Oddly enough, my first encounter with the term was in the mid-80s from a supporter of the concept making fun of it. That is, she used a questionable term, then said ironically, “Oops. I guess I wasn’t being ‘politically correct’ there.” Yes, she used the air quotes.*
Anyway, she then had to explain the term. I don’t remember the explanation, but I remember it resulted in a long argument.
So, when we hear the term “politically correct” we are talking, as I understand it, about two things:
1. The crazy notion that you ought not to use demeaning and disrespectful terms to describe people.
2. The equally crazy notion that our language influences our thinking.
Now, up to that point, it seems perfectly reasonable. So reasonable, in fact, that one has to wonder why the concept is described with what is usually considered a term of derision.
One reason is simple: The primary identifier with what we call political correctness is taking a noun or an adjective and adding “ism” to it. In my opinion, you very quickly reach the point of silliness. I mean, “ageism?” Seriously? That’s what you’re going with? In fact, let’s look at that one; it provides some insights.
Yes, I recognize that it takes less time to say “ageism” than to say, “age discrimination.” But what is more significant is the common usage. I first heard “ageism” from someone explaining that he didn’t like “Maggie-May” by Rod Stewart because the line, “The morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age” is ageist. Really. That’s what he said. From that standpoint, as a middle-aged man who is sad that more hot 18-year-olds aren’t attracted to him, I think eliminating “ageism” would be great. But, c’mon.
I have never heard “ageist” used in, “They wouldn’t hire this kid at the fast food place because there are now older, more reliable, more settled people available for those jobs,” or, “They wouldn’t hire her because she’s too close to retirement age.” And the reason is because, for those issues, the term “age discrimination” deals with an action, and “ageism” with a thought. “Ageism” isn’t about unfairly keeping people from things they’re entitled to, it’s about bad thoughts. “Ableism” isn’t about failing to provide reasonable access to those with disabilities, it’s about bad thoughts. “Classism” isn’t about the different living conditions of those who must sell their labor-power and those who exploit labor, it’s about bad thoughts.
Which then ties into point two above. Yes, indeed: as a writer, I’m the last person to deny that the words we use affect how we think. But how much of an effect compared to other things? I should tell you that, when I have a toothache, no matter how much I tell myself that it’s a soothing warmth, it still hurts just as much.
Yes, well, but what about racism? One the one hand, that is also about thinking bad thoughts. But on the other, historically, the fight to end racism was part of the fight to emancipate the working class. Now, yes, with the “anti-racist” movement, it has turned into a tangled nest of trivialities. But there is long tradition before that of battles for issues that were vital–that made a difference to more than a group of privileged middle-class radicals concerned that someone is making them feel bad. It is that tradition that, in my opinion, makes all the difference.
At some point, you cross a line.
On one side of the line is avoiding disrespectful language. On the other side is a dramatic overestimation of how much language affects thought, and an underestimation of the importance of material conditions. This leads to people directing efforts to change others’ language–and, indeed, ideas–as opposed to concentrating on the conditions that create discrimination, and on trying to understand how those conditions can be changed. In the fight to change conditions, of course, language is a powerful tool. It is vital to be able to make fine distinctions–to understand and communicate with precision. If you have two politicians who both support capitalism (hard to believe, I know, but go with me), it is very useful to be able to describe one as reactionary, the other as a reformist; they are different, and must be addressed and attacked differently. Other shades within those are also useful. So I’m not saying language doesn’t matter.
“Yes,” some will say. “But ideas lead to actions.” Well, yes, they certainly do. But whence came those ideas in the first place? As a materialist, I believe that being determines consciousness. Why is it that the woman near retirement isn’t being hired; that someone younger is? It is not because someone in Human Resources dislikes old people; it is because it is in the economic interests of the company to hire someone who may be around longer after training. If you think it is the thoughts that are primary, you will concentrate on getting people to think right, and believe that this will change conditions. If you think conditions are primary, you will concentrate on changing conditions, convinced that ideas–or the possibility of attacking those ideas–will follow.
In a way, of course, this all takes place in the realm of ideas. But there is a non-trivial difference between, “Let’s fight to make sure that everyone, regardless of age, has a decent standard of living,” and, “stop using language that implies some age is better than another.” These battles will produce different results. Are they mutually exclusive? In theory, no. In practice, they seem to be. Those who concentrate on language appear to have accepted the fundamental characteristics of society as given and are working to make certain adjustments within it.
“Negroes” became “blacks” became “African-Americans” or “People of color” and it made exactly zero difference. Black police were appointed and black mayors (and now a President) were elected and it made exactly zero difference. A mass movement of the black poor gathered, swept students and working class whites into its wake, and shook society to its core, and that made a difference in the lives of millions of human beings. Yes, I know: there are those who will say that things are “no different” now than during the period of Jim Crow, because people still have racist thoughts. People who say that can vote, and drink at whatever water fountain they chose, eat in restaurants, and date who they wish without expecting to be lynched. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they can fuck off.
Language is a reflection of culture, much more than a determinate. It is, in my opinion, sufficient to point out that there are several languages (at least ten) in use today that have a gender-neutral pronoun; none of them demonstrate fewer signs of oppression of women than those that use the generic “he.”
When the concentration is on language, the issues it can address are trivialities of concern only to a privileged few.
When the concentration is on action, the issues it can address are of vital concern to millions.
My mother was often selected to chair meetings. The speaker would frequently open with, “Comrade chairman and comrades.” At one point, a feminist berated my mother for allowing herself to be addressed as “chairman” instead of “chairwoman” or “chairperson,” and I can still remember the contempt on my mother’s face–a face that really wasn’t used to showing contempt. “We’re trying to overthrow capitalism,” she said. “We don’t have time for nonsense.”
So there is the real question: are you going to work to end the system that breeds–that requires–unfair discrimination among people, so that the oppressed masses will have a chance to escape oppression? Or will you simply accept that system as permanent and see if you can change a few hearts and minds so that the middle-class can be more comfortable? Someone who dismisses you as “politically correct” because you do not want to use demeaning terms to describe people, is just being an asshole. But someone who uses the term for cases where ideas are seen as more important than human oppression may well be onto something.
*This was pre-internet, remember, so conversations were sometimes face-to-face. I mean, both of you in the same room at the same time. You’ll have to just take my word that this used to happen, and wasn’t even considered that odd. I could probably find evidence to support my assertion, but I’m too lazy to look it up right now.