CHELLMAN: Exercise empathy when engaging in speech

Proponents of 'political correctness' should be more constructive and less punitive when trying promoting an empathetic discourse

FT_16.7.20.offense

Research shows that many Americans find others too easily offended by speech.

Courtesy Pew Research Center | Courtesy Pew Research Center

The language of political correctness remains a critical component of minority advocacy efforts. Incorporating empathy and understanding for the politically marginalized into our language –– as political correctness aims to do –– demonstrates concern for the comfort of others. Conservatives’ all-too-frequent attacks on political correctness should not lead liberals to abandon their appreciation for linguistic nuance. Instead, we should first acknowledge the true intentions of political correctness with the goal of diminishing its overly politicized status. Moreover, liberals should interpret attacks on political correctness as indicators of the need for education. There is no excuse for those who are willfully politically incorrect. Not all Americans, however, have access to multicultural education. Those who mean well and still make linguistic mistakes should be met with empathy in their own right rather than judgement.

Let me start by putting “political correctness” in quotes. The label of “political correctness” is an over-politicized insult to the ideals of the linguistic practices to which it refers. I find that the notion of “empathetic language” more accurately describes the intentions of liberal linguistic practices, although phrases such as thoughtful discourse, intentional speech and careful language also seem appropriate. The goal of this kind of speech is not politics, but rather empathy and respect for nuance.

Proponents of empathetic language make the seemingly radical assertion that speech affects society. I’m using “radical” sarcastically, of course, because the entire field of linguistics rests on this most basic affirmation. Empathetic language addressing the nuances of multiculturalism aims to incorporate empathy with diversity into our discourse. Empathetic language uses terms and definitions endorsed by marginalized communities and seeks to overturn traditional social hierarchies. An empathetic speaker says “low income” or “low socioeconomic status” rather than “poor,” recognizing the callousness of the latter term. An empathetic speaker recognizes that not all transgender people feel comfortable with the archaic “transsexual,” and thereby avoids using it as an umbrella term. An empathetic speaker avoids using “he” and “him” as gender-neutral pronouns, understanding that masculinity shouldn’t be the social default.

Empathetic language can be complicated. Conservatives often latch on to confusion associated with these guidelines, interpreting their imposition as “a kind of violence.” Frustration with empathetic language is not uncommon. According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans believe that “too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use.” Even Zeke Reed, a Cavalier Daily Opinion columnist, argued in 2015 that “silencing those who mostly agree with you devalues liberalism and degrades our ability to deal with real controversy and material issues.”

Some writers combat such criticisms by pointing out that conservatives also endorse the idea that the way we speak matters. But the antipathy toward “political correctness” continues to grow, despite the truth of conservative hypocrisy. Let me be clear: Empathetic language is non-negotiable, and efforts to dismiss these guidelines are damaging. But Zeke Reed is right that scolding those who “mostly agree with you” only exacerbates the antipathy we’re seeking to reduce.

Last week, I defined “privilege” as special opportunities available to some people and inherently unavailable to others. As Americans interested in empathy, we must recognize that it is a privilege to be well-versed in the specifics of empathetic language. Those who understand how to speak about diversity should be expected to act according to that understanding. But a person who tries to be respectful and fails should be educated or corrected rather than reprimanded. Many people do not have access to multicultural education and do not know, for example, how to ask for people’s pronouns or not to ask people “where they’re really from.”

In practice, the inaccessibility of this information means that proponents of empathetic language should look for teaching moments. When discussing issues of nuance, it can be easy to pat yourself on the back for knowing something that someone else doesn’t. Self-congratulation, however, too often leads to smugness. When a well-meaning person stumbles, focus on correcting them constructively rather than noticing your own accuracy. Again, using empathetic language is critical for creating a more welcoming and inclusive society. But in the effort to lessen the antagonism toward these important ideals, how we respond to the well-intentioned can make all the difference.

Jack Chellman is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

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