cultural, or other identity groups. A text that conforms to the alleged ideals of political correctness is said to be politically correct.
The term “political correctness” is used almost exclusively in a pejorative sense. However, terms such as inclusive language and civility are often used to praise language that is seen by critics as “politically correct”. Those who use the term in a critical fashion often express a concern about the dilution of freedom of speech, intolerance of language, and the avoidance of a discussion of social problems.
Reference.com gives us a few more views:
politically correct – marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving esp. race, gender, sexual affinity, or ecology.
politically correct –
1. Of, relating to, or supporting broad social, political, and educational change, especially to redress historical injustices in matters such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
2. Being or perceived as being overconcerned with such change, often to the exclusion of other matters.
(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
political correctness – avoidance of expressions or actions that can be perceived to exclude or marginalize or insult people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.
I particularly like the definition by WordNet. It parallels the bit about “Civility” mentioned in the Wikipedia entry. For me, Political Correctness boils down to just that: being civil, being polite. I feel that Political Correctness promotes tolerance because it forces people to think about what they say and who they are saying it to.
It seems to me (and I could be wrong) that people who rail against Politically Correct speech are those who do not want to have to be polite or civil to folks different from them. They see nothing wrong with using the language they grew up with or that they’ve come to use. They do not care if the language they use is hurtful to others because, after all, the most important thing is that they get to do what they want when they want. This is the prevailing attitude of people with privilege.
I’m not just talking about White Privilege, either. Any kind of privilege can result in this attitude. Because it’s usually the underprivileged who are asking for new labels and new language. It is one of the great markers of privilege that those who have it can ignore the voices of those who don’t. They can disparage and actively suppress efforts to level the playing field. They can spit PC at anyone who asks for a little civility.
Common decency. How often do we hear people asking where it went?
Politically Correct language is important. Whether we keep calling it PC or we start calling it Civil Speech or Inclusive Talk, we need to fight for it. Changing language, changing society, building a better future, that’s hard work. But here we have an excellent tool for doing so that doesn’t require marching, letter-writing, or even picking up a newspaper. Let’s make sure people use it.