The 54 Percent: In defense of political correctness
Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02
There is no denying that “politically correct” has become a pejorative term in today’s society. Miles Brady’s opinion piece on the topic, published in TNH last week, is just one indication among many of a general disdain for the practice.
“Being PC” is often portrayed as a manner of policing self-expression that drains an essential color and vivacity from the English language, robbing writers of their unique voices, as well as an almost sporting pursuit among the liberal, academic and social justice communities. I concede that adherence to the canon of political correctness does not necessarily mean that the speaker cares deeply about issues of discrimination – and that PC speech can be used to mask antipathy and even hatred. But using PC language simply to avoid contention over the issue is akin to following the letter of the law while violating its spirit.
In its best incarnation, political correctness is not a threat to free speech, nor a rigid primer added to and circulated each year. Speech is often ambiguous, and meaning depends heavily on the speaker and its context. Many offensive words have been reappropriated by the communities they target. There can be no list of words and phrases that are verboten. Political correctness is simply a guide to help you use language thoughtfully and with careful regard to the feelings and experiences of others.
To assert that one should not be offended by something because the majority of people find it inoffensive misses the point rather profoundly (even leaving aside the fact that it is very hard to choose not to be offended when something truly hurts you). Words are considered politically incorrect because the vast majority of people find them acceptable, and use them freely, despite the fact that they serve as shorthand for the mistreatment of a small group on the part of that same majority. Words do not become offensive over time because the social justice community is playing some absurd game of discrimination bingo in which the board gets increasingly larger. Words become offensive because they are used hatefully. The word “retard,” once a clinical term, became politically incorrect because over the years it was used to dehumanize and marginalize a group of people.
Those who proudly describe themselves as “politically incorrect” seem to see themselves as truth-telling, rule-breaking cowboys living on the linguistic frontier. But the adamant assertion that one is not racist, not sexist, not classist, not ableist, not any kind of “-ist” does not negate an antecedent statement that says exactly the opposite. Our understanding of other people is limited in scope – we cannot read minds, and a person who says things that violate his purported beliefs must not hold them very strongly, or else has a very tenuous grasp on the concept of communication. So who, among these two camps, is obscuring truth? Who is hypocritical? Who is using inexact language? From where I am standing, it is not the proponents of political correctness.
Taboo words and phrases have a power derived from their reserved nature. Their utterance carries a weight that attracts attention, and this makes people want to use them, almost as they would swearing. But a distinction must be made between speech that is offensive because it is vulgar, and speech that is offensive because it is intrinsically tied to years of institutionalized discrimination and hatred. Similarly, censorship of media because of graphic or sexual content cannot be conflated with political correctness, which is, in its most basic form, simply the choice not to use offensive, hurtful language. A word is much more than a word, and using politically incorrect speech is not avoiding euphemisms in order to embrace truthfulness. Along with their literal meaning, these statements drag with them a whole host of injustices, and prejudices and insults that have, over time and with repeated use, become inexorable from that word or phrase, and call into memory the very personal pain of being told you are “less than.”
There are enough words in the English language that we can deploy exactly the one we need at any given moment without having to call on another that not only does not accurately represent how we purport to feel, and hurts people in the bargain by carelessly perpetuating discrimination, marginalization and hatred. While politically correct speech can’t singlehandedly right the wrongs of society, the power of making people think about the implications of their word choice cannot be overlooked. When coupled with empathy and precision of language, political correctness is a powerful force for good.
Aliza Harrigan is a junior political science major and English minor. The 54 percent denotes the percentage of the UNH student body that is female.