05 December 2010

On Being Politically In/Correct

Abraham Lincoln: What a charming Negress! Oh, forgive me, my dear. I know in my time some used that term as a description of property."
Uhura: But why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we've learned not to fear words.
(Star Trek, "The Savage Curtain")

What is political correctness?

In middle school I thought it was the practice of altering one's language or remaining quiet about some beliefs to avoid engendering offense. In seventh grade I remember kids making a game of inventing 'politically correct' descriptions: essentially, we attempted to find the most convoluted way of describing people and things we could. "Short" became "vertically challenged", and "fat", "horizontally enhanced". In a less juvenile context, the motivation to avoid being offensive is why accepted terminologies for minorities change through time: 'cripple' has become 'disabled' or 'handicapped', and "Negro" has eventually developed into African-American, though "colored" and "black" were intermediaries.

While it is understandable that people would resist changing the way they speak to please someone else,  there are also reasons why certain words and phrases have become 'n-words', and why we perhaps ought to rethink our use of them. Language is constantly changing: as time passes, words are separated from their original meanings and intents. "Retarded" may have once been a clinical description indicating that a patient's mental abilities were impaired or inhibited, but people now use it to attack those who they believe are acting foolishly, or simply to demean those whom they disagree with or dislike. They thus corrupt the word: their  base intention has turned a once objective description into a mean and contemptuous term.  Those who prefer their language to be civil are right to to avoid such vulgarity.  Politically correct terms also sometimes make more sense than those which they replace: 'native American' may be lengthsome, but 'Indian' is ignorant.

Political correctness in language has its shortcomings as well: politically correct descriptions tend toward the ungainly (it being much harder to shout "Hey, person with a higher-than-normal body-mass index!" than "Hey, fatty!"), and some phrases simply do not work. "Differently-abled" is an example of this:  it says nothing, for we all have 'different' abilities.  The full use of arms and legs is considered a normal, typical ability of human beings, (thus the appropriateness of 'disabled') but it is not an insult to be abnormal despite the fact that there are those who take pleasure in mocking others for being different.  I understand why people who are sensitive about being different in some way would prefer that people didn't draw attention to their difference, but insisting that others use ungainly phrases will attract more hostility than the proposed phrase deflects.

I believe political correctness exists more as an imagined object of hostility than as a monolithic force in itself. There is no language commission in the United States which ruthlessly seeks out every indecorous word and sends it to a speech-gulag somewhere.  Instead,  people attack particular words linked to particular minorities as the minorities, the people themselves, begin asserting themselves. The titular "n-word" has been sent to a speech-gulag by people who stood up for themselves and forced the majority to consider: why are you using that word to attack us? Why are you keeping us segregated, denied equal rights and opportunities?

The reactionary mentality does not like being forced to consider its actions and beliefs. It does not want to consider that it was in the wrong, that it remains in the wrong by protesting instead of admitting to having acted poorly or having been ignorant. They thus invent the phrase 'politically correct' as an insult to approve their own actions. Suddenly, they are not the oppressors: they are the victims. Behold, the great white majority  are being persecuted because they can no longer call a wop a wop and a chink a chink! Politically correct language doesn't allow them to justify their distrust or contempt of others with a blow-rendering label.

 Imperial Christians are especially bad about this during Christmas. Christmas in the United States is only partly Christian: it carries the Catholic title "Christ's Mass" in its name,  but I daresay most people don't darken the door of a church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. They certainly don't hear a mass. Many of the practices stem from sources other than Paulinism:  Christmas trees and yule logs are German, caroling and reveling Roman, and shameless consumerism  oh-so-very modern.  The date of the holiday itself comes from the winter solstice, acknowledged by most cultures in the northern hemisphere -- and yet Christians will claim the holiday is all theirs, that every thing about it is the exclusive property of Jesus Christ Incorporated. If anyone dares acknowledge that the Roman church's mass isn't the only religious or festive ceremony held in late December,  this is a source of great umbrage to the Christians, who construe "Happy Holidays" as an insult to their beliefs and every utterance of "Solstice" is an assault on the body of Christ.

I believe this reactionary mentality is why those who take pride in being politically incorrect tend to be aggressively rude and insufferably opinionated:  they like being jackasses, by god, and how dare you judge them for acting like a jackass? Being proud of being politically incorrect is tantamount to seeking a license to be a jackass, and doing it in the name of free speech, yet.  There's irony here, it seems: people rail against their actions being judged as rude or uninformed,  even though their actions themselves were judgment of other people.

For my own part, I don't think the labels themselves are the problem: they are merely a symptom of the tendecy of people to attack and demean others.  Judge the intent of language: once that is known, the expression is mostly garnish.

1 comment:

Apprentice Philosopher said...

I always hate the debate that rages over "Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays." But, recently, a discussion of the issue on a message board that I frequent offered some interesting new perspectives to me. Some people argued that "Happy Holidays" is not something specifically anti-Christian but rather has the nasty side effect of rendering all cultural/religious distinctions as irrelevant. They argued that while it may sometimes be much more convenient to say Happy Holidays (if you were a waiter in a restaurant for instance) than to try to isolate a person's heritage or reinforce a more narrow-minded sensibility about the holiday season, but in certain situations displaying "Merry Christmas" side by side with "Happy Hanukkah" "Happy Kwanzaa" and the like would be a celebration of cultural diversity that is lost with just a blanket "Happy Holidays."