Ring-wing pundits drive themselves into paroxysms of rage crying out against “political correctness,” which term, when used, drives pundits on the other side into paroxysms of rage. I propose to take a moment to consider what it means, or, failing that, what I mean by it.
If we’re going to talk about the term, we should remember, first of all, that it was coined by those it now describes, and was used ironically, as a bit of gentle self-mockery. “Man, that is one ugly dude. Ooops, I guess that was ‘politically incorrect.'” It was always used (verbally at least) with air quotes and a sense of, “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have said that” which however much I might dislike their politics, I have to describe as not only inoffensive, but charming. On the other hand, as these tend to be the same people who want to change the conventions of language in accordance with their ideology, and defend this with the triumphant cry, “Language evolves!” as if there were those who think it doesn’t, I have only limited sympathy if the term they coined has now come to mean something different.
The next thing to remind ourselves of is that a considerable amount of what we sometimes call being politically correct, is nothing more than reasonable courtesy toward another human being. If you use offensive terms to describe a group or an individual (with some exceptions), you’re not being “politically incorrect,” you’re being a jerk. (The exceptions, of course, involve individuals or groups that deserve it–I have no intention of finding nice terms to describe Dick Chaney, scabs, or the KKK).
Another aspect to the term that I think most people aren’t aware of is that it contains interesting (and chilling) echoes of Stalinism, with its “self-criticism” sessions, and desperation to make sure one was following the “party line.” I’m pretty sure those who coined the term were at least somewhat aware of this and were making fun of it, and, seriously, I do not have a problem with anyone mocking the absurdities of Stalinism.
So, where’s the problem? It is more subtle than that. It involves, in my opinion, excessive concern with form over substance, with appearance over essence, with the subjective over the objective, with idea over matter. It is a question, in the last analysis, of method, and I contend that an incorrect method will produce incorrect–and dangerous–results.
The first time I heard something that I would later identify as being part of the PC movement was when a friend explained that he hated the song “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart, because the second verse was “ageist.” I think my mouth fell open and I stared at him, and, as I came to realize he was utterly serious, what went through my head was some form of, “That’s not even a thing. Is that a thing?”
Yeah, it’s a thing. So is, god help us all, “ableism.” Because, you see, the primary concern of huge sections of the middle class “left” is with “ageism”–not age discrimination. And with “ableism,” and not with making sure that people with disabilities are given full access to public buildings, jobs, and everything else society has to offer. You see, what matters most to these people is the words used, the ideas they reflect; the hard realities that underlie the ideas, and the words, seems (to judge by actions) a secondary or tertiary consideration. Is it any wonder that the Right Wing finds it so easy to mock this stuff, and, in so doing, to attempt to roll back the gains we’ve made for the elderly and the disabled?
So the question then is, what, exactly, is the relationship between how we use words to describe people, and the actual conditions in which they live? Because I am the last person to say there is no relationship–I’m a writer, ferchrissakes. To the supporter of what we call the PC movement, again, as judged by their activity, the relationship is, “first, make sure everyone uses the right terms. Then we’ll be sure they’re thinking the right thoughts. After that, conditions will change.”
To me, this is backward. Being determines consciousness. Ideas change as part of the fight to change conditions. As ideas change, so the language will change to reflect it. “Garbageman” became “sanitation worker” as part of the fight for acceptable wages and working conditions, not separate from that fight, and certainly not in place of it. A part of the effort to unite the working class, after all, involves a tireless battle against all forms of ignorance, most especially including bigotry. This battle isn’t fought by lecturing workers on the use of derogatory terms, but by showing that the fight involves all workers, and that bigotry only serves the interest of the class enemy.
The South St. Paul packing house strike of ’46 is only one example of this: A fight for decent living standards became a fight for the union, and prejudices (sexual, racial and especially national–the area was full of Eastern European immigrants who all hated each other) vanished in fighting strikebreakers, scabs, and cops–vanished to the point where today, 70 years later, you can still see the effects in those old South St. Paul neighborhoods. The words “kike” and “spic” aren’t much used in those neighborhoods, and that isn’t because someone explained to them that it was demeaning to Jews and Hispanics; they learned solidarity in battle, and those lessons stay with you.
The fight against bigotry, oppression, intolerance, is a part of the fight against capitalism. Being “politically correct,” then, means to substitute the idea for the thing, and the word for the idea; thus it helps perpetuate the illusion that these problems can be solved under capitalism, and thus, in the last analysis, it supports the substance of oppression, if not the words that accompany it.
ETA: I changed “handicapped” to “disabled” in this post, in accordance with a comment by my sister. Is that being “politically correct?” I dunno. But I’m good with it.
106 thoughts on “What does “Politically Correct” mean?”
skzb, well said! You wrote clearly, and for what it’s worth I agree on all points.
I noticed something that seemed like an extreme version of this in my children’s schools. They got taught a lot about how racism is bad. And then somehow they were taught that any mention of race is racist. They are supposed to pretend that race does not exist, and so when people do racist things around them they are supposed to never mention it to anybody.
Just to be clear Steve – when I am spending a lot of my time advocating to change the conditions in which people with disabilities live and work, am I also allowed to be concerned about language and representation? Because when people with Down syndrome are referred to as retards, it suggests limits on their capacity, and if people believe that those representations are accurate, they will close off doors to my son. I can kick those doors open, and I try to, but I also do what I can to shift representation so that some of them will open by themselves.
I have to tell you that I worked recently with a young man with cerebral palsy. He’s deeply Catholic and did a lot of work on ableist interpretations of the Bible. To him, these readings – in which to be crippled is equated to sin, in which to be blind is equated to ignorance – hurt him. Isn’t his hurt meaningful? Isn’t trying to point out and change language a reasonable response to that hurt and something that might change his ability to function and prosper in his chosen society?
I have never heard “politically correct” used as gentle self-mockery, and I remember it being widely used as far back as the 80s. Always, it is used as snide mockery of others. If someone said, ”Man, that is one ugly dude. Ooops, I guess that was ‘politically incorrect,’” they were saying they knew what they had said was offensive, and not only did they not care, they wanted to express their disdain of anyone who would be offended.
For what it’s worth, I believe language does help shape our thinking. Knowing that it was no-longer considered acceptable to make recist jokes about conscientious Asian students might not have immediately have stopped me from finding such jokes funny in my youth, but it did make me think more about the joke, its social context, and impact on others. And it did stop me from spreading the stereotype by spreading the joke.
Interesting questions, David. Let me ask you one: Can capitalism solve the problem of equality for people with disabilities? If the answer is no, then it seems to me the fight for the rights of those with disabilities needs to be a part of the fight for the rights of the working class,, and attitudes toward them need to be addressed as part of the fight for class unity.
You are “allowed” of course, to be concerned with anything that concerns you. But when I was actively involved in revolutionary politics, I responded to a worker using a racial slur by making a mental note that this person remained tied to certain ignorant beliefs, and that in the course of the struggle, these beliefs would come into conflict with his objective needs and would provide the opportunity (if it was even needed) to point out the contradiction between his beliefs and his needs. I most certainly did not instruct him that he shouldn’t use bad words.
Tell me which you’d prefer: That people stopped using the word “retard,” or that social conditions changed in such a way that the term “retard” no longer held any sting for anyone?
And, seriously, the way to address your friend’s issues with the bible is with a materialist interpretation of the bible, discussing conditions at the time, and how they were turned into stories reflecting the needs, feelings, aspirations, fears, and beliefs of people living under those conditions–how consciously or unconsciously the fear of the horrors of disability under those conditions was used as moral instruction. Our attitudes in the future will change as our conditions change; so let’s be about changing those conditions, all right?
bjrobson: The first time I heard it was from a delightful woman named Prudence, room-mate of someone named Annie, at a meeting of the Minnesota Science Fiction Society that took place sometime around 1976-77, possibly ’78. (If anyone else was around then and remembers Prudence and Annie, you can check my memory of the dates). It was before I started seriously writing, however, and that was in 1981.
Steve, As you point out, the fundamental issue is one of philosophical materialism. Without understanding this, attempts to fight various forms of bigotry are either counterproductive or, as we see more and more today in the form of identity politics, reactionary diversions from the struggle against the real causes of these divisions and backwardness. Your wonderful post is particularly moving to me because it shows how the principles by which Bill and Jean Brust lived their lives remain the touchstone for struggle in the 21st century. You chose your parents well!
Skzb: Tell me which you’d prefer: That people stopped using the word “retard,” or that social conditions changed in such a way that the term “retard” no longer held any sting for anyone?
I guess I believe that these are complementary processes.
” I responded to a worker using a racial slur by making a mental note that this person remained tied to certain ignorant beliefs, and that in the course of the struggle, these beliefs would come into conflict with his objective needs.”
That is an interesting perspective and not one I’ve heard voiced in quite that way before.
