The term “politically correct” is an interesting term in and of itself. Think of all the times you’ve heard someone use the phrase “politically correct.” Almost no one uses it in a positive way. It is frequently followed by other phrases like “run amok.” The people who use it are clearly implying that using different words than they’ve always used is a hindrance to communication, and even a form of mind control. The fear of the “political correctness gone mad” scenario is so strong that many are quick to believe the most ridiculous of urban myths. For example, a story circulated that a British school changed the lyrics “Baa Baa Black Sheep” because it was deemed racially offensive, and this spurred similar rumors that the phrase “black coffee” or “blackboard” were also banned.
But so-called “political correctness” is there for a reason. As we as a culture collectively become more accepting and more progressive, we use language more carefully. We change words that were once used, because they are offensive. Why does political correctness inspire so much fear in people?
On the one hand, this fear is partially motivated by a more general fear of language change. In many cases, we are just as worried about non-politically correct slang (for example, using a preposition to end a sentence, where there are obviously no political roots) as we are about PC (politically correct) language. But PC language seems to attract a much stronger vitriol. Why? Is it because we’re all a bunch of racists, sexists, heterosexists, ableists, ageists, etc.?
I don’t believe so. Many people may support the goals of PC language but they don’t believe that changing language does that much good. What difference does it make, they argue, whether we call a group of people by their old name or by their new name? It won’t end a bigger issue like racism. And why does it matter if we call a person a “fireman” rather than a “firefighter”? Women can still be firemen; the word is neutral and it doesn’t matter.
But these words do matter. Some studies have found that people who hear a word like “fireman” are more likely to picture a man than when the word they hear is “firefighter.” That may not sound like it matters, but children form opinions on what type of careers they can pursue based on what they see and hear. If a little girl hears an occupation with a “-man” suffix, she is less likely to think of herself in that career. Small children are very keen observers of gender stereotypes.
And just like using gender-neutral language matters, so does using the correct terminology for underprivileged groups. Calling a group by a different name may not seem like a big deal for people in positions of privilege. Why does it matter whether I call an underprivileged group one name versus the other, as long as I treat them the same? By insisting on referring to the group by a name that is outdated, or even offensive, a privileged person makes an assertion of their power over that group. That is oppression. Refusing to use the word that the group themselves would prefer to be called is essentially using one’s power to say “No, I’m going to keep using the word that my group gave to you, and you have no say in the matter.” By using the correct terminology, you show sensitivity to that group. You show that you value their input, and that you listen to them. Listening is the most important thing a privileged person can do to show that they respect those with less power.
I believe that most people who read this blog know the advantages of sensitive language and make sure to use that language in their day-to-day lives. But we all know people who have complained about PC language too. If you have a friend or relative who has lamented “political correctness run amok,” you can gently ask them: what do they think PC language is and what are its goals? What is wrong with it? What would be a better alternative? How do power relationships factor into their opinion? If you get them to think about it a little, maybe they’ll change their tune. Or you can at least tell them that “black coffee” story is BS.