Monday, October 15, 2007

Words Aren't Everything, But They Do Matter

I was mean today. For no apparent reason I referred to someone short as “that midget girl.” It spilled out of her mouth in place of a proper name. A friend called me on my snarky ways with a swift retort: “that was so politically incorrect.” Point taken: I shouldn’t have said what I said. It was mean. Politically incorrect though? Ugh. That phrase makes my skin crawl. I also dislike its sister, politically correct (PC).

Here’s the definition of politically correct: n Marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially race, gender, sexual affinity, or ecology.

Let me be clear: it’s not the definition of political correctness that makes me queasy. What irks me is how Americans use, and react to the word.

The way I see it, we frame actions as PC to diffuse their significance. This hit home last month as I talked to a student about her new “action hero” t-shirt, part of a college sponsored anti-racism, sexism, violence effort. The student eagerly volunteered that she’d gone out of her way and waited in line for the coveted garment, so I asked her what it was about. “Oh, just some PC stuff” she replied breezily. End of conversation.

Last I checked, diminishing any of the “isms” mentioned on the “action-hero” shirt is vital work. Work that allows previously excluded people to participate safely, and comfortably in the public sphere. Work that benefits society as a whole. When we label a cause PC, however, it is reduced to just being PC-- the only reason to take it up is to hew to a party line. Then we are able to dismiss it without thought.

Similarly, we call things politically incorrect to make bigotry, harassment, disrespect, just plain meanness more palatable. Those are all words whose meaning we understand, and take seriously. Labeling an action harassment, or mean, for that matter, condemns the perpetrator, and acknowledges the damage it does. Labeling an action politically incorrect does neither. Instead, it suggests the only harm in the action is that it is unpopular, and the worst damage it does is insult an over-sensitive, un-specified other. In some circles, it even gives the perpetrator a rogue-ish charm.

When seen in this light, the model of political (in)correctness is a barrier, not an aid, to social change. That’s why it makes me cringe. I wish I understood why the phrase holds such transformative power. Many ideas follow other orthodoxies without becoming one dimensional. Any thoughts?

For now though, I’ll just keep coming up with other ways to talk about progressive causes I care about. It isn’t hard. While many things worth doing are also PC, few things are worth doing because they are PC.

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