I guess I worry about I can change for my son tomorrow, and one thing I can do is to work to shift representation of people with Down syndrome to be more inclusive of potential, that language is a component of that shift, while directly working on creating and supporting diverse types of programs that offer more possibilities (mostly within the context of my university).
Now the big one. ” Can capitalism solve the problem of equality for people with disabilities?”
I don’t know. I believe that a capitalist democracy MIGHT be moved in a direction that creates more opportunity and inclusion, if not perfect equality. I believe that a socialist state, as I understand it, might work better. But I genuinely don’t know.
“In the early-to-mid 20th century, contemporary uses of the phrase “Politically Correct” were associated with the dogmatic application of Stalinist doctrine, debated between formal Communists (members of the Communist Party) and Socialists. The phrase was a colloquialism referring to the Communist “party line”, which provided for “correct” positions on many matters of politics.” ….
“According to one version, political correctness actually began as an in-joke on the left: radical students on American campuses acting out an ironic replay of the Bad Old Days BS (Before the Sixties) when every revolutionary groupuscule had a party line about everything. They would address some glaring examples of sexist or racist behaviour by their fellow students in imitation of the tone of voice of the Red Guards or Cultural Revolution Commissar: ‘Not very “politically correct”, Comrade!'”
“The term “political correctness” in its modern pejorative sense became part of the US public debate in the late 1980s, with its media use becoming widespread in 1991. It became a key term encapsulating conservative concerns about the left in academia in particular, and in culture and political debate more broadly.”
I think I remember hearing it in the early 1970’s without any irony, from people I thought had no sense of humor. I’m not sure that counts.
“I guess I believe that these are complementary processes.”
It depends. If I was in your position I’d be concerned that I might have enemies, who would want to oppose actual progress. I’m not sure that’s true for you — why would anyone object to improving things for Downs syndrome people?
But if there is somebody who opposes you, and you show him once how you respond to language you dislike, he can use it to stop you whenever he sees you making progress. You start to get results on some substantive issue while he’s present, and all he has to do is say the words and it turns into a rousing game of Uproar. You talk at length about how the words are wrong, and by the time that’s over the actual progress has been derailed.
Sometimes that might backfire. If it’s mostly people who agree with you then maybe you can all hound him out of the room and then all fired up you make whatever progress you were trying for. But when it’s mostly people who agree with you, that’s the hardest to disrupt anyway and the least room for additional results….
Setting up a shibboleth might be most useful for defining sides. The people who aren’t good at keeping track of the only language you find acceptable are more likely to avoid you, and so you don’t have the stress of interacting with them. More comfortable if you only talk to the people who cater to you.
Fred: Dammit, you’ve made me cry. Hardly appropriate for a serious philosophical discussion.
“why would anyone object to improving things for Downs syndrome people?”
Well, one reason is capitalism. The perception that there are limited or fixed resources and that to improve conditions for people with Down syndrome (the preferred phrasing, if you care, as it puts shared humanity first and the condition second) is to reduce available resources for others.
The easiest place to see this at play are the debates over special education. My son costs a lot more than my daughter, even though my daughter is likely to “contribute” more to a capitalist society. Is that a fair or wise allocation of resources?
I’m writing an essay right now about a judge who overturned a conviction of a man who raped a woman with down syndrome in part, I think (I am re-reading the trial transcripts and judge’s decision), because of issues of representation. The woman didn’t “Act like a victim,” and so now her rapist is free (and awaiting retrial). Representation mattered a lot in this case.
In the words of Martin Heidegger (who arguably was very politically incorrect) “Language is the House of Being.”
In his analysis he cites the poem “Words” by Stefan George:
Wonder or dream from distant land
I carried to my country’s strand
And waited till the twilight norn
Had found the name within her bourn—
Then I could grasp it close and strong
It blooms and shines now the front along…
Once I returned from happy sail,
I had a prize so rich and frail,
She sought for long and tidings told:
“No like of this these depths enfold.”
And straight it vanished from my hand,
The treasure never graced my land…
So I renounced and sadly see:
Where words break off no thing may be.
(Stefan George, qtd. in Heidegger 63)
Words can be pawns to ideology or opinion. And they can help to form ideologies and opinions. Maybe I’m being simplistic but it seems that without some alternative language with regard to “other”* people’s realities it will be difficult for people to think themselves out of their preconceived notions. Language can be a tool people use to make the substantive change in their thinking that they may need – and at some level – may want to make.
*Other used in the sense of anthropological “othering.”
@Jthomas: “Setting up a shibboleth might be most useful for defining sides.”
It seems to be the case that a phrase starts off as a well-meaning attempt to raise awareness or avoid offense, and almost immediately gets adopted as a shibboleth by those attempting to score social points among their peers with how righteous they are.
The parallel to the use of religion is uncanny.
I don’t use people-first language to score points. I use people-first language because I think there’s a significant cognitive difference between.
Nico is a Down Syndrome child
Nico is a child who has Down Syndrome
Nico is a child who suffers from Down syndrome
Nico is a child.
Now, please show me your example of point-scoring so we can critique it.
And thank you Carrie. That last paragraph in particular is very well said and expresses ideas I hold better than I could have done.
“I don’t use people-first language to score points. I use people-first language because I think there’s a significant cognitive difference between.”
David, I’ll start with a sincere question to which I would be very grateful for an answer: Is there anything to suggest this is true? I’m not a linguist, but my understanding is that there’s little support for linguistic determinism, and when talking about linguistic relativity, linguists divide it between the strong version, which has been generally discredited, and the weak version which is, well, weak.
Second, a joke that made me laugh when I saw it on a Social Justice Warrior meme: “‘People of color’ puts people first, not race. White people can’t understand that.”
For anyone doubting Steve on the early use of politically correct, I’ll second it. Leftists with a sense of humor used it to joke about terminally earnest leftists.
“Leftists with a sense of humor used it to joke about terminally earnest leftists.” And themselves, which I think is kinda the point.
Indeed. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you don’t have a sense of humor.
There are a lot of good ideas expressed above. I do feel a little confused in that it appears the topic is “political correctness” and not economics. While not totally unrelated things, they seem mostly independent to me. skzb, hate speech can of course be used as a tool of economic manipulation/aggression and usually is. I don’t think that is the only reason for hate speech or offensive language.
Even if we lived in some idyllic economic world, people (being what they are) would be coming up with things to say which are hurtful to others. I think it is human nature to do the them-vs.-us thing or to say stupid stuff.
It is also possible that some things said, which are offensive to some, may not be offensive to others in the same circumstances. Certainly, what was considered to be offensive has changed radically in my lifetime. I get the feeling that people have become either much more sensitive or else more willing to adopt the ‘I’m offended’ position these days because it has some traction. The operative assumption is that we have a right to never be offended.
‘Politically correct’ (at least in that context) appears to be an attempt to eliminate the use of all possible words which could be offensive to somebody. A zero tolerance policy on certain bad words. The notion being that some words are somehow evil in of themselves and that they may never be used. This becomes a dogma.
On the theme of “language evolves!” I’d argue that the general usage of “political correctness” has evolved to mean “any action or use of language that drives [$RIGHT WING PUNDIT] into an apoplexy.”
Will, I’m sorry, I cannot have a conversation with you involving issues related to my family, or, actually, other humans that matter to me. I don’t trust you as a correspondent.
David, I have enormous sympathy for you regarding your family, and I understand why a belief system that promises to make life better for them would have enormous appeal to you, but if you don’t have anything to support what you believe other than “it feels right”, it’s fine to say it feels right. Everyone’s entitled to what feels right to them—my only objection to identitarians is they try to ruin the lives of people who publicly disagree with what feels right to them.
I just find it ironic that you complained I had responded elsewhere without content, and now, when I ask for content, you have none to offer.
As to whether you should trust me, I don’t believe I’ve ever called anyone names. It’s not how I roll. I will be sarcastic sometimes, but I try to avoid being insulting, and I don’t know if you realize you were being rather classicly classist in the way you addressed Phlebas elsewhere, but you were. Ain’t no saints in any discussion between you and me. You claim there’s a difference between saying someone is something and someone sounds like something. You might ponder that a bit more, because you haven’t sounded as if you believe it.
PS. If you mean that you don’t trust me as a correspondent in a “don’t derail, be converted” way, you are probably right that you won’t convert me. I am sure I have faith-based beliefs, but I do my best to discard them when there’s strong evidence I’m wrong. So really, if you have strong evidence, I will only thank you.
Will, as someone who’s participated in arguments with you for near to a decade now, sometimes on your side of the argument and sometimes opposing it… I’ve seen you thank people for giving you food for thought. I don’t recall ever seeing any argument or evidence shift your positions.
This could mean that you’ve never been presented with strong evidence in the arguments we’ve both participated in – heck, the way internet conversations go, it wouldn’t terribly surprise me. However, it could also indicate that you have a faith-based belief that you have never been presented with strong evidence – and that belief, it seems, would be difficult for evidence to overcome.
