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.