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Politically Correct: A Term that is No Longer Useful

December 5, 2016

The term “politically correct” (PC for short) has been around for decades, but people keep using it as if it were a new concept. It’s a wonderful scapegoat. Anything your opponent does out of moral concern that you think is silly, you can slap the term “politically correct” on it and then dismiss it. The term is so overused, and misused to excuse our own prejudices, that I wish it could be banished from the English language. Its use confuses issues rather than clarifies them.

The term “politically correct” originally referred to the excessive avoidance of language that might tend to insult or marginalize or exclude those who have historically been discriminated against. For instance, a few years ago a college student objected to my use of the word “lame.” I think I said something like, “That was a lame excuse.” The student pointed out that I was using the word “lame” in a derogatory sense, and this, by implication, insults people who are literally lame. I thought this was excessive protectiveness toward people with physical disabilities. Are disabled people really insulted by the metaphorical use of the word “lame” to mean “weak”? I’m currently reconsidering the student’s argument, but at that time I thought she was being PC; that is, I thought she was being excessive in avoiding language (and telling me to avoid language) that she thought might hurt someone’s feelings.

On the other hand, language is more powerful than we think it is; it subtly shapes how we perceive reality. For instance, our society used to use the word “man” in a generic sense to mean all men and women. The word “man” has a certain poetry to it that is not matched by “humanity” or “people.” So, many people have been reluctant to give up using the word “man” in this generic sense. And yet, I have to admit that my childhood use of the term “man” had the effect of making me think of men as being more representative of humanity than women. I do believe that our society has become more inclusive in its attitudes partly through changing our language. By saying police officer, fire fighter, flight attendant, chairperson (or chair) we are changing our imagination and making it more inclusive. So I am in favor of inclusive language. I do not consider it PC, because I do not consider it excessive. I think it helps make important changes in society.

But can we take an insistence on the sensitive use of language too far? Can it have the effect of promoting a thin skin and a victim mentality? Can it be used to shut down honest disagreement and debate? Can it make its proponents into self-righteous (and in their own way closed-minded) bullies? I think the answer is yes. That’s why the term PC was invented.

I don’t use the word “man” in a generic sense anymore, but I don’t insist that everyone else has to make that same decision. I don’t use the pronouns “he” or “him” when referring to God (I just say “God”), but I don’t attack  those who continue using this traditional language. I think it’s worthwhile to explore the gender assumptions we make about God, but I think it’s being PC to demand that others change the way they have talked about and prayed to God all their lives.

I’m going to go out on a limb here. Please bear with me. I think it is being PC when college administrators (defending the right of women to get as drunk as men wherever they want) don’t tell women students that getting drunk at a frat house is risky behavior that increases the chances of getting raped. I think it’s being PC when a seminary tells its students that the terms “Old Testament,” “New Testament,” “B.C.” and “A.D.” must be replaced so as not to offend Jews. I think it is being PC to discourage mentioning the fact that African-American young men commit major crimes at several times the rate of most other groups of young men. I think it is being PC to forcibly demand that the Washington Redskins change their name when the vast majority of Native Americans are not offended by its usage (although personally I don’t like the term). I could be wrong about these issues. Fine, let’s have a reasonable discussion about it; but please don’t automatically accuse me of being sexist or racist, shut down debate, and exclude me from polite society. That’s being PC.

On the other hand, I find it annoying to have others accuse me of being PC when I’m trying to be polite or sensitive or inclusive or creative. As long as I’m not insisting that everyone else do as I do, I am not being PC.

I think a major reason why so many people voted for Donald Trump (besides their great dislike and distrust of Hillary Clinton) was because so many people are fed up with others telling them what they must do or say in order to be considered “proper.” That’s why Trump got away with doing and saying so many clearly outrageous and improper things. In my opinion, this election was, in many ways, an overreaction to being PC. It was its opposite: purposely allowing and rewarding a white male (the usual target of political correctness) for expressing prejudice and disgusting behavior.

By now we have so twisted and misused our displeasure with political correctness, the term is no longer useful for constructive discussion. It is time to retire it. From now on, if you think someone is being too sensitive, say that you think they are being too sensitive. If you think someone is inhibiting your right to discuss an honest opinion, say you think someone is inhibiting your right to discuss an honest opinion. But let’s stop excusing our own prejudice and negative stereotypes and foul-mouthed hate speech and fear of diversity by slapping down people with the accusation, “You’re just being politically correct!”


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