I don’t mean to piss you off, with things I might say
But when I try to shut my mouth, they come out anyway.
And if you spoke your mind, you might feel more connected ...
Until you stand politically corrected.
—SR-71, “Politically Correct,” Now You See Inside
I’m not sure why, but I distinctly remember the first time I ever heard the term “politically correct.” I was a freshman in college, just barely 18. I was not a political creature; I barely understood the difference between “conservative” and “liberal,” and certainly wasn’t perceptive enough to understand that my new roommate was one and I was the other. When this guy starting saying bad things about people who were “politically correct,” I had to stop him and ask what the hell that even was.
He tried to explain it to me, but, honestly, he wasn’t that much brighter than I was, politically speaking. All I could get out of him was that it was definitely bad. It didn’t sound bad, from the way he vaguely described it, but I should take his word for it. I barely knew this guy, but I knew enough not to do that.
So I looked it up. And basically what I found was the following definition, which has stuck with me forevermore: “politically correct” means that you agree to refer to people in the way that they refer to themselves. So, for instance, women don’t generally refer to themselves as bitches and ho’s. So, you know, it’s not polite for you to refer to them that way either.
Such a simple definition. The great thing about it is, how can you possibly argue against that? It’s one of those things that seems so obviously a great idea that it sort of boggles your mind when you find out that, in reality, it isn’t. Sort of like communism, or labor unions, or the free market: it seems like an idea almost too good to be true ... which it is. Implementation is the sticking point. The devil is in the details.
Let’s take the term “African American.” This seems basic enough. Before this term came along, the acceptable term was “black,” so let’s look at it from that point of view. You know a lot of “black” people, and you call them “black” people. But then one day you find out that they actually refer to themselves as “African Americans.” So, simple enough: now you refer to them as “African Americans” too.
But there’s a problem here. Let’s take me as an example. I’m not black. But I have (and/or have had in the past) black friends, black rommates, black schoolmates, black teachers, black co-workers, black employees, black sexual partners, and even—depending on how liberal you’re willing to be with the definiton of “in-laws”—black family members. I have on many occasions been the only white person in the room, at parties, in bars, and at family reunions. I’ve known black people of every age, every economic status, and all four combinations of gender and sexual preference. I don’t tell you this to impress you with how open-minded I am. I merely point it out to give the following statement more weight: I have never heard a single black person who wasn’t on television refer to themselves as “African-American.” All these people I’ve known, many of whom I consider my friends and at least one of whom I consider one of my best friends in the world, refer to themselves as “black.” And so I refer to them as “black” as well.
I could have a similar discussion about gay people I know as well.
So, the question is, am I being politically incorrect if I refer to “black” people or “gay” people? This is how they refer to themselves—and not just how they refer to themselves among themselves, but how they refer to themselves to me, someone who is not black, or gay, someone who is essentially an outsider, no matter how much I’d like to believe that we’re all comfortable around each other. So it seems to me that I’m actually fulfilling the rules of political correctness. Although I confess that I often have a twinge of worry when I use those terms in front of other people. They, after all, haven’t had the benefit of reading this post. They don’t know that I have perfectly rational reasons for using the terms. They, perhaps, think that I use those terms out of ignorance, or, worse: prejudice. You know what’s really strange? I am never uncomfortable talking about “black” people to black people. Only to white people. I have even, upon rare occasion, let the term “African-American” pass my lips, even though I don’t really believe in it. (And I’m sure I’ve said “homosexual” rather than “gay” to dozens of straight people.) And then, of course, I feel guilty for saying that, because I feel somehow I’ve compromised my principles.
But mainly I don’t worry about it. ‘Cause, you know what? All this boils down to one thing: people getting offended on behalf of other people. I don’t need to worry about black people being offended by my language: they’re all comfortable with the terms I use (or at least they all have been in my experience). No, I’m for some insane reason worried about white people getting offended for black people. What the fuck is that?? How in the hell does that even make sense? Are we so full of ourselves that we think we can be responsible for other people’s reactions to words? Do we feel they’re not capable of knowing when to be offended on their own, so we need to step in and do it for them? ‘Cause let’s think about it rationally for a minute: what’s more likely? That a black person will be offended because I referred to them as “black,” or that a black person will be offended because you decided they were too stupid to know when to be offended for themselves? Somehow I don’t think they’re going to appreciate you stepping in and taking care of that for them.
Occasionally you have friends who do that too: get offended on behalf of your other friends. Has that ever happened to you? “You know, I don’t think you should have said that in front of her ... I mean, I know you didn’t mean it that way, but I’m sure she was very upset by it.” Except that you’ve spoken to “her,” and she doesn’t seem upset at all. So now you’re wandering around trying to figure out if your one friend is mad at you but pretending not to be, or your other friend is just a lunatic. What is this, an episode of Seinfeld? How about if we all just talk to each other, and let each other know if we’re mad or not, and leave other people out of it.
Because I think there’s something wrong with this attitude. It’s altruism run rampant. It’s being so anxious to prove what a good person you are that you need to rush in and demonstrate your sensitivity. It’s trying to weasel out of admitting that you actually were offended by shifting the offendedness to someone else. It is, to use a phrase a friend of mine is fond of, intellectually dishonest.
Kurt Anderson, the host of NPR’s Studio 360, once said:
Americans used to be famously plainspoken. But we’ve gotten into a bad habit in this country of defaulting to euphemism, reflexively replacing any word that somebody might find disagreeable with a word that is sure to upset nobody.
Always resorting to euphemism is a bad habit, a way of infantilizing the culture by artificially sweetening the language. Euphemisms are lies—maybe white lies, nice lies, polite lies ... but still, not the plain truth.
In other words, the impulse to euphemize amounts to a kind of infectious Orwellian new-speak—censorship lite. And euphemism becomes so entrenched so quickly we don’t realize our language is being switched on us in a million tiny, everyday ways.
And there’s the real problem: defaulting to euphemism. Not even watiting to find out if anyone will be offended ... just assuming that of course someone will be, and changing the original words before they’re ever even uttered. Because there are folks out there fighting to keep other people from censoring you. But only you can prevent self-censorship.