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Politically INcorrect? As though that was a good thing…

Over the past couple of months I have become more active on Twitter. While at first I used it primarily as a secondary RSS feed, with automatic updates for these blog posts, after a while I began to use it as a way of getting politics updates and rapid news on the Arab Spring uprisings. From there, it was a slippery slope down to constant updates from various Occupy sites and recording artists I particularly like.

As I’ve become more active (and after moving from the outer realms of anonymity to FTB), I’ve been steadily picking up followers of my own. Most are atheist/skeptics who I assume follow me because of the consistent reminders I put at the bottom of each of these posts. Others have, I presume, seen my full-throated defenses of Occupy or election reform politicians in the United States, or caught me uttering a particularly clever bon mot and thought I was worth checking out in greater detail.

I was perusing my list of followers one afternoon when I came across one who described hirself as, among other things, “politically incorrect”. This struck me as sort of an unusual thing to brag about. I have, on occasion, been caught describing myself as an “asshole”, because while I am constantly dissecting my language, I very rarely mince words. This is not bragging about my lack of restraint, but is intended as more of a wry observation on our tendency to prioritize tone over substance when evaluating each other.

The phrase ‘political correctness’ was common parlance in my upbringing during the late ’80s and early ’90s. By then, however, it had begun taking on a decidedly negative connotation – something akin to ‘thoughtcrime’. The spin on it was that whiny liberals were hopping up and down on semantics, getting hot under the collar over linguistic non-issues. Plain spoken folks were, as a result, forced to tiptoe across a minefield to make even the simplest of points. Political correctness was a muzzle that prevented the free exchange of ideas, and to buck the trend and declare oneself ‘politically incorrect’ was a bold and courageous move.

Even typing that made me feel ill.

The problem with the above spin is that it completely fails to address the reason why politically correct speech is necessary in the first place. Last Monday there was a lengthy discussion over my use of the word ‘hir’ – one word out of over a thousand, I hasten to add. I use the word partly because it is far more parsimonious than the awkward ‘he/she’ that English requires (and I find the singular ‘they’ cumbersome and flat), but also because it recognizes a major flaw that is embedded in our language – gendered pronouns prop up a false dichotomy between male and female. We are slowly learning that male and female are two possible descriptors of gender, but certainly not an exhaustive list. Our language must adjust to reflect our improved understanding.

There was a similar series of controversy over the correct phrase to use to address black people. We bounced from being Negroes to African-Americans to being just plain ‘black’ to being people of African descent to being People of Colour (a broader appellation) to being whatever the vogue phrase is today. All of these phrases were necessary because no single one was sufficient. Negro was pejorative, African-American failed to account for recent African immigrants who faced very different issues, ‘black’ could be applied to anyone from Aborigines to Indians, People of Colour casts the net far too wide… the point is that there was no way to properly describe who we’re talking about.

Here’s the issue though – there is no ‘correct‘ way of classifying a group that is united by social convention only. When we build our understandings of race or gender on faulty assumptions, they crumble under the weight of anything more than the most cursory scrutiny. Of course we run into trouble when discussing gender – it is not a binary concept in any place other than our minds. Of course we run into trouble when discussing race – it has no consistent basis in science.

‘Politically correct’ language accomplishes an important task: it shines a light on places where our conceptual grasp of a topic is less than complete. Places where our ‘traditional’ understanding is leading us away from truth. Places where our privilege moves us to demand that reality conform to our expectations, rather than the other way around. By breaking down the language we use, by interrupting the comfortable flow of ideas borne of unthinking cultural narratives, by putting our words under a microscope, we can examine the extent to which those words buoy up conclusions drawn from faulty premises.

To declare oneself ‘politically incorrect’, once we understand why political correctness is necessary, ceases to be a bold declaration of one’s refusal to mindlessly follow social conventions. To the contrary; it is announcing one’s intention to courageously embrace those conventions and the pillars of privilege upon which they are built. It is stating unequivocally that the speaker is completely uninterested in understanding why it is necessary to adjust language to reflect reality. Rather than being an iconoclastic stance, it is a vainglorious assertion of one’s lack of interest in swimming against the tide of cultural prejudice; preferring instead to tread water in the flowing tide of public opinion.

If we recognize the existence of systemic discrimination against minority groups, then fighting for ‘politically correct’ language is not merely a semantic stance motivated by guilt and the desire to avoid hurt feelings. It is instead a tool that can be used to draw attention to places where what we’ve done in the past is interfering with where we’d like to go. When used judiciously, it can ignite thoughtful discussion in those dark places that our collective unconscious is all too happy to leave unexamined. When ignored, or worse derogated, it clamps the much-derided muzzle not around our mouths, but around our minds.

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