And on the third hand, maybe it’s my faulty memory, and I *have* seen you shift your positions and simply do not remember it.
Matt, you may be right. I’m trying to embrace my likely aspieness, which includes recognizing that my mental quirks may simply prevent me from understanding some things. But if there’s a test of the idea that we can reshape reality by carefully policing our language, I would still be grateful to learn about it, even if it didn’t change my mind.
I’d have to search for citations, but there was a town which passed an ordinance against racial slurs, and fined their usage, and over the next several years surveys showed a significant drop in racist attitudes, even among white supremacists. The inability to use the language of hate forced them to re-contextualize their beliefs, which caused a shift.
After a pause to google search, I can find no record of this, although I know I saw it in accredited journals back in college; we debated it in class – did changing the language change the environment, or had the watershed moment already come – did the fact that the town could pass such an ordinance indicate a values shift had already occurred in the upper class/power structure in that area, and simply not percolated down to the rest of the populace?
It certainly isn’t definitive, only suggestive.
I would never suggest that policing language is the only or even the primary fight to be fought in seeking equality, but very few *do* argue that – it’s a much-battered straw man. I’ve only seriously seen it adopted by parts of tumblr subculture which seem mostly to be uncritical teenagers seizing on one area where they perceive themselves as able to have influence, and not by adults pursuing social justice or civil rights activism. It’s a small part of larger efforts, seized upon by opponents because it’s easier to mock and belittle than the more concrete efforts. Caricaturing liberals as ivory-tower intellectuals who only care for words and not actions is sort of a classic; but one that ignores a substantial portion of what’s going on.
And, of course, shutting down discussion by playing the “You’re being politically correct” trump card is very much a case of policing language in pursuit of a greater political goal, and one that’s arguably been far more successful in achieving its aims.
Looking at it from a different angle: if someone is more concerned with their right to insult a group of people than they are about whether or not they are being insulting, I am not terribly interested in having a further discussion with them. My concern is courtesy and empathy, not adherence to a party line.
Matt, while I don’t like making any words illegal, I haven’t noticed anyone try to defend calling someone a nigger or a kike on the basis that it’s “PC”. Most conservatives and liberals agree on what’s abusive. It’s things like the idea that “Native American” is politer than “American Indian” which get to me, because most actual Indians in the US prefer Indian or don’t care which is used, but some academics decided that by their theory, that was wrong.
I would love to know more about that test. Because I know of two tests of anti-racism theory that suggest the reverse:
Make that three:
Will: they agree on those slurs, sure. Do they agree on ‘retarded?’ On the generalized pejorative usage of the word ‘gay?’ On using insults which demean women or devalue femininity, such as bitch or pussy? On saying ‘gypped’ to mean cheated? How about on addressing transgendered people with preferred pronouns?
I am also not a fan of making words outright illegal, even in the above example – but you asked for examples of reality being reshaped, not examples I approved of.
The Indians I know locally don’t tend to care what other people call them, and call one another ‘skins. I’m certainly not one to value academia’s opinion over that of the people in question, however. Part of the “identitarian” movement that I’ve seen is a focus on people choosing what to call themselves.
For that matter, I’ve never heard anyone call themselves an “identitarian,” and I’d suggest that it’s just as deliberate and meaningful a piece of semiotics, choosing an emphasis suitable to the politics of the speaker, the same way pro-choice and pro-life people refer to their opponents as anti-choice, anti-abortion, pro-abortion, or whatever the favored propaganda terms of the moment are.
Certainly the words we use to describe people have an effect on the way those people are viewed in the context of a discussion.
Reading those articles now.
Will, reading those articles suggests to me that the first and third articles claim inconclusive results, and only the second article is directly suggestive of backlash.
I would gladly use any name identitarians liked. The problem is they don’t use one for themselves, so the rest of us are using what seems to apply. Much like theists rarely call themselves theists, yet it’s still useful to speak of them that way. If anyone knows a better name, I suspect I wouldn’t be the only person who was grateful.
Have you considered that labeling them as if they were a single cohesive group in any sense might be counterproductive? I mean, I am able to meaningfully engage with and respond to the term, so it’s clearly functional on some level, but even the division between theist and atheist often leaves some confusion – where do we put Buddhists, or others who have faiths whose metaphysical beliefs embrace the supernatural but not a deity as deities are commonly understood?
Putting it another way, I think ‘identitarian’ is a useful catchall phrase under some circumstances, but also one used only by detractors of the many disparate views and agendas of the people under that umbrella, and so prone to misleading overgeneralizations and casually pejorative usage when employed. It is a convenient Them to assemble an Us against.
I don’t usually link to my own stuff, but I actually wrote something about identity and disability that sums up what I think and that’s too long to repost here. http://www.jonas-kyratzes.net/2013/10/14/identity-and-disability/
I’d like to speak a minute about the world of people with disabilities, of which I feel some authority, and which I think may have some instructive contributions to this discussion. I have lived in this world for about 5 decades, as a parent, a professional, an advocate, and a person with chronic health problems and mobility impairments.
In that time, I have seen enormous changes in terminology, “politically correct” language, atitutudes, and in services provided. In all that time, I can recollect only one immediate, profound, and lasting change in the attitudes and actions of the people around me. It was the late ’80s or early ’90s, and I was working as a speech pathologist with a school population of students with multiple disabilities.
One was a lovely teenager who had attended the same (technically illegal because segregated from “normal” peers) school setting for her entire life. Every day, the teachers and aides who had watched (and helped) her grow up greeted her lovingly, commenting on how pretty she looked, how nice her dress was, etc. Then we provided her with a primitive augmentive device that let her “speak four phrases. In this case, she manned a small candy and snack stand after lunch, greeting folks by saying “Would you like to buy a treat today?”, “The cost is one dollar,” “The money goes toward supplies for our classroom,” and “Thank you so much.”
The results were immediate, and astounding. Teachers looked her in the eye. She sat up straighter. Aides stayed to continue the discussion, even though she was no longer able to respond verbally, they told her what their mood was like that day, why they did or did not want a snack, For the first time, she was able to initiate an age-appropriate, two-way conversation, with people who felt deep affection for her, but had long since forgotten her potential.
I’ve taken too long, perhaps, but this is my point. People’s attitudes change when they experience an event that shifts their thinking, not when we tell them to use different language.
David Perry: keep on keeping on. But choose your battles wisely.
And Steven, just a sisterly note: people have disabilities; society handicaps those people by their prejudices, their economic injustices, their laws. Yeah, “people with disabilities” is more politically correct just now, but their is a meaningful difference IMHO, in this case.
Matt, I agree it’s a spectrum—when we talk of theists and atheists, we may also talk of agnostics and nontheists and others.
Regarding the articles, these are my pull quotes:
“A 2007 study of 829 companies that use diversity training suggested that the sessions make virtually no difference in the number of minorities hired or promoted into management positions. (Employing a manager of diversity or a diversity task force produces far better results.) There are also troubling anecdotes, like the Texaco executives who were taped referring to employees as “black jelly beans” who were “glued to the bottom of the bag” after seeing jelly beans used in a diversity training session.” —Brian Palmer, “What Happens in Racial Sensitivity Training?”
“In 1997 the Council of Europe coordinated a year of anti-racism campaigns and activities throughout Europe. A survey at the end of the year, conducted in European Union countries by the polling organisation Eurobarometer, found that rather than a decline in racism, it had been marked by a growing willingness on the part of Europeans to openly declare themselves as racist. Twenty-two per cent of those surveyed in December 1997 in Belgium, 16 per cent in France, and 8 per cent in Britain declared themselves to be ‘very racist’. Thirty-four per cent of those surveyed in Germany, 30 per cent in Italy, and 24 per cent in Britain admitted they were ‘quite racist’. As the primary goal of the Year’s activities was, presumably, to reduce racist attitudes, rather than to encourage honesty and self disclosure, the campaigns run in European countries in 1997 would appear to have failed, if not backfired.” —Adrienne Millbank, “An Anti-Racism Campaign: Who Needs It?”
“Cross-classified multilevel regression analyses show that the level of xenophobia is lower when pupils evaluate their inter-ethnic contacts as positive, and higher when they perceive these contacts as negative. However, the impact of positive inter-ethnic contact in class disappears or even reverses when multiculturalism is more emphasized during lessons.” —Hidde Bekhuis, Stijn Ruiter and Marcel Coenders, “Xenophobia among Youngsters: The Effect of Inter-Ethnic Contact”
While I’m happy to say these may not be conclusive, I would say they’re strongly suggestive, so what I would like to see is practical support for the notion that anti-racism theory can be usefully applied. Otherwsie, I’m with the Dutch folks: racism decreases as people get to hang out together. Trying to make people feel guilty for what previous generations did doesn’t help anyone except the people who’re making money from promoting the theory.
