Has “political correctness” run wild, threatening to destroy our language and culture? Certainly, it’s a pain to have to learn new terms all the time. And no one likes to be scolded for using the wrong ones. But is this all just a way of repressing free speech and making people more pliant and reducing the culture to nothing?
No. We are in the middle of a process of determining just what “polite” is.
That’s not to say it’s every gonna be easy. There is no “process” and no one gets to vote. It’s necessarily messy to clean up the language and make sure it works for everyone. We all have to agree at some point. And in the meantime, the one thing that far too many people seem to agree with is that politeness isn’t necessary at all. That’s the real problem.
The war for or against “political correctness” is an old one in America. Every ethnic group that came to our shores was given a nickname of some kind which soon grew into a term of derision. I’m half Mick or Paddy and the other half Kraut or Dutchie, depending on how much you want to make fun of me. I use these terms all the time in mixed company as a way of showing how this debate is ancient and even people like me were once considered “not American.”
But in time these terms were discarded or absorbed. It’s very empowering to use a term of derision proudly, and most groups have in turn done this.
Other terms fall away for more subtle reasons. “Oriental” has been dropped as racist simply because it suggests mystery and too many ties to ancient ways, a common stereotype of Chinese. The correct term is now East Asian, sometimes simply Asian. That this term could theoretically include anyone from Asia, perhaps even Israel, is ignored.
Empowerment of speech is clearly a by-product of the information age as much as the ongoing encounter with people previously unknown. Social media has also allowed people to connect who were previously isolated and alone, allowing them to develop a group identity where little to nothing existed before.
All of these forces require a new definition of how to be polite to each other.
The alternative, of course, is to be polite to no one. The flood of new definitions of identity has rendered far too many people angry about “political correctness” and allowed it to fit into general conspiracy theories about control and management. This is purely emotional nonsense not grounded in facts. Any handy excuse for bad behavior will always result in more bad behavior, and it has become very popular to make excuses for a complete lack of respect and general decency.
Thus, respect and decency are very hard to find.
Beyond the very old-fashioned and conservative need for a sense of politeness in a culture, there is a problem created by the new sense of openness. Identity culture may make people who have been isolated and afraid feel empowered, but it can also put them in a box. At some point we need to address each other as individuals, with responsibility for our own words and actions.
On the other side, there is a big difference between “tolerance” and “acceptance”. People who are seeking linguistic empowerment often lose sight of this. As a person who does not believe in extravagant materialism, in keeping with my Dutchie roots, I tolerate a lot every day. I don’t accept displays of wealth as being decent or moral, but I live with them. It’s a big part of this culture and I have no choice.
We all have to tolerate. That doesn’t mean we have to accept. We just have to be respectful.
Moreover, most of the terms in this debate become quite a mouthful. Many years ago a strong effort was made to have the term “African-American” catch on. It didn’t. In fact, it’s often considered a patronizing term and something to be avoided. “Political correctness” is also an overlong term bland enough to not have any significant meaning – which, to me, is the worst aspect of those who use the term for the purpose of decrying it far too often.
What’s the right way out? In personal conversation just being decent is always the way to go. We can use acutal names and presume nothing. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt and we can all be respectful. That’s the direct part. This has to include people none of us have ever met on the roads and the internet and not just face to face.
Where it gets tricky is in news reports and similar third-hand stories. The short answer is that any identity based term should be avoided unless it is relevant to the story. If one has to be used, it’s best to ask the person who has somehow been singled out how they want to be called. Anything else is just rude. I think we all should make a point of ignoring and decrying stories which are deliberately rude in this way for the purpose of putting it behind us.
What’s killing in all of this is that by telling people to be polite and talk about individuals as responsible rather than groups I can easily be painted as a radical lefty. These are, or at least were, bedrock conservative values not that long ago.
Whether your goal is to go back to a past way of life that you think is better or to boldly step forward into an uncertain future and seek unity, the advice is the same. Respect and responsibility. There’s no substitute.
Until then, we’ll have nearly relentless whining about a vanilla term that has little meaning by itself. Decrying it cannot be a cheap excuse for not being polite, but that’s pretty much what it is. We won’t do better in this nation until we simply do better.