Thursday, February 5, 2009

Political Correctness: Oppressor, Protector, or Good Friend who just had a few too many?

Okay, this has bothered me for a while: the term "political correctness" and the popular disdain for everything it embodies. I just want to delve into a few iterations of the many things labeled "political correctness" now, and express my concerns.
First, there is the political correctness of not using ethnic slurs. Now, I am all for freedom of speech. But, I personally think that political correctness in this respect is probably in the best interest of the speaker in order to seem halfway civil, in addition to it being considerate to others. It is a difficult balance between freedom to express yourself and the necessity to try not to alienate other people and earn enemies from the group that you alienate and people who are sensitive to such mistreatment, but it is one that people should at least make an attempt to make. But, if you don't, that's your decision. Freedom to be an asshole.
Next, there is the political correctness of attempting to use more inclusive, and more culturally sensitive words when describing things. This includes things like saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas", changing the suffix "-man" to "-person", and using terms like "African American" in order to avoid a potentially charged term that may not quite qualify as a slur, but is borderline. Now, I find this to be more of personal choice, and enjoy it when institutions, political or otherwise, tend on the more politically correct, inclusive side. That isn't to say that people need to always use these terms in casual conversation, but it is notable to say that such a courtesy shouldn't be responded to with disgust that is normally levelled upon people who have been people accused of "political correctness". People should not be expected to use the more inclusive and sensitive terms at large, but it is just pathetic to flip your lid when people do actually decide to use them.
Our third subset of political correctness seems to be a general disdain towards stereotypes and towards seemingly hostile criticism of historically oppressed minorities. This is incredibly touchy. It is something that we seem to misunderstand and bungle too often. It is in place when fear of being called racist makes people too unwilling to mention or deal with legitimate problems, and when mere mention of the problem is too close with traditional stereotypes and racist rationalizations for it to be accepted without emotions being aroused. A good example is people being called antisemitic for being opposed to whatever the hell Israel happens to be doing at the moment. Legitimate criticism becomes drowned out by the memories of similar, more politically motivated (and malicious, disingenuous) criticisms. Again, free speech trumps all, but our gradual transition out of some of our darkest, least rational, and most hateful periods (you know...everything prior to this year) leaves us with shell shock in regards to similar rhetoric. The kind of political correctness that squelches anything remotely seeming like a stereotype is a kind that deserves to be stood up against. Then again, if your stand against it is actually hostile, politically motivated stereotypes, distortions, and propaganda...perhaps you deserved to be squelched. At very least, you'll deserve the criticism and disdain that you yourself provoke by not only breaking our newfound taboo of insulting the chronically insulted, but also being deceitful about doing it.
And, finally, there is the "political correctness" of leaving groups and ideas completely immune to scrutiny of any kind. This is the kind of political correctness that is most popular with religious groups, but also exists in cultural groups. Not only do they seek protection from criticism that is counterfactual and based on prejudice and contempt for their fundamental identity, as afforded above, but they also seek protection from any criticism, including critique of their institutions and belief system. Now, in fairness, even if criticizing ideas and organizations is different than criticizing people, if that individual's identity is defined by those ideas or that organization, and only a minority of people can claim the same, then it is rather personal to them to make this criticism, especially if it is done in an uncouth manner. And yet, if done in a manner that is made clear to not be directed towards those people, and in manner that is factually correct (despite technically being politically incorrect) it is nowhere near the same level of transgression as the above taboos (referring to traditional unevidenced stereotypes, using ethnic slurs, using language that specifically degrades or excludes them), and can probably be forgiven.

So, feel free to denounce female genital mutiliation, honor killings, cultural misogyny, or whatever the hell you want. As long as you are not routinely dismissing the people, and are doing the criticism in a manner that isn't overly imperialistic, accusatory, and crude, you should be free to criticize things that deserve criticism. Just so happens that skin color, nationality, and religious affiliation don't qualify (but nations, political ideologies, and religions do).


Stacy said...

I think it's a bad idea to criticise groups. It's generally easier and more honest I think, to 'call out' the individual who has pissed you off.

Asylum Seeker said...

