You Can’t Say That

Words_ViaMichelleTribePolitical correctness is one of those things that conservatives love to hate. Understandably; there are few areas where people can indulge in righteous disdain and still maintain broad support (instead of just looking like jerks). And why not? There aren’t many people, I think, who enjoy being on the receiving end of the language police. It’s understandably infuriating to be told that you said whatever you said the wrong way, even though your meaning was obviously clear.

Liberals tend to dislike the label “political correctness.” But that doesn’t stop them from patrolling the boundaries of acceptable language and bending over backwards to avoid including offensive words in everyday life. And why not? There are histories of oppression baked into our language, just as they are baked into every other part of our society. Language often contains fossilized prejudice, and we do well to root it out.

Where these two views conflict, I think, is in their understanding of what we’re supposed to be fixing. For liberals, changing language isn’t the ostensible goal—it’s a marker for change in attitudes. But for conservatives, the narrative of political correctness is the opposite—that changing language is just about framing your attitude in a different way.

From the perspective of conservatives, where changing language is just about repackaging your original meaning, the whole idea of political correctness seems like a waste of time. It’s just over-sensitive left-wing gatekeepers constantly telling you to say things differently. What a waste of your time! No wonder so many people are enjoying Donald Trump’s refreshingly open racism, sexism, prejudice, science denial, lying, and general blowhardiness.

But of course that’s missing the point. The idea behind changing language, and the liberal impetus to do so, is that you actually should stop being racist, sexist, and prejudiced. Changing your language isn’t about hiding those things, it’s about showing that you no longer think them. So liberals are equally irritated by the conservative war on political correctness, which looks to them like a full-throated defense of racist, sexist, prejudicial ideas.

Even when it isn’t—because that disconnect in purpose, I think, means there are a lot of people on the conservative side of this issue who aren’t actually attached to racism, sexism, or prejudice. They simply fail to see the connection to their language. And the narrative on their side of the aisle, about weak, thin-skinned liberals, does nothing to show them otherwise.

To make things more complicated, liberals don’t always understand their own ostensible goal in changing language. The ideal is that your language reflects your views, and that you change your views in the direction of tolerance and justice. But that’s hard. It’s much easier to conflate your views with your language, and to police that language as if it were the same as belief, both inside and outside your communities.

Let me provide an example: suppose you are talking to someone in the food line and you hear them say something like “wow, you really got gypped on fries.” What’s the appropriate response? To presume the speaker is prejudiced against Romani people? Possible in Europe; in the U.S., it’s more likely that they just don’t know the etymology of “gypped” and its history as a cultural slur against gypsies. It quickly becomes clear that righteous condemnation of the speaker is probably both a ridiculous over-reaction, since the speaker likely doesn’t actually hold the prejudicial view in question, and counterproductive, since it misses the opportunity to educate. Wouldn’t the more reasonable response be something like “I totally did! But hey, do you know the history of that word? Thing is, ‘gypped’ started out as a cultural slur, so I prefer not to use it.”

Probably the only person who could reasonably react with outrage in this example is someone of Romani heritage—the rest of us would be better off educating rather than accusing. Which seems obvious in this case, which is why I used it.

What if we took the educational approach with racist language, sexist language, and other prejudicial terms? What if we stopped treating non-offensive language as a marker of in-group identity, and started treating it as a collective goal? What if, in short, we stopped being offended by language and just started working to change it?

Yet many liberals don’t seem to internalize this view—as I said, I think we conflate language and prejudice and judge the two equally, instead of taking the measure of moment and assuming the best of the speaker.

And let me be clear, that would still uncover prejudice. If you start a conversation about a term instead of attacking the person who used it, you quickly discover whether they intended it. If they didn’t, you may have just prevented them from making the same mistake in the future. If they did, now you have something real to talk about—not the language they used, but the actual view they hold.

So at the end of it, I think the conservative war on political correctness is a little bit justified. The narrative about thin-skinned wimps who just don’t want to be offended is bullshit—but the practice of well-intentioned liberals is actually a lot more like language police and a lot less like changing minds. That’s on us.

Language is important, but to me, the prejudice should be the focus. Language is just the visible marker of that prejudice. If we take off all the pointy edges on the marker, we can convince ourselves we’ve done away with the idea, and a lot of people seem to do that.

Sure, I get it. It feels like progress.

But all we’ve really done is agreed not to talk about it.


Image Credit: Michelle Tribe

One comment on “You Can’t Say That

  1. venice967 says:

    I think you will find that with a deep-seated heart change, the language will take care of itself. Conservatives resent being told how to speak and the liberals are fed up with brazen racist speech. Both sides have valid issues. But changing surface language does not convict the heart of prejudice and racial hatred.That has to come with honest introspection and grace.


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