Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The point of "Political Correctness"

My friend Jill Bernard, who I went to High School with, posted this on Facebook Sunday:

The people that hate "political correctness" can't understand it's something we invented because we couldn't wait around for them to get a handle on actual correctness. Your mouth is a gun and you can have all your words back when you take the bullets out.

The post received a lot of play:  73 likes, 25 comments, and a lot of passion.  Some of the conversation  centered around words you can and cannot use, and what power words really have.  I was intrigued by the conversation, and I weighed in:

The metaphor “words as bullets” illustrates that words are used to wound and hurt people: often intentionally, but sometimes by collateral damage of being unaware or uncaring. 

I think this metaphor is basically true.  

However, I find the quote “Your mouth is a gun and you can have all your words back when you take the bullets out” to be less than helpful. I think that misses the heart of “political correctness”. 

Being “PC” is the attempt to choose words that are sensitive to the people likely to hear them, with special awareness for people who are different than the speaker. It is a good thing to be aware of one’s words, and to consider how different people will hear what is said. It is careless to not know how a word has been used in the past, and the affect that it is likely to have on others.  

PC does not ultimately forbid words: each individual has the power to choose and say their words. Words are not to be taken away by others. Free speech is indeed free speech. This is where the taking bullets away from people metaphor, for me, breaks down. It is illegal to shoot people with bullets: it is not illegal to use words, even hurtful ones. 

But there is a cost for choosing to use certain words: usually in terms of our relationships with others. And it is naive to think that words don’t damage the psyches of others. PC is supposed to be a call to awareness and caring, rather than a list of words to avoid. 

And, ironically, the statement “I hate political correctness” then misses the point as well: with people reacting to a list of words they think someone has decided that they aren’t supposed to say, rather than hearing the call to be aware of what different people are likely to hear.


tonip1 said...

I completely understand the power of words to wound and yes to kill. I also understand the need to be aware of what words we use and how they may sound to others. I am a bit perturbed though when people use political correctness to whitewash (I used that word delibertately) reality. (Here's where I am going to go out on a limb.) Example - the "N" word. What a crock. There is and never was any such thing as an "n" word. The word is and always was niger. It has a hateful and hurtful history and I firmly believe we do an injustice to people who that word has been used against, when we try to sanitize it. Trust me people who think of me as a niger are not going to call me "that n word" in their thoughts. When they think they are among like minded individuals they are not going to say "the n word". Those people are going to call a niger a niger and treat me accordingly. I think it does more harm than good to try and pretend otherwise by using euphemisms.

Kurt said...

I don't think you are out on a limb here: you illustrate clearly that "Political Correctness" isn't finding different words to express racist, sexist, or any other prejudice views TOWARDS someone. Being PC is more avoiding general use of language that is potentially offensive to certain groups of people.