Culture

Political Correctness

There seems to be a growing misunderstanding of political correctness. Many people view political correctness as a trivial limitation on their freedom of speech. They get mad when proponents of political correctness, such as myself, tell them they shouldn’t use certain words and phrases. They often argue that we’re just being petty, and that if we don’t like their choice of words, then we should simply get over it. This attitude is indicative of a misunderstanding of political correctness.

Political correctness is the acknowledgement of certain words and phrases to be culturally insensitive to a group of people in society, such as a group identified by gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or other classifications, and the refraining from using these words and phrases out of respect for these particular groups. Political correctness serves a very important function. It serves to phase out oppression and discrimination reflected in our vernacular. It is a movement emphasizing respect, inclusiveness and multiculturalism.

Language reflects a society in much the same way as art. It evolves to reflect the cultural zeitgeist. Meanings of words are forged by their historical context. There are many words and phrases rooted in sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination because these were the prevailing attitudes at the time. But we as a society have come to realize the social injustice being committed by using these words. Words mean things, and continuing to use certain words is perpetuating a form of oppression. Dismissing political correctness is to dismiss the entire history—the etymology—of certain words and the impact they have on particular groups of people. At best, it’s inconsiderate; at worst, it’s bigoted.

What is considered politically correct, or, better yet, what is not considered politically correct, is a matter of evolving social dynamics. It often takes members of an affected class standing up and demanding that a particular word or phrase no longer be used; either because its meaning is inherently degrading toward said group, or because the word or phrase has an historically derogatory connotation. What political correctness is not is a movement to censor offensiveness altogether. For example, political correctness distinguishes between words like “ugly” and “stupid”, and “nigger” and “tranny”—the former are merely insults; the latter are insults that are inherently racial and gender biased, respectively.

There are also phrases that have discriminatory implications. For example, the phrase “Don’t be a pussy”, or simply calling someone a “pussy”, implies gender inferiority, as explained in the featured photo. Another example of a discriminatory phrase, one that is also explained in the featured photo, is “That’s so gay”, when “gay” is used as a synonym for “stupid”, “ridiculous” or any other negative attribute. There is nothing wrong with being gay, and it should not be used as a synonym for bad things.

Now, there is a rather pretentious argument often used by opponents of PC (political correctness). The argument is that shying away from politically incorrect words and phrases actually empowers them. This is a ridiculous argument, and clearly a disingenuous attempt to dismiss the whole debate while still believing it is acceptable to use these words and phrases and even encouraged. This argument again dismisses the etymology behind them and ignores the feelings of those most affected. It is a more subtle form of the “get over it” argument. The meaning and connotation of words and phrases does not change simply because we choose to ignore them. In many cases, it further entrenches their roots into our culture.

Proponents of PC are under no delusion we can control the words coming out of people’s mouth, but that’s also not our goal as a movement. We simply aim to make individuals more cognizant of the effect certain words and utterances have, and that ceasing to use them will foster a more equitable, respectful, inclusive and diverse society. Is that really so bad?

Personally, I’ve always thought this to be a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at the amount of backlash against PC. I expect it from social conservatives, but there are even members of historically oppressed groups failing to empathize with other historically oppressed groups on this issue. This baffles me.

What I would ask opponents of PC is what they get out of using these terrible words and phrases to which they cling. Are they delighted by cruelty and insensitivity? What do they lose by refraining from using discriminatory words and phrases out of respect? To me, the debate always seems to boil down to convenience versus respect: “I’m mad because it’s inconvenient to be respectful, so I will continue to say whatever I want and there is nothing you can do about it”. Opponents of PC refuse to be held accountable, or often to even be bothered talking about it. It’s childish, and really obnoxious. All I can hope is that when the cards are down they are on the right side of history. Words matter.

8 comments

  1. I cogent and well argued post, words can hurt and it’s simply good manners to speak to other people in a way that respects them and also yourself.