“Will: they agree on those slurs, sure. Do they agree on ‘retarded?’ On the generalized pejorative usage of the word ‘gay?’ On using insults which demean women or devalue femininity, such as bitch or pussy? On saying ‘gypped’ to mean cheated? How about on addressing transgendered people with preferred pronouns?”
I don’t have much to say about “retarded” other than that I volunteered at a home for what I think were then called retarded kids when I was a teen, so I know a tiny bit about what it’s like to work with people who have different needs. But my impression is that words like “retarded” offend parents and teachers, and some kids then learn to be offended also. I haven’t used the word in decades, but that’s because it’s an easy politeness, not because my attitude toward people who were called retarded has become more enlightened.
Also, Cynthia, as I have said before and expect to say again, is wise.
So long as anyone uses words like “dick”, I can’t get too upset about gendered insults. I used to believe “cunt” was the ugliest insult in American English, but it’s all in how you say it. Few men feel praised when they’re accused of being dicks or dickish. I would argue that “nigger” said as an insult from a white person is a greater insult than “cunt” said to anyone because everyone has genitals, but only people who have black skin didn’t get to vote throughout the US until the 1960s.
Have you heard any gypsies complain about “gypped”? Do you think most people who use the word have a clue where it came from, or that they are less likely to treat gypsies well because they use the word?
“Gay” fascinates me. I’ve seen some fairly convincing argument that the word in teen culture has been divorced from its roots. Language does that. I would have more sympathy for the notion that the history of words mattered if the people who think it does would object to “classy”. But words evolve, and they have different meanings in different contexts.
Jonas: That is excellent.
“And, of course, shutting down discussion by playing the “You’re being politically correct” trump card is very much a case of policing language in pursuit of a greater political goal”
Yes. It’s an ad hominem. Ignoring the actual argument in favor of calling the other guy names.
On the other hand, if the PC guy has already shut down the discussion by saying that your language is unacceptable and the discussion should not happen, then what’s to lose? Call him PC or walk away, the actual argument is already disrupted.
It’s interesting. I’ve spent the last hour listening to a webinar about pre-natal testing for Down syndrome. There’s a lot of science and the science is really important, but life and death decisions are being made based on language, representation, casual cultural impressions about life and disability. This, to me, is a context in which language clearly matters.
“For that matter, I’ve never heard anyone call themselves an “identitarian,” and I’d suggest that it’s just as deliberate and meaningful a piece of semiotics, choosing an emphasis suitable to the politics of the speaker, the same way pro-choice and pro-life people refer to their opponents as anti-choice, anti-abortion, pro-abortion, or whatever the favored propaganda terms of the moment are.”
This is interesting!
On the one hand, it can be useful to create descriptive words. Words are tools, and the tools we create to think with can help us get to useful conclusions. It’s just as silly to avoid creating words because bad guys might mis-use them, as it is to avoid creating technology because militarists might turn them into weapons.
On the other hand, you are arguing that Wil is creating this word as a weapon against people he considers enemies. And doing so he becomes one of them. I find that kind of plausible. Identitarians are presented as a great big problem. They are doing things wrong. There are no obvious redeeming features, In that context it’s certainly plausible to think of identitarians as the enemy who must be defeated in a grand battle between identitarians and anti-identitarians.
On the other hand he could be more like a doctor who has identified a disease and is looking for a cure. He needn’t hate, despise, or condescend to the sick. At the same time he needn’t pay undue attention to the ravings of the madmen he hopes to cure. And if the disease is contagious, and he were to be reduced to looking for a cure between bouts of raving? That would be sad.
If you see it as nothing more than an attempt to label enemies, as entirely an identitarian tool used for identitarian purposes, could it be that this approach is simply so pervasive that it is the default assumption? That would be sad too.
Is the trait of creating enemies, giving them ugly names, and attacking them so essential a part of human nature that we can never ever get away from it? That any attempt to even identify the universal trait turns into an example of itself? That leads to such despair that I refuse to believe it. Rationality is not a suicide pact. “Where a man stands depends on where he sits.” “It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his livelihood depends on his not understanding it.” I don’t have to believe this and nobody can make me.
“On the other hand, if the PC guy has already shut down the discussion by saying that your language is unacceptable and the discussion should not happen, then what’s to lose? Call him PC or walk away, the actual argument is already disrupted.”
My experience has been that it more often goes the other way – any attempt to express an opinion that doesn’t toe the party (not Party) line immediately gets shut down by accusations of political correctness, regardless of whether any was present or intended.
Will: do gay teenagers feel it’s divorced of its context? I have no academic evidence either way, but a wealth of anecdata suggesting otherwise. I remember using it myself without malice… but I care much more about harm done than harm intended; if someone steps on my toe, it DOES matter whether or not they intended to, but what matters more is that they get off of it.
Also, I don’t believe I was questioning whether or not you were upset by gendered insults, but whether you find there is broad liberal-conservative consensus on them.
To me, your first two pull quotes exemplify exactly what I meant about the ambiguity of their sources – I am open to further discussion, but it appears to me as though we are reading the same words and receiving different meanings. “the sessions make virtually no difference” does not, to me, suggest backlash; nor does the jellybean joke suggest a change in attitude, simply a new subtle way of expressing it. And “(Employing a manager of diversity or a diversity task force produces far better results.)” suggests there IS an effective approach, but without knowing what tactics a diversity task force would employ, I won’t speculate on whether that supports one thesis or another. “rather than a decline in racism, it had been marked by a growing willingness on the part of Europeans to openly declare themselves as racist.” does not suggest to me an increase in racism, but a change in the perceived defintion of racism – to me, a neutral or ambiguous result. “As the primary goal of the Year’s activities was, presumably, to reduce racist attitudes, rather than to encourage honesty and self disclosure,” explicitly makes a presumption it doesn’t support – I concede that it MAY be correct, but not that it IS, without documentation indicating one way or the other.
“Have you heard any gypsies complain about “gypped”?”
I don’t like hearing about people welshing on bets, but I don’t make any point of it. Besides everything else if they heard it was an ethnic slur they might think it applied.
And the “soccer players and prostitutes” joke is too funny to make a big dispute about.
“My experience has been that it more often goes the other way – any attempt to express an opinion that doesn’t toe the party (not Party) line immediately gets shut down by accusations of political correctness”
Let me see if I have this right. As an example of what you’re talking about, let’s say people are talking about something like, say, a gross sexist joke told in mixed company. And you say something like “I think we should listen to what the women have to say about it.” And other people then say “Wait a minute, you’re being PC! That’s unacceptable and we can’t allow it!” And they refuse to consider it.
That is, they’re doing exactly what the PC people are in conservative tradition supposed to do, but with a slight difference. Instead of telling people they can’t say things because what they want to say is not PC, they’re telling you that you can’t say things because what you say DOES fit PC views.
This is beyond irony. This is beyond 1984 double-think. No I guess it isn’t beyond double-think. It’s just double-think.
It’s been my experience, too. People who complain about political correctness have a strong tendency to treat even thoughtful, gentle criticism of their language as automatically dismissible because the critic is “just being PC” and they don’t have to be “censored” by people who care about that kind of thing. And I’ll note that it’s certainly a bipartisan problem – I have very liberal friends who still take offense at the very notion that their language might be offensive or that they should consider their terminology in any way.
J Thomas, I didn’t coin “identitarian”. I learned it from Adolph Reed Jr.
Matt, what I take from those passages is antiracism training is either ineffective or counter-productive. Since it costs money and time, it’s wasteful in either case. What I need to be convinced otherwise is something that strongly suggests it is effective. Otherwise, why keep wasting resources on it?
“do gay teenagers feel it’s divorced of its context?”
Excellent question. I haven’t a clue. I don’t use it because it wasn’t used in the modern way in my youth, so it will always sound a little prejudiced to me.
“That is, they’re doing exactly what the PC people are in conservative tradition supposed to do, but with a slight difference. Instead of telling people they can’t say things because what they want to say is not PC, they’re telling you that you can’t say things because what you say DOES fit PC views.”
Precisely, although I’d simplify it to “shutting down any conversation that isn’t “correct” for their particular brand of politics”, left, right, or non-Euclidean. That’s the beauty of accusations of political correctness, they both demean one’s opponent and render further discussion impossible and out of bounds.
Will: does the diversity manager or task force use antiracist tactics? It doesn’t say. So, the specific form of training is ineffective, but I don’t know that I’d draw a larger conclusion from it.
Since antiracism holds that white people are culturally indoctrinated in racist attitudes, I am not at all sure that many Europeans openly acknowledging that they hold racist attitudes would be considered a failure. Insufficient progress, sure, but the first step is admitting you have a problem, right? I just don’t feel there’s enough context here to reach a firm conclusion.
