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.