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.