I do agree that the evidence is suggestive in your favor, but not that it’s conclusive. I acknowledge that I’m stubborn about strong evidence myself, and several years of sociology in college render me wary about articles about studies – in the absence of the study itself, with a full write-up about its methods and open disclosure of its flaws, I take study citations with many grains of salt. I try to do so even when they’re in my favor, but I’m sure I don’t do as well as that as when they’re not.
To cite a specific anecdata: as a bisexual teenager, the usage of ‘gay’ as a catchall pejorative had a definite chilling effect for me. I don’t believe I ever came out to anyone who used it unless I knew them very very well and was sure that they used it ironically. In college my friends and I often demeaned things as being “homosexual” or “heterosexual” interchangeably, as an absurdist satire – why did ANY sexual orientation have anything to do with something’s lack of quality? But even then, we understood that we were telling an in-joke, and didn’t use it in mixed company where it might be misunderstood, and abandoned the usage when it WAS misunderstood. There was definitely a widespread understanding that when people said “gay” that way they didn’t mean “homosexual” – but at the same time, saying it was equivalent to a dirty joke. It was hurtful and we knew it. It made gay people feel less valued and less safe.
Something I didn’t realize until just now: if you google “identitarian,” it seems as though it is primarily used by European or neo-Confederate white supremacists to describe opponents of their brand of segregationist ethnocentrism. That doesn’t devalue the term on its own – I can also see more technical or philosophical usages such as Reed’s – but someone more familiar than I was with the broad applications of the term is likely to oppose it and anyone using it even more vehemently.
Matt, I realize it’s inconsistent of me to dislike other people’s appeals to authority and then do the same thing myself, but so long as Adolph Reed Jr. uses it, I’ll use it. I don’t think it’s inconsistent with the white supremacist take. Like the Nation of Islam, they’re radical identitarians. That may seem insulting to moderate identitarians, but I’ve got to live with the fact Stalin was a red. I don’t think any large group is pure.
As long as you feel the term is useful as a descriptor and sufficiently reflective of your views on the matter, I wouldn’t want to discourage you from using it. I disagree with the usage and will avoid it myself, even without the additional contextual freight of its usage by white nationalist groups, but I will by no means confuse drawing from the same lexical well as drawing the same conclusions; I know better. I was simply surprised upon looking it up, and thought it worthwhile to mention, so that if some ‘identitarian’ confuses you for a neo-Confederate because of shared vocabulary, it doesn’t come as a surprise. Getting tripped up by surprise shibboleths is an unpleasant experience, to say the least, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Well, maybe some people, but nobody here.
Matt, it surprised me too when I first saw the other uses. It’s part of the reason why I keep saying I wish identitarians would choose a name for themselves.
I think most would say “civil rights activist” or “civil rights supporter,” if they would agree on a group to be conflated into.
And if they wouldn’t, that might be a good sign that a single name for them is too limiting to be useful.
They rarely talk about civil rights, and when they do, it’s usually to re-explain Martin Luther King in their terms. They talk about privilege in terms of social identity.
As one of that “they,” Will, I can assure you, we talk about both. Or at least, a great many of us do – enough that making a general statement conflating us with those who don’t ignores the bulk of the groups and discussions I’ve witnessed or been a part of.
Do I care about and engage in identity politics? I certainly do. But I won’t sit still to resemble the scarecrows I see constructed, and everyone I know who focuses on gay rights, trans rights, or other civil rights issues talks about a great deal more in the way of civil rights than that. Hence why, if that’s what you think identitarians are, I don’t think identitarian is a useful term.
“Have you heard any gypsies complain about “gypped”?”
Yes, actually. In fact, many Roma people regard gypsy as a slur and they would prefer you not use it. They consider one part, among many, in battling anti-Roma discrimination is to make sure that they are seen as an ethnicity not associated with long-running stereotypes about being thieves (and child traffickers).
It is, I suppose, politically correct to tell you this and to suggest you use the word Roma instead.
I am still troubled by some of the mockery in Steve’s original post.
Ageism is real. People who are older trying to get jobs do not get the jobs because they are older. That’s discrimination. Yes, there are solutions to the problem that are deeper than fighting ageism – like fighting capitalism and the need to have a job. But that doesn’t actually help a 50 year old right now who is looking for work.
Ableism is real. People construct versions of the ideal in their mind that focus on the able-bodied and so discriminate, consciously or not, against the disabled. It’s a useful term for coalescing a number of different kinds of reactions to disability, whether revulsion or pity or whatever, in which raising awareness of such issues are part of broadly based efforts to create a more inclusive community.
As I noted earlier, I’m currently reading and writing about the ways in which people decide whether or not to abort a fetus based on a pre-natal diagnosis of Down syndrome; or, as I like to put it, the test run for human breeding as we enter the genomic age. These are real decisions made by real people heavily influenced by the perception of what it means to have a disability. I cannot understand how language isn’t central to that conversation.
Too much of this thread argues for an either/or – either we work on language or we work on pragmatic solutions. I just don’t see it that way.
“People who are older trying to get jobs do not get the jobs because they are older. That’s discrimination. Yes, there are solutions to the problem that are deeper than fighting ageism – like fighting capitalism and the need to have a job. But that doesn’t actually help a 50 year old right now who is looking for work.”
No. And neither does correcting language. What helps that 50-year-old is the combined power of the working class–we know that, because that is how the gains we HAVE made happened, and current divisions within the working class are what permits them to take those gains away. This is why I so vehemently oppose things like identity politics that serve to divide the working class.. The 50 year old doesn’t give a damn what language is used when he is denied a living. That is why I insist the problem is age discrimination, not “ageism.”
“Too much of this thread argues for an either/or – either we work on language or we work on pragmatic solutions. I just don’t see it that way.”
I understand why you read it that way, but it is not what I said. I said that either you base yourself on the fight to change material conditions, or you base yourself on the fight to change ideas. Different methods yield different results. My issue is with the philosophical method employed–and political correctness comes with a very definite philosophical method, and it is one that, in my judgement, is, as Fred said above, counterproductive at best.
To fight discrimination we must understand it’s causes. Do we understand it in terms of ideas that create conditions, or conditions that create ideas? How one answers this question makes all the difference in how one understands the problem, and fights it.
I have a very definite opinion on that question. It is one you may disagree with. But the point of this post is, quite simply, that political correctness actually does mean something, and that something comes with a philosophy and a method, and there are consequences to that. Even if you differ with me on whether that method is right or wrong, if you agree that the difference exists, then my post has succeeded.
““Gay” fascinates me. I’ve seen some fairly convincing argument that the word in teen culture has been divorced from its roots. Language does that. I would have more sympathy for the notion that the history of words mattered if the people who think it does would object to “classy”. But words evolve, and they have different meanings in different contexts.”
Take a different example. People got upset about heart attacks, which sometimes killed without a lot of warning. Since the word became a trigger, they started changing the word. They came up with a series of alternate names, and as each name turned into a trigger they started using a new one. I forget the order, but there was “coronary” and “myocardial infarction” and a handful of others. Some of the names had specific medical uses and others didn’t.
It would take a look at the history to see which words for homosexuals started out as euphemisms that didn’t carry derogatory context, and which started as epiphets. Either way, pretty soon homophobes had them thoroughly contaminated.
Similarly with poor nations. When India refused to choose whether to be in the US or the USSR orbit, there was a move to classify nations as First World — prosperous capitalist nations with the US leader, Second World — Iron Curtain nations oppressed by the USSR, and Third World — desperately poor nations too ignorant to choose the USA over the USSR. But that became unacceptable, and we got the term “underdeveloped nations” which implied that “development” could fix their problems, and then “developing nations” which implied (often falsely) that development was happening.
People get emotional reactions to words. Using the new word does nothing to prevent heart attacks or increase third-world prosperity. But it does help some people feel better.
David, I’ll simply ditto Steve here.
Matt, I don’t think I can better express the ways in which I agree and disagree, so I’ll try to bow out with three quotes:
““It seems to me that multiculturalism, once a useful and progressive kind of politics, is no longer functioning as well as it did. The limits of identity politics are becoming clear. Instead of a playful, creative blending of the best of host and migrant cultures, the terms of multiculturalism are increasingly used by cultural conservatives of all stripes to police cultural boundaries. A liberal politics of absolute inclusivity, while presenting itself as pragmatic, has the disadvantage of obscuring genuine differences and antagonisms. Identity politics, which privileges categories like race and religion, is wilfully silent about class. Culture is, self-evidently, at the heart of this, and so we as writers have a central role to play. It sickens me to watch European bigots puffing up their chests about the values of the Enlightenment, as a badge of their superiority against poor and marginalised immigrant populations. Again, I say that opposition to this Enlightenment fundamentalism, isn’t moral relativism, but an ethical imperative. At this point, respecting difference is important, but so is asserting our common life across borders of race, class and religion. The fake pageantry of respect is no substitute for a genuine internationalism.” —Hari Kunzru
“Identity politics enabled many formerly silenced and displaced groups to emerge from the margins of power and dominant culture to reassert and reclaim suppressed identities and experiences; but in doing so, they often substituted one master narrative for another, invoked a politics of separatism, and suppressed differences within their own ‘liberatory’ narratives.” – Henry Giroux, “Living Dangerously: Identity Politics and The New Cultural Racism”
“Does political correctness have a good side? Yes, it does, for it makes us re-examine attitudes, and that is always useful. The trouble is that, with all popular movements, the lunatic fringe so quickly ceases to be a fringe; the tail begins to wag the dog. For every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to examine our assumptions, there are 20 rabble-rousers whose real motive is desire for power over others, no less rabble-rousers because they see themselves as anti-racists or feminists or whatever.” —Doris Lessing
“People who complain about political correctness have a strong tendency to treat even thoughtful, gentle criticism of their language as automatically dismissible because the critic is “just being PC” and they don’t have to be “censored” by people who care about that kind of thing.”