Yeah, probably. But, sometimes, you need to criticize groups. Like, what if the conspiracy theorists are right, and the Stonemasons, the Illuminati, and "Zionists" were all out for our heads? You should be free, in that mind-boggling scenario, to call out those groups, criticize their actions, their institutions, their practices, plans, and beliefs, without ever actually saying that any given member of it is inherently a bad person solely for being a member. In some scenarios, you should aim for the individual rather than the collective. But, other times, the individuals aren't the problem, and the collective needs to be challenged. Hard to say whether it is actually possible to pull it off, and I am just realizing that it sounds like a "hate the sinner, not the sin" spiel (which is also impractical due to matters of identity). So, yeah, it is a bad idea. But it still might be necessary to it...

Christopher said...

I'm generally politically incorrect (I try not to be on my blog though). I like to expose ridiculous mentalities. The fact that mere words are given such power--fag, the n word, etc.--is just beyond me. It seems that by avoiding those words we're actually perpetuating their offenses and thus keeping their initial meanings.

Not that I ever throw around the n word (hell, I clearly won't even type it), but it just bugs me that a word alone can cause people to flip out. If someone calls me a fag, my best response is to compliment them on their originality and creativity. (Because clearly they have none).

The Maze Monster said...

In general there are some groups that simply piss me off. I'm not afraid to say, I hate Christians. Truthfully, i don't each and every one. But i hate their faith and what they stand for...

Is that politically incorrect?

When it comes to fag and nigger, I don't think much of fag, cos I am one lol. As for nigger, I don't use it out of respect. I have too many black friends and know too much about black suffrage and discrimination to use it the way the hicks in my town do.

Anonymous said...

I've learned that the only person I can be un-PC with is my lover, mostly because he knows I am joking, while the rest of the world may not. As in, I have learned that while pulling out non-PC language can be VERY funny, it can still brand you as a bigot, which I am not! You really can't share any un-PC ideas or comments in public unless you want a beat down, or you're super famous and funny... :)

Asylum Seeker said...

Personally, I tend to make non-PC jokes myself, but still avoid most slurs like the plague when doing so. We may give them more power by making them so taboo, yet I tend to be of the feeling that they really shouldn't even exist to begin with, so I casually disregard their very existence. "Nigger" is a word that still stings (hasn't been that long since it was actually used as a derogatory label that coincided with actual oppression and violence), and it was the only one that comes to mind as one that shouldn't be ignored. It should be exactly what is today: taboo for those aside from those who would have traditionally had that label affixed to them, so that they can effectively gain control over the word, and eventually rob it of its negative history due to sheer overuse in completely different, non-negative, contexts. Using the word in a non-derogatory context is an excellent way to turn a negative label into a meaningful or meaningless one (and it is actually what we have been, more or less, doing with the word "atheist" over the last few decades).
As for "fag" and actually the word "gay" used as an expression of contempt...well, they are words that are flung around frivolously too often, and may actually lose power as a result of that. Ideally, I would prefer that people didn't fling those words in a charged manner, making clear their intent to degrade and insult, but the words themselves aren't the problem: the mentality's they reflect are.

It's probably why political correctness is met with so much hostility: because it is an obsession with individual words at the expense of the actual ideas expressed by using them. And, sometimes, those ideas are stupid and deserve criticism, regardless of the specific words used in the original or the critique. But, completely disregarding potentially charged words, especially ones with a history behind them, in order to use them anyway is a surefire way to make sure that people talk past each other. It's unfortunate that when it comes to talking about cherished ideas we are far more likely to start that process, and with a much larger repertoire of words which will effectively stop the listening and start the frantic rage.

Sigh. So, shorter version, political correctness to some degree is probably for the best, and even if it is frustrating, we should abide by it to some degree. And, other times, people are going to shut down and claim offense at the slightest provocation, and try to use that their tendency to see everything as an assault on their esteemed opinions and call upon political correctness to shield them. It's hard to discern which people deserve the benefit of the doubt. But, a good rule of thumb is "minority groups or any historically subjugated group". So, Christians shouldn't be able to cry abuse at the slightest provocation because they have the benefit of power and population. White people, as a collective in contrast to other races, is in a similar boat. Men, in contrast to women, may also qualify as well, depending on the context (though I do find that cries of "sexism" do go a bit too far on occasion).

