I hate to do it, but let me shoot down another blog post.
When wedidntstartthefire asked me what I thought of his article “Political Correctness: If You’re For It, Go All In,” I replied, “I need to write my response as a separate blog post.” He makes a lot of good points; sometimes we go a little overboard freaking out about the latest PC gaffe. At points we get to conversations that start, “Oh really, that’s offensive now?” Implied in that statement of surprise is also “Damn, I can’t say that anymore?” Some have equated PC culture with suppression of free speech, but no one said you can’t say politically incorrect things, it’s just that you really ought not to. Last I checked, it was still legal to say the ‘n’ word, but that doesn’t mean you should do it.
But free speech! you say. Here’s the thing about that, constitutionally speaking: freedom of speech is the principle that the government cannot imprison, kill or otherwise punish you, as is done under many authoritarian regimes around the world. Just about every time someone makes a PC no-no, nothing of the sort happens. If you say that mainstream society shutting you down for what you say is un-American, then you clearly don’t know American society.
[W]e Americans place upon ourselves quite extraordinary obligations of conformity to the group in utterance and behavior, and this feature of our national life seems to be growing rather than declining. All these things can bring us to put restraints upon ourselves which in other parts of the world would be imposed upon people only by the straightforward exercise of the central police authority.
– George Kennan, “Training for Statesmanship” (1953)
PC comes under a lot of attack from people who don’t want to change their way of saying and doing things, even if the cost of adding just one more unoffensive term to the colloquial dictionary is rather minimal. With any correction from PC culture, there is the majority and the minority–or to make it less mathematical, those who are described with the term, and those who are not. African-Americans and non-African-Americans. People with disabilities and people without. So on and so forth. The majority generally does not want to adjust to accommodate the minority, even when it comes to language. It’s understandable that this creates confusion, but a small annoyance like this is far outweighed by how the minority is affected. The offender is inconvenienced for one second; the offended must deal with it for the entirety of their lives.
What I would say, when it comes to criticizing “PC culture,” which carries so much baggage, is simply: Never take for granted how people feel.
I didn’t grow up with PC culture either; teachers would occasionally mention politically correct terms, but I didn’t learn a lot about it until college. And even then, I never saw things as part of the “ideology” that PC has taken on: I heard a term or behavior was offensive, and understood that perfectly well. Over the years I’ve dealt with plenty of “microaggressions”–but only recently did my experience get put into a word. (E.g. “Where are you from?” “‘Murica.” “But where are you from?”) Before that, it was just one aspect of “my problems,” things that, though they made me feel different in a bad way, I just had to deal with. But when people actually began to call out some of these terms and some of these actions, it made total sense. It was never about what was correct, in a legalistic sense: it was that it was right, that it respected people’s feelings.
All right, now for examples to make things concrete. Fortunately WDSTF already came up some.
Example 1: Gender
“Terms like ‘spokesman,’ ‘postman,’ ‘swordsman,’ or even in the field science the term ‘man‘used to describe evolution is in reality marginalizing women.” Yes, of course it marginalizes women. Any woman who looks at that word will think, According to the structure of this language, I can’t be a spokesman. (In so many words.) There are a couple reasonable objections in my mind. The first is if we assume away the gender implied by “-man,” take it to mean “man” or short-hand for “woman.” I don’t think that works; we think “postman” and we think of the male letter carrier (more PC!). The other objection is if we are talking medieval swordsmen, then that is naturally exclusionary, since exclusion is part of the definition: women weren’t allowed to go into combat.
Example 2: Religion
Okay, here we go, war on Christmas. “Even the institution of religion terms such as ‘Merry Christmas’ and the words in the Pledge of Allegiance are also considered incorrect.” I can’t put myself in Muslim or Buddhist shoes, so let me do this: I am a Christian in a majority Hindu country (no, India is not the only one). Personally, I don’t care if someone says “Happy Diwali,” because, like Christmas, it carries a lot of cultural connotations that I can appreciate aside from its worship of the goddess Laskhmi. However, I don’t want to see Lakshmi everywhere, in public places like the statehouse, especially if the country has separation of church and state in its constitution. The Pledge also applies. I shouldn’t be required to or frowned upon for not saying “under Lakshmi” in this country’s pledge. It goes both ways: if Christians were a minority, how would we want to be treated?