I’d tend to side with them, that far. I let them use the language they want and I’ll use the language I want, and see if we can understand each other.
What I can’t tolerate is them saying that I’m not allowed to express ideas because my ideas are too PC. That is unacceptable. If I want to say something that they think is PC then too bad, I’m going to say it. Free speech! “They can tak’ oour lives but they canna tak’ oour trousers!”
David, Steve wisely shut down the previous thread, so I’ll put my apology here: I’m sorry if anyone reads what I wrote and concludes that I think you’re meaningfully classist. I don’t, partly because I don’t think “classist” is a meaningful term and partly because I know you mean well, despite your rhetoric. How we get everyone on the internet to cut each other more slack for their rhetoric, I haven’t a clue, but if I could make one change in the internet today, that would be it. Reading charitably is hard, and I don’t do it often enough, so I’m really not trying to claim the high ground here.
“That is why I insist the problem is age discrimination, not “ageism.””
I see now. That makes a lot of sense to me and I agree with this sentiment, however …
“I said that either you base yourself on the fight to change material conditions, or you base yourself on the fight to change ideas.”
I mis-understood this and I get the distinction that you are trying to make. I still believe in a both/and approach, but I understand your argument that one must have a base towards one direction or another. I continue to feel that changing ideas is one component, among many, required for changing material conditions. But I am thinking about your distinctions here.
“Identity politics enabled many formerly silenced and displaced groups to emerge from the margins of power and dominant culture to reassert and reclaim suppressed identities and experiences; but in doing so, they often substituted one master narrative for another, invoked a politics of separatism, and suppressed differences within their own ‘liberatory’ narratives.”
Wow. I’ll try to limit my comments to just a few things brought up. There appear to be two uses of PC mentioned. One is calling something PC to discredit it (something conservatives seem to do) and the other is invoking a PC position to prevent the use of various words, etc. The first is a cheap shot. The second is a good intentioned action in hopes of reducing prejudices (usually).
Toward the second; my experience is that PC is almost always used by a second party in defense of some third party (or group). If I were a member of the third party, I think I would have mixed feelings about this as one implication is that I am too powerless to speak for myself.
American Jews have done pretty well in eliminating common use of derogatory terms for Jews. I’m thinking the Jewish Anti-defamation League gets the most credit for that.
American blacks (African Americans?) seem to have no similar effective organization (which is something they really need). Instead, we have white middle-class liberals (I’m a liberal) trying to do the job for them by using PC as a tool. This is helpful, but not sufficient by itself to eliminate racism.
More effective (as Will and Matt pointed out) is working with and around minorities in a setting of mutual respect. I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of very competent African Americans (awkward term) and African Africans.
I feel that American blacks are done a disservice by movies and media where blacks are routinely presented as gangster types with attitude. This would be OK, except a lot of young blacks seem to want to emulate that role as it seems empowering and defiant. The trouble is that it is self defeating for obvious reasons. And yes, some white kids also emulate this, to their own detriment.
Back to PC. The point is that more than policing of vocabulary is needed if the goal is to prevent prejudices. Also, the party in question needs to be part of the solution, it can’t be done for them. PC is just the tip of the iceberg.
Unfortunately, no matter what is done, there will be prejudiced people out there. Especially so if money (security?) is involved in fostering the prejudices.
David: That’s all I can reasonably ask.
In case anyone missed it, I’m reposting the link Jonas made to his discussion of disability and identity. http://www.jonas-kyratzes.net/2013/10/14/identity-and-disability/
Good article. It explains the identity politics.
Disability has its own unique and persistent problems. The article is honest in saying that good words do not eliminate the disability. It’s really bad when somebody who is disabled does his worse to hurt other people who are disabled. I suppose he rationalizes that he has succeeded despite his disability and that anybody who can’t is, by definition, unworthy.
I have noticed that here in MN, you see very few people in wheelchairs in public or at work. Or for that matter people with any other obvious disability. I can fully appreciate the problem with say wheelchairs in a MN winter. It is an unreasonable expectation that a disabled person like that hold a 9 to 5 job. It is hard enough for normal people sometimes. The number of jobs where you can make a living at home on your computer is pretty limited.
Pretending that calling disabled people by a different term (differently able?) or whatever, does nothing to alleviate the actual physical problem. But it appears to be used against them to eliminate the help (money) needed. Really nasty.
How to hurt somebody by pretending to help. Sigh.
“Also, the party in question needs to be part of the solution, it can’t be done for them.”
“No slave was ever freed, unless he freed himself.” I looked but I haven’t found any source for this but Heinlein. And it’s on some fortune cookies.
“Unfortunately, no matter what is done, there will be prejudiced people out there.”
Then we must look for ways to live with them. Find ways for them to keep their beliefs and still minimize the harm.
Will, incidentally, people do object to “classy” every now and again. Google “classy is classist” in quotes for a modest sample.
I myself have been known to correct my language by substituting “classist” for “classy”, especially in the phrase “stay classist, Jersey City”.
Two thoughts, arriving late to the discussion.
On identity politics, the thing that really bothers me about focusing on the injustices done to a subset of us, is the underlying assumption that we’re in competition for equal treatment. Like it’s a finite quantity. Like everything in capitalism.
As to the focus on language and thought-policing, perhaps that is partly a product of frustration with changing the material conditions. Words are a lot easier to address than systemic poverty, say.There is a persuasive simplicity to attributing it mostly to persons with little day to day experience with inequality, but that doesn’t explain those with immediate experience who do care passionately about the language used about them.
“On identity politics, the thing that really bothers me about focusing on the injustices done to a subset of us, is the underlying assumption that we’re in competition for equal treatment. Like it’s a finite quantity.”
For a lot of people, it isn’t about equality. It’s about clout.
If you’ve been oppressed and then you can get the upper hand, you have a chance to oppress the oppressors and give them a chance to get back some of what they dished out. Equality sounds good but it does not really satisfy. Do you want equality with criminals and evil people? Should we have equality with unrepentant sexists and racists and child molestors etc? Of course not! They need to be punished until they have paid for their crimes, and they need to keep on being punished until they learn better and have become entirely different people who would never consider repeating their old evil.
“As to the focus on language and thought-policing, perhaps that is partly a product of frustration with changing the material conditions. Words are a lot easier to address than systemic poverty, say.”
Bingo! It’s a whole lot easier to verbally punish random people who use the wrong words, than physically punish people who actually still have a lot of clout.
Try not to be the innocent bystander who walks into the line of fire. Unless you like that kind of thing.
J Thomas, I agree. With some blacks, the goal is no longer equality (even though they haven’t reached this goal yet) but payback. I watched a black comedian on U-Tube talk about prejudice. His position was that all white people were prejudiced because they are white and nothing a black person does can possibly be considered prejudice because they are black. And he wasn’t joking.
Some people who should know better cannot get beyond that kind of thinking. It distorts their world view. There is a deep well of anger that wants payback. This hurts the equal rights movement.
The little conspiracy guy in my head makes me wonder if some right wing bigots haven’t paid somebody to rile up the black masses just at the time when equal rights are in view as it effectively shuts the door to progress.
“The little conspiracy guy in my head makes me wonder if some right wing bigots haven’t paid somebody to rile up the black masses just at the time when equal rights are in view as it effectively shuts the door to progress.”
… like by funding a propaganda channel whose entire reason for being is to polarize political discourse? It may not *technically* be a conspiracy, in that no explicit collusion directly related to suppressing change occurs… but when a group of people that enjoy the same privilege exert pressure to defend it, that’s effectively the same.
The widespread use of “politically correct” as a defense/excuse for bigotry seems to follow the same pattern. Not everyone who uses it attended some meeting where it was handed down as a talking point. But they’re all looking for a rhetorical move that wins soundbyte exchanges, and so once that one works, everyone’s doing it.
