SERIES: IT'S OKAY TO BE POLITICALLY CORRECT*
PART 5: It's better than what we had before.
I first heard the term "politically correct" when I was fifteen years old. My mother had returned to school and was involved in a couple women's groups. I didn't live with her, but she was in the city for a feminist book fair which she took me to; and she and her friend kept making jokes about "political correctness."
wikipedia that's pretty much how the term got started: “Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the New Left, feminists, and progressives . . . used their term politically correct ironically, as a guard against their own orthodoxy in social change efforts." (Debra Shultz) That is, they wanted to keep in mind the "spirit" of what they were trying to do, not create a new letter-of-the-law.
But for the last decade I've seen its use change to something I'm much less comfortable being aligned with. People started using it as a catch-all term, not for "orthodoxy in social change efforts," but for any social change effort. Somehow "political correctness" was turned into this really dirty word, and attached to any effort to make society a friendlier, warmer place for anyone not white, male and straight. It's as though we hit the term "African American" and that was North America's collective limit. "From this day forward, no more language accommodations for any group. It takes five more syllables to say African-American than it does to say Negro, and that's all we can take for one millennium. Ask us for another concession in the year 2090."
People have realized just how powerful "political correctness" is, as an insult, so they level it against things they don't like as fast as they can. Get PC onto an issue early and fast, and its stink is hard to remove because every person who tries to remove it will be conveniently accused of Just Being Politically Correct. It's a cheat.
(Which is ironic. Because using the term is an acknowledgment of how powerful language is.)
I'm not saying there's isn't a push and pull between freedom of speech, art, or comedy and showing respect through language. Reality is full of ugliness, so you can't talk about and represent reality without showing that ugliness. I understand the fear of the slippery-slope, that if you ban A, what's going to happen to BCD and E?
But are those fears so important that we can no longer discuss the sentiments at the heart of "PC"? How do we evolve our language and our culture so that minorities, and women, feel more included? Is this "political" or is it about values like kindness? Caring about the experiences other people go through? Empathy? Looking through someone else's eyes? And can we change language to better reflect reality?
What bothers me is that everyone just seems lazy. It's easier to hit the Political Correctness button than to actually engage the heart and mind, and have an intelligent or caring discussion. There was a recent story in the news that a group of kirpan-wearing-Sikhs were denied admission to the Quebec National Assembly, and almost every single commentor, who I guarantee you complains 364 days out of the year about Quebec's national identity, wrote: Woo hoo for protecting Canadian national identity, go back home you knife wielding thugs. Only a tiny handful of the people who agreed with the decision also expressed themselves in a thoughtful manner.
And so we return to the story that start this week's PC theme: The CBSC decision that "Money for Nothing" can't be played on its station in unedited form.
When I first heard the decision, I too was surprised, but I took ten minutes to read up on the decision and understand it before forming an opinion. Most people didn't even read the details properly let alone read the actual decision. In the recent kirpan story, one woman wrote in the comments something like "I guess I could research why they wear it, but anyway..." She actually acknowledged her ignorance, and her determination to remain ignorant, before proceeding to give her opinion.
On the other hand, my husband and I enjoyed listening to Rex Murphy's call-in show about the Huckleberry Finn debate. He brought all kinds of points of views into the discussion, and hosted them in a way that combined intelligent discussion and passion for books.
that ship full of Jewish refugees we turned back during the Holocaust), but I vote we take the hard road and trudge on forward.
Thank-you for joining me on my journey through happier language. I leave you with a bang-on bit by British comedian Stewart Lee. (I recommend watching the video below, he makes the point really well.)
"The problem is 84% of people apparently, of the public, think that political correctness is gone mad. Now I don't know if it has. People still get killed, don't they, for being the wrong color or the wrong sexuality or whatever. And what is political correctness? It's an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language, and there's all sorts of problems with it, but it's better than what we had before."
[Pics by azjack2008, hortongrou, gabetarian]
* This is explicitly not an academic discussion, and I recognize I've simplified topics that entire PhDs have been built on. For the record I'm white, Anglo-Saxon-Norman, Christian, heterosexual, female, middle class, a little overweight, and pretty able-bodied. :-)