By Lauren Edwards, May 2018.
The term “political correctness” echoes in the current cultural chatter. One side shouts about “thought and language policing!” and “political correctness gone too far!”. The other roars about “sensitivity and safe spaces!” and “anti-political correctness gone mad!”. The conversation divides and devolves into nonsense: “I say you can’t say that I can’t say that!”. But what is political correctness?
According to the top definition on Urban Dictionary (an online, crowdsourced dictionary) ‘politically correct’ is – with over 5500 up-votes – a way of speaking so that whiny people aren’t offended. Merriam-Webster defines ‘politically correct’ as a belief that offensive language should be eliminated. Donald Trump, as stated in the Republican Debate August 6, 2016, thinks it takes a lot of time (which neither he nor the country has) and, in a tweet, that it is a threat to national security (tweeted June 4, 2017 in response to a terrorist attack in London, UK). Most of these definitions have to do with altering language in order to avoid causing offense. So, let’s take that as a starting place: political correctness is linguistic modification (Word B instead of Word A) in response to perceived and/or expressed harm.
Imagine you are on the USS Enterprise spacecraft making small talk with an extremely offensive and hurtful android – Android Hate-a. Much like Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Hate-a is unable to experience human emotions. When you confront Hate-a and ask them to modify their language – to be politically correct – they make the requested linguistic change as programmed. Hate-a stops using Word A and starts using Word B because you asked. Hate-a is politically correct according to the definition above – they modify their language in response to your expressed discomfort. But, with Hate-a, this isn’t complicated – you express a linguistic preference and Hate-a complies without protest. Hate-a is politically correct in no time at all and you get back to fixing the photon torpedoes (an essential aspect of ship security).
But, political correctness is not easy. Why not? Why can it be so divisive and complicated? For one, it involves emotionally complex beings embedded in a dynamic social world with (sordid) histories. It challenges and reveals identities and world views in, often, deeply uncomfortable ways. It involves feelings of hurt and vulnerability. It requires courage and humility. For example, the request that I modify my use of gendered pronouns – referring to you as they/them rather than she/her – implicates my sense of myself as ‘woman’ and my false world view of gender as binary and synonymous with sex. For you, this request also exposes how you understand yourself and the world to be. These aren’t small asks.
Second, language is itself a flexible and communal practice. The meaning of words is neither permanently fixed nor always shared. For example, language historian Anne Curzan points out that ‘awful’ used to mean ‘worthy of awe’ and ‘flirt’ meant making a flicking or jerky motion. Meaning also depends on how words are used – on tone and context, for example. A sentence performed with a sarcastic tone doesn’t mean the same thing as that sentence performed with a serious tone. The identities of the speakers and listeners themselves may form part of the context that is relevant to determining meaning. A sentence from your social standpoint might be understood differently than that same sentence from my social standpoint. For example, the suggestion to “Smile!” might be intended as a kindly suggestion but, understood as a threatening command when the speaker is an older man and the hearer a younger woman.
Let’s return to Hate-a. With Hate-a, the issue of language modification in response to the world is less complicated because Hate-a is emotionally uncomplicated. Hate-a is not hurt when you point out that they have harmed you and not vulnerable or humbled in their admission of this harm. Still, this exchange reflects the sociality of language – linguistic modification is made from within and in response to the social world. Whether or not the meaning of those words are also changed will depend on the particulars of the exchange. But, between Hate-a and you, there is no question about linguistic deference. Hate-a has been programmed to defer to you for proper word use (and meaning). They don’t protest your request that they modify their language. In turn, you are less vulnerable in requesting that Hate-a be politically correct because you are confident they won’t dismiss your request. You know they won’t respond defensively and hurtfully. You know your vulnerability in sharing hurt will not be exploited. This explains why political correctness is easier for you and Hate-a than for you and me (assuming you, reader, are not also an android without human emotions). The relationship between you and Hate-a differs in two relevant ways: Hate-a is emotionally uncomplicated and there is clarity about whose linguistic use/meaning is to be preferred when there is conflict.
Political correctness is linguistic modification (Word B instead of Word A) in response to perceived and/or expressed harm in the context of complex and dynamic relationships and languages. Word choice is one thread in the fabric of our relationships with each other and in the evolution of our languages. Why does situating political correctness in this complex, social world matter? For one, it highlights the importance of how the conversation is had. If political correctness involves this additional complexity – charged emotions, challenged/revealed identities and worldviews, social histories, linguistic evolution – then communicating carefully becomes central to the process of having these conversations. Second, thinking about political correctness in this way opens up new space for common ground – shared feelings of vulnerability and hurt for a start. And, points to places where we might wrongly assume we do have common ground – the very meaning of the words being debated. As psychologists Kristin Liebal, Malinda Carpenter, and Michael Tomasello point out, knowing what ground we have in common and what ground we don’t plays an important role in human communication. Finally, keeping these aspects of political correctness in mind helps clarify what is at stake in these discussions – not only linguistics but also relationships. In this way, we may meet each other in softer and more generous places.