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By Jessica Arend
The sentiments of three opinion pieces ran in last month’s issue of the Clarion (“Iced Tea”, “Stop Being Nice”, and “Safe Spaces are Present”) are ones that I hear reiterated across campus hallways and social media platforms alike — all, in essence, variations of “you’re being too sensitive” and “we have to put our foot down somewhere”. Such arguments surely play into discussions of the role of safe spaces in higher education and the use of inclusive language in religious institutions. I wonder, however, if these sentiments stretch father than each particular issue to ultimately undergird what I’m beginning to colloquially refer to as the “PC-pushback”.
“PC”, if you’re unfamiliar with the abbreviation, is short for “politically correct”, a term itself that has only been in the modern lexicon since the 1960s. In the history of its usage, “political correctness” has been used primarily as a pejorative term to criticize the ideology that certain terminologies (typically, language addressing a specific person or group of people) are or are not appropriate. As the frequency of the phrase “politically correct” has spread in public and private spheres, I find myself increasingly frustrated with pushback against the larger ideology. I find myself facing three primary misconceptions in how “political correctness” is regarded.
Misconception #1: Political correctness is the deterrent of real progress. Often in discussion, I hear individuals dismissing any obligation to use politically correct terminology because they feel such language infringes on their ability to communicate effectively. “LGBTQ” is dismissed as “alphabet soup”; “persons who are disabled” is thrown away as “grammatically unwieldy”. Political correctness becomes the adversary to speaking truth and addressing issues head-on.
Misconception #2: Political correctness is a denial of reality. This particularly arises in conversations regarding safe spaces and trigger warnings. Advocating for specific treatment of sensitive material is met with a “life is tough” mentality, which asserts that growth doesn’t arise from babying individuals or sugarcoating issues. Individuals argue that we ought not to tiptoe around offense because it’s part of the world we live in.
Misconception #3: Political correctness is a box to check. This “if I have to” mentality is characterized by conformity to political correctness, not due to personal agreement with the sentiment, but rather fear of criticism from others if the rules are not observed. Often, this manifests as people using politically correct language but delivering sharp criticisms about the ideology even while utilizing it.
Behind these misconceptions are these realities:
First, new and unfamiliar terms can feel awkward or bulky when integrated into conversation. But the heart of using politically correct language is to deliver more precision, not less. Using “LGBTQ” acknowledges individuals along a spectrum of sexual orientation, rather than reducing an otherwise diverse community to “the gays”FOOTNOTE: Footnote. Using “persons who are disabled” allows for person-first language that doesn’t treat a disability as the single defining factor of a person’s identity. Utilizing appropriate language allows for more specific conversation without unwittingly lacing the discussion with stereotypes and harmful generalizations.
Second, the world often is offensive and full of conflict; why add to the onslaught? To argue that those who advocate for political correctness are hiding from the “real world” belittles the courage that it takes to address issues of discrimination in the first place. Research in psychology and sociology has given us more insight into the substrates of prejudice and trauma than ever before; in that regard, attending to these discoveries and accordingly adjusting our behavior is actually the most realistic course of action to take.
Finally, to conceptualize political correctness as a box to check is to overlook the original sentiment behind it entirely. Using more specific and intentional language is not some legalistic ritual designed to satiate the vengeful PC gods — it’s a purposeful shift to use inclusive language that provides space for people who have otherwise been historically marginalized in everyday conversations.
I’m not condemning criticism of the term “politically correct” itself; in fact, I myself take issue with it. Saying that I must use specific language because it’s “politically correct” implies that I’m doing so to conform to a legalistic system of rules. I’d much rather find a phrase that emphasizes the true motive behind this ideology: using more inclusive and intentional language is valuable because it is humanizing. I’d advocate replacing the term “PC language” with “respect of persons language”; in the end, it’s more about the person than the politics.
My point, though, is that “political correctness” as a larger concept is not the enemy. There is a space and a necessity for politically correct — rather, “respect of persons” — language on campus. There is also space and necessity for discussing why respect of persons language is important on campus. Let’s shift the discussion from finger-pointing and evading responsibility to discussing how our language shapes our thoughts and actions so we can truly be “salt” and “light”.
Allen, Irving Lewis. “Earlier Uses of Politically (In)correct.” American Speech 70, no. 1 (1995): 110-12. doi:10.2307/455878.
Brennan, Teresa. Forward to Political Correctness : A Response from the Cultural Left by Richard Feldstein. Minneapolis, US: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. Accessed April 6, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.
Pairing the article “the” with a collective noun has also been proven to have a distancing effect which exaggerates “otherness”, according to linguist Eric Acton as reported by Abadi, Mark. Oct 17 2017. “‘The Blacks,’ ‘The Gays,’ ‘The Muslims’ — Linguists Explain One Of Donald Trump’s Most Unusual Speech Tics”. Business Insider. http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-the-blacks-the-gays-2016-10. Accessed April 6, 2017.
To understand more about the impact of language on cognition, google “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”.