And as to some comedian on youtube, well, there are pics, so it happened, but attributing significance to it is a whole other thing =)
@JThomas : If you’ve been oppressed and then you can get the upper hand, you have a chance to oppress the oppressors and give them a chance to get back some of what they dished out. Equality sounds good but it does not really satisfy.
Even worse, it’s counter-productive. There might be a great many people in the ‘oppressor’ group sympathetic to your cause (such as the white abolitionists, men who wanted women to have the vote, or straights who wanted gays to have marriage rights), but they’re going to be alienated if they see the cause hijacked to express animosity directed at groups including them.
If they are motivated by a desire to see fairness and equality, that motivation disappears if the cause becomes a way to express unfairness and prejudice in the other direction.
For anyone wanting some additional background, the wsws.org site today (3/5) has an obituary of Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014). While there is a lot of info that is unfamiliar to most Americans, he was, in fact, the first proponent of what he called “Cultural Studies,” that has evolved into identity studies and identity politics. His theories developed quite specifically out of a conscious attempt to derail inquiry into socialist history and thought. Worth a look.
YoungBS, It’s not just one comedian and his audience. I ran into stuff like this on FB and from one person I know well. Though, how widespread such feelings are, it’s hard to say. I’m sure it has always been there to some level.
David: Yeah, I probably shouldn’t dismiss that attitude as completely insignificant.It’s stupid, no matter who does it. And it sure seems to me like it’s a common human failing, one of those that we have to constantly watch for in ourselves. But it’s not insignificant.
As another comedian has pointed out, doing something stupid just because some other group gets away with it isn’t fair, it’s ignorant.
Where is George Carlin when you need him? ;>)
Cynthia, I was under the impression that Cultural Studies were started by Raymond Willams, E.P Thomposn and others of that era. Hall was a hand-picked protoge from the second generation of that school.
I read the Stuart Hall obituary referenced above and my reaction to it seemed relevant to the identity politics discussion here; so I will give a few genuine questions a whirl:
1) Is it “objective” that the working class is the only formation appropriate to viewing class-like struggles through? I have seen fairly objective arguments for the structural oppression of women and of colonized peoples. You may consider the struggles of these formations to be of lower priority and/or enfolded within class struggle, but how much of this is based on objective reasoning and how much of it is based on your own position within the power structure of society? If women choose to focus on gender based oppression, is it false consciousness or are they acting from a position of intelligent self awareness in setting their priorities? If white males derive advantage from prioritizing class struggle over gender or class over race/colonialism, is it objective for me to disregard that and accept their characterization of correct thought/action? (Feminist historians have made a pretty good case that most of the democratic or working class reforms of the 19th and 20th century were accompanied by misogynist ideology and/or set backs in the material condition of women. I suppose that might be a failure of trade unionist tendencies, but I am skeptical that that’s all there is to it.)
2) There is a class structure in modern America. However, how do we define its boundaries? And what are implications of so many being alienated not just from the fruits, but the means of production? If so many, perhaps even a majority of the “working class” are relegated to an underclass of unemployed or underemployed, what exactly is the working class? If the traditional middle class are reshaped to a less advantageous position with respect to capital and the working class is shrunk to a minority, how sure are you that the traditional working class is still the appropriate focus for revolution? Maybe the underclass or the new middle class are those who have to answer the call?
I don’t have any answers; I just have questions.
PrivateIron, I have a question too: How do working class white men fit into a theory that concludes rich black women are more oppressed because they’re black and women? I also have an observation: feminist theory was mostly developed by people who studied at the schools for the ruling class. If it’s fine from an identitarian perspective to assume white men have a limited ability to understand privilege, it should then be fine to assume that Ivy Leaguers have a limited ability to understand class, especially when they’ve been lifted into the 1%.
“How do working class white men fit into a theory that concludes rich black women are more oppressed because they’re black and women?”
If the purpose is to create a good society, how useful is it to decide who was the most oppressed by the old society?
I can see the point to oppression-sizing as a social thing. But how is it functional?
The most-oppressed victims may not be particularly competent at doing what needs to be done. They deserve compassion and assistance but not a platform.
If somebody wants to tell me that I’m not oppressed enough to help create a better society, I will try to ignore them. They are part of the problem.
People who want to dick-size about who’s the most victimized are mostly a side-show. They are not important. Possibly in a conflict they might draw fire.
I don’t usually revive dead blog posts, but this one has been bugging me for a while, and it just won’t go away until I say something.
A few weeks ago, a friend made a thoughtful, serious, and impassioned comment about a particular group that–through thoughtlessness rather than malice (we believe)–badly mistreated the disabled. In the course of his remarks–in explaining that he did not attribute this mishandling to evil intentions–he referred to their actions as “dumb.”
Are you way ahead of me? Someone immediately rushed in to make sure he understood that the word he had chosen was “ableist.” And, yes, the commenter expressed agreement with his position, and yes, said it in a nice way. BUT.
To me, that exactly expresses the problem. My friend was trying to make useful, constructive comments that would contribute to making the world better for individuals with disabilities. I’ll tell you something. I’ll bet those who fucked up the arrangements were all very careful not to use “ableist” language. I’m sure those who were horribly inconvenienced by the organizers’ thoughtlessness were just darned happy to know that their language was politically correct as they found themselves unable to attend certain events.
Yeah, I know what you’re going to say: “Why can’t they do both?” That’s not the point. The point is, how are you approaching the problem? Is it about real human beings, with real problems, or is it about language and ideas? Where are your priorities? What is your approach?
And, you know what? When I chose traditional pronoun usage in my work, these are exactly the people who sniff disdainfully and say, “Do you care more about language than people?”
That’s a nice example of several odd things SJWs do:
1. They subscribe to a strong Whorfian position in assuming that using “dumb” to mean “stupid” will affect how people view people who are mute.
2. They don’t notice that no one speaks of mute people as “dumb” any more—the only meaning of “dumb” in common use is “stupid”.
3. They are telling people not to use “dumb” out of respect—yet they reject the notion that they should speak respectfully with people who disagree with their idea of respect.
Oh, and lest anyone object to my use of SJW, the moment those people adopt a name for themselves, I will happily use it, because I do believe people should be called what they want to be called. But until they adopt a name, we have to have some handle to discuss them, and that’s the one the internet has been using for many years now.
Bonus point: Criticizing the friend’s use of “dumb” as ableist is, in SJW terms, derailing.
Will: Agree on all counts. I believe the accepted term among them is “social justice activists.” I speak under correction, of course.
Hmm. If they’re claiming that name, I have to amend my statement, because in their terms, they don’t get to appropriate the name of actual social justice activists, who believe in working with the poor and treating everyone with love and respect. The nice thing about “social justice warriors” is it’s ironic: real social justice workers are concerned with peace, not war.
You remind me of a comment I read last week, in which a poster referred to an action as being insane, and someone blew him out of the water with a long harangue against using ableist language. I doubt Mr. Shetterly’s idea that they’re defending the mute from discrimination is accurate; rather they believe any negative comment about a person’s intelligence means the speaker is dismissing the “victim” as inherently inferior. It took years, but I finally learned to laugh at such people by criticizing them whenever they compliment someone since if calling someone dumb is wrong because it belittles one person, calling someone smart is even worse because it suggests everyone else is dumb.
A comic strip I like occasionally interrupts itself with the cartoonist’s observations on modern life, and coincidentally today he wrote:
“There is no gift half so gratifying as the bestowal of a wrong – a slight, an injurious comment, the more footling the better. People may love their pets and adore their children (in that order), but they consecrate their lives to the glory of their grievances.” – Brooke McEldowney (“Pibgorn”)
Just think of the pleasure you’re giving people.
L., you may be right in some cases, but this was my first hit for “dumb ableism”: http://www.autistichoya.com/p/ableist-words-and-terms-to-avoid.html
Mr. Shetterly, the author of that article wraps his discussion on not using language meant to demean people with a list of acceptable negative words which includes “douchebag”, an insult only because women’s bodies are dirty by definition and thus any personal item we use is equally dirty. He also lists “asshat”, a homophobic slur. I could pick apart other of his acceptable alternatives to words he doesn’t like, but I’m neither particularly offended nor surprised by his hypocrisy.
I spent several years working at one of the largest airports in the country, and I talked to a lot of people. For some reason people seem to think traveling excuses them from polite behavior, and I would often ask them what they meant by saying “X”. Not one person ever said she was calling a gate agent/TSA/food worker dumb because she thought he couldn’t speak. They just thought was nicer than calling them stupid.
L., yeah, they can be as inconsistent as possible. My favorite example for the ones who shoehorn class into their model is “classy”, which in their view should be considered classist.
And don’t get me going on tourists. Well, except this: They’re spending money, so they expect special treatment, and they’re not in their community, so they feel even less accountable than usual.
And speaking of special treatment, please call me Will. I’m with the Quakers on being uncomfortable with titles.