Ugggh. It all comes down to judgment calls though. Though some of it is rational, the entire construct is based on intergroup etiquette that is entirely subjective and is highly situation based (e.g. when minority groups who are expected to be treated with political correctness are actually oppressing other groups, and when historically oppressed groups were "oppressed" only in response to their own misdeeds or foolish errors, or the history has no relevance to their current position of power). So complicated, so diverse, so necessary to circumvent on certain occasions. Needs work.

mac said...

Yeah, it's a fine line.
I do not go for the political correctness of calling blind people seeing impaired, or deaf people hearing impaired, or short people height challenged. I do not refer to mentally retarded folks as developementally challenged.

No, I think some words are not offfensive, so why bother changing them ?

I still call people black. I believe African/American does not accurately describe a person, I am not refered to as Irish/American. Why? Because I'm American dammit! Just like that black fella that lives down the street from me, he's an American too....I don't think he's even been to Africa, much less come from there :-)

I had a very dear friend who was a 75 year-old black woman. She died a few years ago. We had a discussion one day when some redneck guy told her to go back where she came from. She said " Where? Cincinati?"

Stacy said...

@mac - I use "black" too. Am I not supposed to? Anyone?

Anyway - I like the new insult words that are coming out.

"Douche" LoL! :-) What a wonderful way of calling someone a "jackass".

Who's gonna be offended?

It was really interesting to hear my 70 yr old father use the term. :-)

Mandar Malum said...

when it comes to me, I guess I treat people with respect. I think that a lot of the PC stuff is a little outrageous. I do not use the word "nigger" and in fact I've only quoted the word, and never actually said it (if that makes sense)

one of the PC terms i really hate is "African-American" which, to me, implies that the person just came over from Africa... most "African-American" people I know have no recollection of their ancestor's from Africa... and hypotheticaly speaking, what if the person's parents were born in England, then came to the united states... is the child still "african-american?"

I agree that it okay to criticize certain ideological based groups for their ideas, because a person's ideas can always change... Freedom of speech is a good thing, and it goes both ways. I can criticize the Christians because I do not like their ideas, and they are free to criticize me for the same reason...

pboyfloyd said...

I definitely think that we should call theists, 'skeptically challenged'. LOL

Asylum Seeker said...

"Anyway - I like the new insult words that are coming out.

"Douche" LoL! :-)"

I was never sure if that term was new or not. I always thought that it seemed to have not been a popular term in the past, but I wasn't sure. Now I am little more confident.

As for "black": I personally think it is fine, largely because "African American" is inadequate in contexts outside of our country, and is just a wee bit too clunky. Really, it seems like the proper terms are continually shifting, so I think it is unfair to be picky about that. And "seeing impaired" and "hearing impaired" I find unnecessary due to the fact that "blind" and "deaf" aren't necessarily terms made to degrade people. The only way that those terms might be better is if they actually impaired, but not to the point of complete blindness/deafness. And for the mentally retarded...the only reason why that would sound like an insult is because the term "retarded" is so popularly used as an insult. All about context, though, so I hardly think one needs to change their change their language based on others' abuses of it (in regards to third parties).

Anyway, new avatar looks good Mandar. And, I guess it makes as much sense to call any person with dark skin "African American" as it does to call every white resident of the country "European American". Could be that the African American in question just immigrated from his home in London, whereas the European American lived in South Africa. Or they could just be descendants from early Americans to the extent that their ancestral roots outside of the country are pathetically trivial. It is an odd label, to say the least.

And "skeptically challenged" isn't really a PC phrase, but I think it might be nice to use it anyway ;)

The Maze Monster said...

I use black because once I said "african-american" and my friend was like, "I ain't african-american, i'm black. I wasn't born in africa and I've never even been there."

And besides, evolutionarly, aren't we all "african-american".

pboyfloyd said...

Awesome polls Seeker. Do you get to make them up?

I chose 'a nice rest'.

Asylum Seeker said...

"And besides, evolutionarly, aren't we all "african-american"."

I guess that is pretty much true. Just an extreme way of showing how irrelevant vague descriptions according to "ancestry" can become.

"Awesome polls Seeker. Do you get to make them up?"

You can't prove otherwise! [shifty eyes]

And you chose the answer I would have gone for.

Anonymous said...

I come from the Lenny Bruce school of political correctness. It doesn't make any friends but it gets the job done.

Um, meaning awareness.