Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Political correctness

Recently I picked up a historical novel that came with a warning from the author. I was told that if I held to any form of political correctness I would be offended. And it made me wish again that the term “political correctness” were abolished. It has become so over-used it doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s not even a bumper sticker.

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


  1. Amen. I agree wholeheartedly. I do think at times, people can be a bit oversensitive.But the need for people to pay attention to the meaning behind their words is clear. I teach at what is primarily an African American school. We use black and white freely in our classes. I'm a little hesitant about "Indian," but I don't really see it as insulting. I just want to respect people's feelings.

  2. Political correctness gone wild can be seen by a recent reprinting of a famous Joseph Conrad novel, under the title, THE N-WORD OF THE NARCISSUS. Copies are available at

  3. An incredibly reasoned approach. Gee, I wish I would have written this myself. I do find it odd that it takes 4,000 words to define PC. Thanks, Ron. Great post.

  4. I agree, Ron. Bottom line is respect. Often it's the way some words are used, and their context, rather than their descriptive message. Nigger is a colour in the paint palette, historically. PC people trying to alter history has to be Orwellian and totally wrong. As for Conrad, in UK Amazon -

  5. Nice, Ron. My husband thinks the Stalinists actually used it before the Socialists to indicate that people were politically correct in following the Stalinist line or incorrect if you were not. For instance when the Soviets signed the non-aggression pact with the Nazis the politically correct thing was to support it. Politically incorrect was to criticize it.
    From there Norman Thomas and the Socialists picked it up.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Patti. So it started out without the pejorative connotation. It might well be used today to describe unbending adherents to any party line--such as we find today in the U.S. Congress.

  6. Well said. When I do historic recreations of people from an era, although uncomfortable, I use the language they used. I feel that to do otherwise is a dis-service to who they were and their time. In most cases it was not used as an intentional put down, but simply part of the language of the time. The way they thought and saw the world. When I take questions after and out of character my goal is always to be respectful of people. You cannot live any other way. I applaud your post and thank you.

  7. I'll be bookmarking this post, as this issue has come up a lot recently on some sites I've visited that contain discussions of social and political issues. I see "PC" used by people who want to say disrespectful or insulting things but at the same time don't want to be called out on it or have their statements debated; so "PC" becomes a knee-jerk insult they fling at other people to shut down the discussion or to not have to think about what they've said (on the flipside, I've also seen people call another person a "bigot" to shut down what could have been an interesting discussion). To me, "PC" is now mostly a word used reflexively and unthinkingly.

    I agree overall that the bottom line is you have to treat people with respect and try to put yourself in their shoes and think of how they would perceive things. There are things I read in literature that make me cringe deeply (including personal issues touching on Jews and on women), but I wouldn't have those things written over or whitewashed. That's the way the world was, profoundly beautiful in some ways, deeply deeply ugly in others, and how else can we understand it if we choose not to confront it and think about it?

  8. Ron, thank you for an excellent post and the various examples of political correctness in America. Here, in India, it's very important to be politically correct at least publicly because you never know when you might invite trouble and from where. Often, a harmless or innocuous remark about a particular class of people is twisted out of context usually for cheap political gain, often leading to needless public uproar. PC is a serious issue in a class and caste conscious country like India.

  9. Very well said. I try to avoid language that I know is offensive to some of my readers. But not if it interferes with the story I'm telling.

  10. Excellent argument. I also dislike the term. Language, colorful or otherwise, brings out human emotions for good or bad. The term "political correctness" suggests taking that important emotion out - and making everyone 'toe the line.' We're not sheep. Thank goodness.

  11. Excellent and greatly appreciated.

  12. I have found that so often, what some people sneer at as "political correctness" is what our grandparents would have called common courtesy.

  13. Political Correctness is basically censorship. Free speech is absolute. You can't have free speech as long as we like what you say. Great post.

  14. Great post, Ron. Whenever someone refers with a sneer to "political correctness" I find it is an indication of vast ignorance on their part. I despise it.

    I tend to roll my eyes at "Native American" though. I much prefer Indian, and that is how I self-identify.

  15. Nicely reasoned post, Ron. I only know a handful of "Native Americans" and found they never seemed to resent the word Indian in conversations. I have a black friend who hates the N word(I've never been able to use it talking with anyone) and he despises it's use among fellow blacks, believing it demeaning even there.

    And the use in historical fiction(as in older works) should be left alone. I think most people can grasp, or should, that it was the way back then. As you state, we can get a look at people back then that otherwise we could never know.

    Enjoyed your post.

  16. "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."

    You might not be startled how often I run into snotty ignorant denial or, nearly as often, complete befuddlement when I note this to those who love to throw the P/C insult around.