Teaching Moments

Politically Correct or Simple Respect?

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Today in my class, we were discussing euphemisms and doublespeak.  One of my students raised his hand and asked if political correctness was a form of euphemism or doublespeak.  I quickly started to answer no and then rethought that response and asked him to define what he meant my “political correctness” as I felt that there were a number of different ideas about that phrase.  He provided the following definition:

It is a change in language based on some perceived social injustice that is forced on others.

I probed a bit further, asking him who the social injustice was “perceived” by.  He explained that it would be the person or people demanding the change in language.  I asked if that perception was “wrong” in his view.  He stopped to think about it and said, “well, I just think they are overclaimed.” I nicely asked again, “but, do you think the people perceiving it that way are wrong?” He thought about it and said he didn’t know.  I told him that because of that, I think of political correctness, not as a euphemism where I’m trying to make something sound “nicer,” but not really changing the underlying thing, but as a form of respect for others.  In their view, there is a social injustice perpetrated on them through the use of that language and we should respect that viewpoint, even if we challenge the reality of the effects of that language use.  I asked if I were an African American and requested he and others not use the N-word around me if that was political correctness.  He hesitated.  I said, “don’t you think it is politically incorrect to use that word?” and he said, “yes.” and I said something like, “but you would respect that request because YOU agree that the word is not acceptable.  So, the question is not whether some language is offensive, but whether it is offensive to YOU.  So, I always think it is better to err on the side of respecting what others find offensive because I realize I experience social injustice differently than others.”  I did say that I thought that outright “forcing” people to change their language is not acceptable, as I am not one for censorship.  We also spoke about whether “shaming” is a form of “force” or “coercion,” to which I said that I did not think they were the same because you would be making the decision based on social norms and expectations in the case of shame, and that is still YOU making the decision to change your language.

I’ve thought a lot about the idea of political correctness.  I have a hard time not using the term “guys” and I have been corrected by feminists in the past for using it to reference mixed groups or groups of females.  I sometimes struggle with using non-gendered terms to refer to what appears to be gendered individuals.  I am not perfect.  But, I do not think that the individuals asking me to change my language are “forcing” me into anything.  I do not judge people for using language that is not politically correct, but I do judge people for “fighting for the right to be politically incorrect”.  I think of that as basically saying, “I am fighting for the right to offend others and show them disrespect without any societal repercussions.”  That is ridiculous.  You have the right to be offensive.  Others have the right to tell you that you’re offensive and react to that offense.  Many times those ridiculing political correctness are the first to say that they should not have to listen to messages or see things that go against their beliefs or “offend” them. And often, they will tie those wishes to legal demands, which goes far beyond the societal guilt and shame that is attached to political correctness.

I thought this was an interesting discussion and hopefully one that helped to open some different lines of reasoning in not only this student’s mind but others as well.  I hope that this post does the same.