RUSSO: Word crimes
America’s obsession with political correctness stifles substantive debate
The phrase “politically correct” has been overworked to the point that it has become almost devoid of meaning. Often abbreviated to p.c., the phrase is unique in its ability to be used as both an insult and a standard to strive towards. Accusations of being too politically correct and reprimands for being not being politically correct enough are both used as verbal weapons with which to undermine controversial conversation.
Although the fundamental values behind the idea of being politically correct are certainly worthwhile, our society needs to transition from pursuing a façade of correctness to approaching pertinent issues and marginalized groups with empathy and awareness. Both obsession with and condemnation of being politically correct retract from these values.
In the past few months, I have witnessed — on more than one occasion — someone tell a peer, family member or friend to not be so politically correct. Essentially, the message in these conversations has been that the listener does not care enough about the issue at hand to adjust his comfortable way of talking about or conceptualizing a group or topic. On other occasions, I have heard people correct others harshly when they use a term that has been deemed not “p.c.” When this occurs, a conversation explaining why the term that was used is ineffective almost never follows. It seems that accusing someone of being too politically correct (and vice versa) is an infallible way to end a potentially productive conversation.
The phrase “politically correct” smacks of Stalinist dogma, which partially explains its negative connotation in our society. George Orwell predicted this trend of thought in his novel, 1984. The tyrannical government described in the novel used an idea of “political correctness” to monitor citizens for “thought crime.” While we live in a country that emphasizes free speech and freedom of expression, it sometimes seems that our fellow citizens, rather than the government, have become the “thought police.”
The values at the foundation of the concept of political correctness are justifiable and have been widely accepted in recent decades. Companies and organizations across the U.S. hold seminars for their employees to teach them how to be politically correct in the workplace. Ideally, we would all be aware of the power of our words and make a consistent effort to filter ourselves to avoid offending our peers. On the other hand, critics of political correctness, like the controversial director and screenwriter Lars von Trier, believe “political correctness kills discussion.” Preoccupation with the biases that will be assigned to us if others interpret our words a certain way forces us to sacrifice a certain degree of candor in our conversations.
In recent months, the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins’ name has been ongoing. Mike Ditka, former coach of the Chicago Bears and current CNN analyst added his two cents when he said, “It’s all the political [sic] correct idiots in America, that’s all it is.” Here Ditka uses the blanket accusation of shallow political correctness to avoid engaging with the team’s critics on a substantive level — a pattern evident in many arenas of society.
The primary issue with the phrase “politically correct” is that it implies that we refrain from using certain language just to keep ourselves within the confines of our societal standards. It implies that we condemn those who use racial or homophobic slurs not because we are cognizant of their implications, but rather because these terms are not part of the accepted vernacular.
The question becomes, how do we avoid the stalemate that occurs whenever the concept of political correctness is introduced in a conversation? The contradictions I have discussed suggest the need for a new way of thinking about the words we use, namely that we should be more concerned with empathy, awareness and consideration rather than adhering (or not adhering) to a potentially arbitrary set of rules. Language is an extremely powerful tool and our most important method of communication. Eliminating a word from colloquial language does not address the issues that make it taboo. Unless we comprehend the weight of a word’s history and its implications for modern society, the elimination of the word is meaningless.
That being said, it is also ineffective to use your knowledge of the problematic connotations of a word or phrase as a weapon with which to condescend to your peers. The idea that there is only one “correct” way of thinking about or talking about an issue or group can be stifling. When this occurs, the message is lost, and we are back at an impasse.
Mary Russo is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.