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Over the last few decades the notion of political correctness has been held, particularly by conservative and conservative protestant evangelical elements in the electronic media, as evidence of moral decay or wrong-headed concern for frivolous sensibilities. Political correctness has been hailed as a form of speech expressing hypersensitive and exaggerated deference to the sensibilities of groups or to certain political beliefs. The words “political correctness” and “liberal” themselves have become epithets through repeated accusatory statements attempting to poison the well of progressive credibility.
Born in 1957, my growth and schooling has been coincident in time with a good deal of what is now called political correctness (PC). My perception of what lead to PC is not hard to describe. Over these years, especially in the 1960’s, there was a conscious attempt by progressive, fair-minded people to remedy the effects of centuries of bias and oppression of minority groups by the caucasian dominated power structure under the heading of Affirmative Action. The civil rights act of 1964, the voting rights act of 1965, the Stonewall riots, assassinations, counterculture, expanding feminism, and a controversial land war in Asia lead to a large scale pushback of the establishment.
During 1960’s the threat of nuclear annihilation and the domino theory of communist aggression had already been in the popular conscious mind since the early 1950’s or before. Add to this the internal upheavals listed above and you have a period of great anxiety and turmoil. For many young people like myself, the notion of equality and fairness to all was imprinted by television, teachers, and a few adults. But especially, seeing the growing integration of black Americans on television programs gave way to a strong normalizing effect on myself and others in lily white Iowa. I began to suspect an essential arbitrariness of racial discrimination.
By the time I moved west and entered high school in 1972 the notion of racial equality was openly embraced by many of my fellow students and found in a few readings assigned in school. Busing desegregation was in full swing and news of controversy filled the airwaves. That is, when the Watergate congressional investigation was not playing.
I have come to think that the origins of PC has evolved from this era. In my view, PC is an attempt to level the playing field for diverse groups seeking equal treatment and opportunity. It was manifested in law by way of operational practices in hiring and equal protection in general. The military embraced racial equality in a large way through recruitment and promotion. But perhaps the most obvious form of PC is in language. The use of epithets and slang that demeaned a person’s race or religion gradually became taboo in many parts of the country. Since the 1970’s this taboo on demeaning language and treatment has broadened and institutionalized to include gender, sex, and sexual preference.
In my college years a ban on epithets and belittling or demeaning language was part of the institution’s mission statement and policy. When I eventually taught at the college level, we were expected to speak and treat everyone in a fair and civil manner, respecting the individual and their rights to their beliefs and speech.
Research has shown that the nuances of grammar in a language affect the way the speaker perceives people and objects (see Boroditsky below).
The fact that even quirks of grammar, such as grammatical gender, can affect our thinking is profound. Such quirks are pervasive in language; gender, for example, applies to all nouns, which means that it is affecting how people think about anything that can be designated by a noun. How Does Language Shape the Way We Think? Lera Boroditsky [6.11.09].
If, as Boroditsky argues, the subtleties of language can affect perception of the world around you, then it follows that caution must be applied in the nouns and verbs we use in reference to one another lest we infer meanings that are offensive, unintended or slanderous. Plainly we do this all the time with people we know and care for. In regard to those we do not know, is it defensible to make broad assertions that are demeaning or belittling? It will be defended by the meek and the bellicose if bystanders do nothing. And that is what has been happening over the last few decades over conservative talk radio, TV, and even religious broadcasting. These broadcasters repetitively spew divisive rhetoric meant to drum up anger and frustration in it’s listeners. It has worked well. If this kind of rhetoric didn’t work, do you think they would use it anyway? Anger and conflict attract audiences and audiences attract advertisers. Ad revenue encourages purveyors of truculent and intransigent rhetoric to continue. Witness the popularity of Rush Limbaugh with his golden voice and vitriolic diatribes.
If a child grows up hearing and using language asserting that skin color defines people as “other” or “lesser” or “lazy”, this distinction as other or lesser or lazy can become normalized in the child’s thinking.
So, what is wrong with the language of political correctness if it is the attempt to promote fairness and equality? Like any aspect of language, it inevitably undergoes meaning-creep. PC may devolve into ridiculous conflicts when people overreact to a perceived slight and claim that they have suffered some mental trauma. Likewise, PC may cause institutions to enact policy overreach in an effort to avoid perceived threats based on a breach of PC. Like any social meme, PC can be taken too far. But that doesn’t mean that the concept is without merit.
If we truly want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it must apply to everyone. Why wouldn’t we clean up our language a bit, if for no other reason than to enjoy reciprocity?