People who use it should be required to say what they mean. For instance, “It’s a free country and a) I can say what I like, b) I can show my prejudices if it suits me, c) I don’t have to grant any respect to people different from me, and d) I don’t believe in being nicey-nice about it.” If that’s not what they mean, they need to say so and explain.
For help, I direct anyone with internet access to wikipedia to discover the history of “political correctness.” Currently it takes over 4,000 words there to describe where the term came from and the many different ways it has been used over the last century.
Some may be surprised to know that it began as an epithet used by Socialists to characterize Communists who rigidly adhered to “correct” interpretations of the Party line. Later in the 20th century the term got new life by critics of attempts to banish the language of prejudice from public discourse. The theory behind this effort was that language itself can be used to perpetuate unfair forms of discrimination. In a country founded on the belief that all are created equal, that seems a worthwhile goal.
As an example, substituting the word “disabled” for “crippled” helped draw awareness to unfair discrimination against men and women in wheelchairs. It reminded Americans that the 14th Amendment applies to all persons, not just those who can step onto curbs and climb stairs to get to a job or access public services. Here in the U.S. it helped lead to the Disabilities Act of 1990. Tell me that’s a bad thing.
But in any reform movement—and not at the same time for all people—enough change becomes too much. As other groups of Americans began calling attention to social and economic disadvantages, their efforts gave rise to the idea of multiculturalism. This is the belief that American culture is not a melting pot that dissolves away all differences. It’s more like a salad of different ingredients, each worth preserving and savoring.
Social programs and government policies based on this idea met a wave of resistance, and the term “politically correct” was reborn. This time, instead of coming from advocates of socialism, it came from the Right of the political spectrum. So when a writer warns me that he or she is being politically incorrect, I want to know what exactly they mean. There is a world of possibilities, not all of them easily justifiable.
In my own case, as I write about popular western fiction of a century ago, I am dealing with novels that consistently use racist talk. Rather than sidestepping it as an embarrassing feature of them, I’ve made a point of taking a good look at it. That language is a record of how Americans perceived and understood race and ethnicity back then. It reveals a lot about our cultural history and how we got where we are today.
So I’ve included it as I write about the subject: uses of “darkie,” “greaser,” “redskin,” and so on. Note the quotation marks around each. I want readers to know I’m quoting from the authors and their characters, so there’ll be no mistake about whose words they are. I do the same for “half-breed,” “breed,” “squaw,” and “squaw man.”
But for the sake of full disclosure, I need to add that I often use the word “Indian” instead of “Native American.” My reasons for that are simple. In everyday use most Indians seem to prefer the term “Indian,” and “Native American” is a term that has been bestowed on them by nonIndians. I use “Native American” sometimes when an honorific seems in order. But I don’t put either term in quote marks. For more on this, go to Troy Smith's discussion of Indian and tribal nomenclature.
For similar reasons I use both “black” and “African American.” I remain open to debate, but having lived my formative years when “Black Power” and “Black Pride” were used respectfully, I continue to assume that “black” is not insulting or discriminatory for most African Americans. For whites, I do just that, use the word with no quotes. I don’t raise a fuss about “Caucasian,” but it seems awkward and a misnomer. I’m not from the Caucasus, and I don’t think I know anybody who is.
As for other self-identified groups in our big country, I try to be respectful, not because it’s politically correct to do so but because it’s courteous. There is always room for differences of opinion, and using unbiased language leaves open the doors for discussion, argument, and debate.
Bias immediately closes them, as when someone refers to Second Amendment advocates as “gun nuts.” That kind of talk is not going to get anyone anywhere. It just ramps up the rhetoric to where everybody’s shouting and nobody’s listening. As I often want to say to some folks, “a little courtesy won’t kill you.”
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: John Reese, The Wild One