  2. Well said…often it’s the context…but remember words do hurt..I hate the word Fag and queer because it was directed at me when I was young even before I knew what they meant…

  3. Fantastic article.

    And I love that you included one of my favorite “innocent-looking” phrases: “Words mean things.” ;-)

    This is one of those phrases that seems to small, so innocuous, that it’s amazing how much controversy it can cause.

    “PC opponents” start off assuming this is wrong. They try to start with the assumption that, because words are a human creation, any individual can cause words to mean whatever they want sheerly by the force of his will, and sheerly by manipulating his own reaction to and use of that word.

    But as you point out very well in this article, the assertion is ridiculous. It’s based on an absurd dichotomy: the idea that since words are not “objective” that therefore each individual has sovereign control of words and meanings. But in fact, word meanings exist in a shared, socially constructed space. That’s actually how words WORK, in fact: the only reason we are able to use words to communicate is that words DO NOT mean something totally different to every single person.

    To simply declare “I can choose for a word to NOT have the negative connotations if I don’t want to mean it that way” is to fly in the face of the reality of how language actually works, and what words are even for.

  4. I agree largely with you point of view but up to a point.
    Are we to completely refrain from being not politically correct.
    Is it offensive when words like gurl, bitch, queen are used as terms of endearment or is it always impoliticly correct to use these words when not in their proper context. I.e used as they are literally defined??
    Or does political correctness only apply if one is in the public eye?
    So should words like these be banned from use completely, to be grouped with swear words or only behind closed doors.
    Refraining from use suggests the latter?
    Also if one member of group speaks out but others are unsupportive does that imply the word is impolitically correct because one member dislikes it or is it just a case of one person being sensitive??
    The dilemma is where to draw the line of political correctness and I don’t think you have addressed it here as I am sure you don’t refrain from using all words with negative connotations completely except in the defined context.

  5. I agree with that Drake said above pretty much, but he was too nice about it. There is a place for anti-pc language,
    and this is one of those places, since you brought it up.

    Another more accurate and colorful term for Political Correctness is Anal Retentiveness. And there is a time and place for that.
    I’m just going to say what everyone else is already thinking, OK?

    Stop being such a pussy. Man up. and all the rest. Basically, using those terms is not a sign that you are a bigot, or misogynist, or neanderthal. I could say the first thing that comes to mind right now, or I could say, um, ok perhaps I am a little bit rough around the edges socially…perhaps you need to stop being so thin-skinned? Did that deliver the message? No, it really didn’t. Just stop being a bitch. When I was young, there was a little rhyme kids said to the other kids who were saying hurtful things that reminded them that they were only hurtful if you let them be.

    Sticks and stones
    may break my bones
    but words can never hurt me

    say that to yourself as needed and you just might lighten up a bit

    I would say I am sorry if that offended you, but it would just come off as terribly insincere. I usually don’t go around trying to offend people, but there are certain faggots that get offended anyway, and those

  6. I agree with that Drake said above pretty much, but he was too nice about it. There is a place for anti-pc language,
    and this is one of those places, since you brought it up.

    Another more accurate and colorful term for Political Correctness is Anal Retentiveness. And there is a time and place for that.
    I’m just going to say what everyone else is already thinking, OK?

    Stop being such a pussy. Man up. and all the rest. Basically, using those terms is not a sign that you are a bigot, or misogynist, or neanderthal. I could say the first thing that comes to mind right now, or I could say, um, ok perhaps I am a little bit rough around the edges socially…perhaps you need to stop being so thin-skinned? Did that deliver the message? No, it really didn’t. Just stop being a bitch. When I was young, there was a little rhyme kids said to the other kids who were saying hurtful things that reminded them that they were only hurtful if you let them be.

    Sticks and stones
    may break my bones
    but words can never hurt me

    say that to yourself as needed and you just might lighten up a bit

  7. I agree that words matter, but intent also matters. For example, it bothers me when I hear folks using the phrase, “That’s so gay,” because it uses “gay” in a negative context. The intent is negative in that case. However, I see nothing wrong with a white guy using the n-word to refer to a friend of his. It’s being used as a term of endearment, so the intent is positive. It’s not as simple to merely focus on words alone.

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