One of the advantages of being older is that sometimes you can personally witness how language evolves and changes, and how words and phrases undergo changes and sometimes outright reversals of meaning.
One of the interesting evolutions is that of the phrase “politically correct.” It was originally used as a kind of scornful in-joke within Marxist political groups to sneer at those members who seemed to have an excessive concern with political orthodoxy and who seemed to be more concerned with vocabulary than with the substance of arguments and actions.
But later it became used against those who were trying to use language as a vehicle for social change by making it more nuanced and inclusive and less hurtful, judgmental, or discriminatory. Such people advocated using “disabled” instead of “crippled” or “mentally ill” instead of “crazy,” or “hearing impaired” instead of “deaf” and so on in an effort to remove the stigma under which those groups had traditionally suffered. Those who felt such efforts had been carried to an extreme disparaged those efforts as trying to be “politically correct.”
The most recent development has been to shift the emphasis from sneering at the careful choosing of words to sneering at the ideas and sentiments behind those words. The phrase has started being used pre-emptively, to shield people from the negative repercussions of stating views that otherwise may be offensive or antiquated. This usage usually begins by saying “I know this is not politically correct but….” and then finishes up by making a statement that would normally provoke quick opposition. So you can now find people saying “I know this is not politically correct but perhaps women are inferior to men at mathematics and science” or “I know this is not politically correct but perhaps poor people are poor because they have less natural abilities” or “I know this is not politically correct but perhaps blacks are less capable than whites at academics.” The opening preamble is not only designed to make such statements acceptable, the speaker can even claim the mantle of being daring and brave, an outspoken and even heroic bearer of unpopular or unpalatable truths.
Sentiments that would normally would be considered discriminatory, biased, and outright offensive if uttered without any supporting evidence are protected from criticism by this preamble. It is then the person who challenges this view who is put on the defensive, as if he or she was some prig who unthinkingly spouts an orthodox view.
As Fintan O’Toole of The Irish Times pithily puts it:
We have now reached the point where every goon with a grievance, every bitter bigot, merely has to place the prefix, “I know this is not politically correct but…..’” in front of the usual string of insults in order to be not just safe from criticism but actually a card, a lad, even a hero. Conversely, to talk about poverty and inequality, to draw attention to the reality that discrimination and injustice are still facts of life, is to commit the new sin of political correctness……… Anti-PC has become the latest cover for creeps. It is a godsend for every sort of curmudgeon or crank, from the fascistic to the merely smug.
Hate blacks? Attack positive discrimination – everyone will know the codes. Want to keep Europe white? Attack multiculturalism. Fed up with the girlies making noise? Tired of listening to whining about unemployment when your personal economy is booming? Haul out political correctness and you don’t even have to say what’s on your mind.
Even marketers are cashing in on this anti-PC fad, as illustrated by this cartoon.
Perhaps it is my physics training, but I tend to work from the principle that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should assume that things are equal. For example, physicists assume that all electrons are identical. We don’t really know this for a fact, since it is impossible to compare all electrons. The statement “all electrons are identical” is a kind of default position and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, does not need to be supported by positive evidence.
But the statement “some electrons are heavier than others” is going counter to the default position and definitely needs supporting evidence to be taken seriously. Saying “I know this is not politically correct but I think some electrons are heavier than others” does not make it any more credible.
The same should hold for statements that deal with people, because I would like to think that the default position is that people are (on average) pretty much the same in their basic needs, desires, feelings, hopes, and dreams.
POST SCRIPT 1
I love movies but am not a big fan of Tom Cruise’s films. I was surprised, though, by the way people went after him (and his Church of Scientology) for his recent comments on psychiatry and mental illness. I was first bemused that this topic arose in the interview with him, and then by the subsequent reaction where it was as if people felt that he had no right to his views on this subject. Even if people disagree with him, why do they get so upset? Why do people even care what his views are about psychiatry? I was thinking of writing something on this incident but then came across this article which covers some of the ground I would have, and also raises the problematic role that the big pharmaceutical companies have played in this issue of treating illnesses with drugs.
POST SCRIPT 2
The invaluable website Crooks and Liars website has posted a funny The Daily Show video clip about the Valerie Plame affair. Since I do not have cable and don’t watch too much TV anyway, I depend on Crooks and Liars and onegoodmove to alert me to TV segments that I otherwise would miss. These two sites are well worth bookmarking.