Example 3: Race/Ethnicity
WDSTF brings up the example of Filipinos that don’t want to be called “Asian,” but “Pacific Islander.” It’s a tough spot for sure: do you classify them with all of Asia, or with Polynesians? The concept of Asian itself is problematic. At a minimum, lumping China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, and India together as an ethnicity is a bit misleading. And does it include the Middle East, that is, Arabs, Persians, Kurds, and so on? I had trouble bubbling in “Asian” on forms for the longest time, until I came to grips with the fact that “Asian” refers to a broad, broad, broad group of ethnicities. Looking at the U.S. census form over time will surely show how off our understanding of ethnicity is.
And then we have Native Americans. Columbus Day is both problematic and not, as has been discussed repeatedly in the media, but WDSTF also brings up Thanksgiving: “Thanksgiving is based on a time period in US history where pilgrims, with the help of Natives, had a good harvest and was one of the precursor events to settlers to rape and pillage the land from the Natives.” For what it’s worth, I don’t see it this way–I see Thanksgiving as a moment, however brief, in which one group of people was hospitable to one very different group, and there was peace, again, for the moment. I see that as cause for celebration. But if Native Americans feel the holiday is offensive, then it means something hurtful. But we can’t give up Thanksgiving, you say. Well, maybe we don’t have to. We can restructure our dialogue of Thanksgiving and abandon harmful narratives, such as the Pilgrims surviving and ultimately taking over what is now Massachusetts, in favor of, for example, just “giving thanks.” Watered down, sure, but the less watered-down version speaks something treacherous and disgraceful to an entire group of people. We can’t take that for granted. And you know, we can still have the day off (that’s all we really want, right?).
And finally, this brings me to…the Redskins. (C’mon people, you knew it was coming.) After all this time, the team has not changed the name. This is largely an issue of accommodation: the accommodation costs too much money–that is, there’s a whole brand around the thing. Spend a day in D.C. and you will see the merch everywhere. But truly, it seems that even if a federal court rules the term disparaging, we cannot be bothered to remove something offensive. Don’t let ‘offensive’ lose its meaning–it adversely impacts a group of people. It is a difficult for someone of that heritage to see a slur plastered across a popular sports team. And it is a slur, associated with a troubled history. See here. Incidentally, usage of the word peaked around the time that Geronimo was captured and many remaining Native American tribes were moved onto reservations.
Despite all this, we continue to ignore their concerns. It seems after a couple hundred years of savagery (on both sides), broken treaties, aggressive and illegal land seizures, and leaving them in abject poverty, we are able to do just a bit more damage to these people. Perhaps what is more wrong is that the team owner thinks that because he believes it is a term of honor and respect, that makes it so. You cannot dictate what someone else should feel.
I called you a bitch, but I only meant that you’re a strong woman. I’m sorry you took it that way, but just change the way you see it, and all will be fine.
I only meant ‘chink’ to respect the traditions of your culture. Why are you offended?
Example 4: Class
Now since this is the globary, let’s go international. In India, they don’t call them “Untouchables” anymore, but “Dalits,” among other names. Seriously, who wants to be called “untouchable”?
Dalits today use the term “Dalit” as they believe the term is more than being broken and is in fact an identity born of struggle and assertion.
The word “untouchable” is charged in the most obvious sense. But above there are many, many words that carry their own charge.
Again, WDSTF makes some good points. Despite its intention to help, PC culture is notoriously hostile. It does at some points become like bullying. One person makes a slip-up, and that person is judged, scolded, or shunned. It would be better to gently inform the person that what they’ve said is hurtful, and show no malice towards them. After all, how many of us knew the right thing to say starting out?
“We should be weary of offending others, but putting on a label like ‘PC’ is shooting yourself in the foot.” PC as a term carries a lot of baggage–like the terms it is meant to correct–but it’s not about the correct thing to do, it’s about the right thing to do. How are we to show respect and understanding for each other? Certainly not by shrugging off the other’s concerns.