“Douchecanoe”?? You learn something new every day. ;>)
I do not fully buy into many commonly used epithets as being some kind of “ist” or “ism”. You are giving people far too much credit. Of course you don’t want to insult the disadvantaged. But PC attacks the words (and the people using them) rather than solving problems.
Will, Not one person in 10 knows the real origins of many of these words today. They are certainly not thinking of the original meaning when they call somebody a douche-bag. They are not being sexist for example as they (at least guys) have no idea what a “douche-bag” really is or that it has anything to do with women. Is it still sexist when women use it? It is just a really interesting sounding negative thing to call somebody.
I have no idea why “asshat” is anything other than implying they have their head up their ass (or is that an ism too?). How can I insult people properly?
These things can be carried too far. We are dumbing down the language for PC. I would think writers would be against that?
Will, I didn’t mean to imply you were championing PC.
Is it OK to use “Poo-hat” (from my daughter)? She also called me a “dick-wad”, it took a moment to parse that and I almost fell out of my chair laughing. Not the effect she was going for.
“We are dumbing down the language for PC. I would think writers would be against that?”
While I think it’s bad on the larger levels, as a writer you could think of it as a challenge. How do you come up with good new insults?
Witty insults are good. Insults the other guy knows he doesn’t understand are maybe better. If he understands it hours later, he’s likely to feel even more insulted.
“You, sir, are a fencepost error.”
If he doesn’t understand the insult, you aren’t calling him stupid. You are doing something worse….
Of course it’s better not to insult people in the first place. Probably no good will come of it, beyond the immediate enjoyment which may easily cost more than it’s worth.
David, your daughter’s comment made me grin. Louis CK has an amusing bit about the meaning of “faggot” when he was a kid, and other forbidden words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NAUgCm-3Tc
J Thomas, yes. I love obtuse clever insults. Shakespeare did well with them.
Will, thanks for the link. He was very funny (to me, at least) and very not PC. But he did not “disrespect” the audience or the subject in his jokes. Maybe that is key.
L. Raymond: That’s lovely. Always delighted to give pleasure.
“And speaking of special treatment, please call me Will. I’m with the Quakers on being uncomfortable with titles”
We’ve neither met nor corresponded, so so that wouldn’t be appropriate, but I’ll refrain from addressing you as I have been.
And it is an interesting way to put the request. You’ve framed it as a moral point, a show of character: How could I be churlish enough to address you in a way that would disturb a Quaker? It’s pertinent here, because that is how many vocabulary police frame their point, as an argument from moral authority as it were. Obviously I know nothing about the person Mr. Brust mentioned aside from the complaint about ableist language, but I’d be willing bet she claimed to be speaking on behalf of the disabled and would react to any negative comment about her as though it were an attack on all disabled people. Nor would I be surprised if the ensuing discussion sidetracked the group so they never got around to deciding how to avoid/repair the original problem in the first place, or at least they couldn’t deal with it efficiently.
And to me, that’s the main problem with these people*. As was said above, they focus on how something is described to the exclusion of how it can be fixed, thus setting themselves up as the champions of whatever group is being humbled by the wrong words because it’s easier to talk than to do, and it makes them feel so important to defend the downtrodden that actually helping them is anti-climactic.
* This only applies to those who thrust their views onto others, like the poster I mentioned earlier or someone interrupting a discussion, and not to people who post articles and lists one can read or not as one chooses.
I am frankly baffled by this whole topic.
People start cursing when they reach a point they think the usual social rules must be set aside. For example when they are so upset by outrageous abuses that it seems absurd to be polite about it. Or when they intend outrageous abuse and want to show people that they will not be swayed by social norms.
So these people say “Don’t use these words because they are offensive” what could they possibly be thinking? People use the words precisely because they are offensive!
It’s like they’re announcing to the world “If you really want to get my goat, here’s how! Do the following things. This is how you can deeply offend me, assuming you want to offend me.”
It just seems self-defeating.
Oh well. If you want to offend me, offer me a kumquat. To be extra-offensive, make it a rutabaga. To show that you’re serious but not ready to go there quite yet, threaten to offer me a kumquat. I promise I will get upset.
L. Raymond, is there a title you like? I’ll happily use it. Obviously, I’m not a Quaker, but I can’t decide if rejecting a title is a moral point—I suppose it depends on whether you think everything has moral implications. I do think expecting the use of a title is a moral point, as you imply with your mention of “appropriate”.
I’m fond of this bit from an interview with Malcolm X:
MALCOLM X: I never accept the term “honorable.”
BASS: That’s a beautiful title.
MALCOLM X: Well, I’ll tell you. Most people I’ve seen really end up misusing it, and I’d rather just be your Brother Malcolm.
“I do think expecting the use of a title is a moral point”
This is almost always the heart of any disagreement about words used in public – the difference between manners and morals. The vocabulary police would say there is no difference. If I were to walk right into a wall then say, “Geez, I must be blind,” that one instance has nothing to do with whether or not I think blind people are inherently stupid, but there are those who’d say I did just display my True Feelings about how inferior blind people are. They are the ones who confound public behavior (manners) with private beliefs (morals).
There are people who try to impute morality to every public action; I call them tedious, others call them the politically correct. They live by their motto “Style Over Substance” – if they change the style, they feel they’ve changed the substance via some societal alchemy. The problem, of course, is that alchemy doesn’t do anything except reduce something useful to dross.
As for the use of honorifics, some people liken them to titles of nobility, with all the connotations of subservience that entails, others of us recognize them as simple designations of respect for use in public situations, just as we recognize it as arrogance when someone expects us to refer to them as family when they’re not. I’ll leave you to guess which view I hold.
I’m with you up to the last paragraph. There, I have to disagree. It’s only arrogant if someone insists. I’m content to be called Mister Shetterly or That Niggerlover or pretty much anything anyone prefers, and I’ll do my best to use their preference for them. But my preference continues to be Will.
L Raymond, I agree.
I would expect writers to put a lot of importance in words but they understand these are words. Some people seem to have a really hard time distinguishing the symbol for something (such as a word) and the actual thing. Or as you say, controlling the word is somehow supposed to control the actual problem (it doesn’t).
Supposedly ancient magicians (don’t know if this is true, but it is the tradition) thought you could control things if you knew their “true” name. Rowling had a good time with this. The problem is that we use symbols to remember and manipulate our thoughts as a shortcut (reduce the amount of brain-space).
The confusion has been taken beyond absurdity by schools where a kid drawing a picture of a gun is charged with the crime of bringing a gun to school.
I have friends with advanced degrees, who never force the honorific. They might use it when it serves a purpose (establish professional credibility) but not for bragging rights. Though one guy I worked with (MD) we called “Dr. Bob” because it was fun.
You know, I have great faith in my ability to insult people what want insulting. The English language is vast, old, flexible, and intricate. And I am cheerfully willing to avoid insults that are commonly used by schoolyard bullies because I understand how one can acquire flinches and triggers. Some words, which had serious, able-ist implications, like “dumb” really don’t, anymore, I feel quite comfortable using them. A word like “faggot” I am vastly not willing to use, or “gay” as a pejorative, because both of them are in current use to shame and hurt people for being who they are. I also don’t think that this a hill I want to die on. I’m vastly more interested in people behaving well than in speaking well.
“I’m with you up to the last paragraph. There, I have to disagree. It’s only arrogant if someone insists.”
I understand that. If I haven’t made it plain I’m not a fan of familiarity from strangers I’ve messed up, and it should not be a surprise to hear me confess to really, really disliking it when people want to be called Father, Sister or Brother just as a matter of routine, insistent or not. That was one interesting aspect of working at the airport – a ton of priests and monks of various sorts passed through, and the only one who was taken aback to be called “sir” rather than “father” or “brother” was some fire-and-brimstone evangelical, assuming the tract he tried to give me was from his church. No one else, and I include a Cardinal-Archbishop in this, cared.
“Supposedly ancient magicians (don’t know if this is true, but it is the tradition) thought you could control things if you knew their ‘true name.”
This is still in vogue in certain circles. There is a group of people who honestly believe that DAVID HAJICEK is a different person than David Hajicek, because the first is the name of a fictitious strawman owned by the government while the second is the natural man. These people tend to get hauled into court a lot, and they’ve actually used the defense that they were never served because the name on the summons was typed in all capital letters and thus referred to someone else. There is another group, a subset of the Moorish American movement, who have a similar idea about the colorable wardship name vs. having a corrected national name, but the latter must end in the right syllable or it doesn’t count. They have forms you can fill out and everything. It’s all very arcane.
“The confusion has been taken beyond absurdity by schools where a kid drawing a picture of a gun is charged with the crime of bringing a gun to school.”
That’s supposed to indicate the student’s state of mind, right? That’s one problem with politically correct people – they all think they’re expert psychoanalysts. They hear one word or phrase or see one scribble and they just know what you were really thinking when you said or drew it, and by god they are going to get you for that thought.