One of the great controversies swirling in the ether of American politics these days is the concept of political correctness.
On the left, SJWs (social justice warriors) are pushing hard for a change in how we speak, citing the use racial and gender based epithets, slurs, micro-aggressions, etc.
On the right it’s people who are clearly not victims claiming victimhood—as if telling white people they shouldn’t say the n-word is a terrible form of oppression. Let’s all take a moment for a collective eye roll.
To be fair, however, both sides DO have valid points.
Liberals are right to note that language matters; how we speak and what we say is at the root of how we interpret our world. If I grow up around people who say nasty things about small dogs (my grandfather had a rule that anything as small or smaller than a cat = cat) all the time, it’s likely I’ll grow up thinking that this is the way we talk about small dogs and that will likely transfer to some degree into how I treat them.
Honestly, not a huge fan of small dogs–although I suppose there are always exceptions.
On the other hand, don’t we have enough to worry about these days without censoring ourselves constantly? And isn’t it a little scary to live in a society where you can lose your job because you slipped up and said something insensitive? I mean, hell, maybe it wasn’t even what you meant to say or it just came out wrong. Last I checked, not one of us is perfect #originalsin—and I don’t care if you don’t believe in the concept, it still applies to you, sorry ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The key then is: context, intent, time, and place.
Context (time and place are part of this) should be pretty obvious–there’s a clear difference between a private conversation and a political rally (Donald Trump obviously doesn’t understand this).
And then there’s intent–what we actually mean–which can differ from the words that actually come out of our mouth. Like, when Rosie O’Donnell decided to do a photo shoot dressed as Hitler baking little human figures, her intent was to be offensive–she knew exactly what she was doing, and the consequences are hers to reap as far as I’m concerned. By the way, it’s not censorship to pull the show of someone who’s done something horrifically anti-semetic–it’s called a savvy business decision.
However, when a student remarks that something is “gay,” they very rarely actually mean anything derogatory toward people who are gay. It’s still not a good thing to say, and I always take the time to point out that they should say what they mean, because if someone who was gay heard them say that it would obviously be offensive. But it doesn’t make the kid a terrible person either.
It’s like this morning when someone on Facebook went on a rant about people who are on the ketogenic diet (as I am) being members of a cult. I could have taken offense–but I didn’t because the comment wasn’t directed at me, and even if it was, I know the individual likes me and thinks I’m a good person and didn’t mean anything by it.
Which is why I ultimately reject the notion of political correctness.
For one, it’s not accurate. Speech is not political by its nature: it’s social. We speak to communicate with others, whether it’s to tell a joke or a story, teach a lesson, get directions, explain something, ask a favor, etc.—and the meaning, I would argue, is most often not political.
But more importantly, who is to say what’s correct? You can’t find any two people in the world who agree 100% on what that is or means in every context–unless they’re twins, maybe? But probably not even then.
So again, what we say comes down to context, intent, time, and place.
For example, in a recent manchild podcast I used the term chicks meaning women. To be fair it was a slip–I know that’s not a good way to refer to women and I never do (almost). But given the colloquial nature of the platform, the fact I swear frequently and am speaking in an informal way off the cuff (I didn’t realize it until I was listening myself), my guess is very few listeners were offended. A lot of them probably didn’t even notice.
If you were: my sincerest apologies. But the point is that mistakes are sometimes going to happen when we speak or write…
BECAUSE WE’RE NOT PERFECT.
You see, I can’t go into my brain and remove that term and meaning from my register of vocabulary. I can know it’s not a great thing to say (when I hear students say this I suggest using another term instead), but if it comes out when I’m speaking colloquially—especially about dating, a context in which we all tend to get a little more sexy and a tad more salty (I sometimes refer to men as bastards, which isn’t technically great for several reasons)—well… shit. I’m sorry.
But here’s the thing: when I use the term chicks to describe women or bastards to describe men on a manchild podcast, I don’t mean it as an aspersion to either sex/gender, nor do I mean any affront to children who don’t have fathers, and that’s pretty clear.
Context, intent, time, and place.
A perfect example is the use of the n-word by African Americans.
Sometimes I hear white people object, saying either, “then why can’t I say it?” or “it’s a terrible word–no one should say it.” But what I’d say is that the n-word, by its nature, is never a good thing for a white person to say, because the context, intent, time, and place in which that word was used was hundreds of years of black slavery–a horrifying racist legacy that exists to this day.
On the flip side, when a black person says the n-word it’s clearly outside that context, intent, time, and place.
Anyway, while I agree that we should speak with intent, accuracy, and kindness and be cognizant of the message our language sends to others, whether or not I offend someone is only partially up to me—it’s up to the person who hears me: what mood their in, past experiences, potentially including trauma, etc. But there’s no way I can know all of that about every single person who crosses my path. I mean, people regularly take what I say out of context and/or read their own personal experiences into my writing and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.
Clearly it’s a risk I’m willing to take. I know some people aren’t going to agree with me and that some of them will go a step further and dislike me or infer I’m some sort of a bad actor, but IDGAF.
Indeed, it seems impossible these days to say anything truly worthwhile or interesting or valuable and please everyone, and that’s the root of why I reject enforcing political correctness as a valid enterprise. Because we have more to gain by speaking freely, even at the risk of offending someone, than we do by shutting down in fear.
And on that point, can we all grow up a little and stop being so sensitive about everything all the time? I’ve basically stopped posting stuff on Facebook because it’s so often taken out of context—it’s like, instead of taking a remark at face value, we have to analyze and scrutinize and argue with everything, even trivial memes or GIFs. It feels like nothing can just be observed and agreed upon.
Then there’s the opposite: the person who never posts anything controversial on social media, or likes, comments, or reacts to any post for fear of that taking the slightest stand on anything will be perceived in a negative light. Instead it’s all dog, house, food, and kid pics, a particular scourge of the people I grew up with: privileged white yuppies who grew up in the suburbs. Yes, most everyone likes beer and tacos and pizza, but I still have not one fucking clue who you are or what makes you tick or what you really care about?
And while I understand that fear, I wince at the cowardice it’s produced in our society.
Which brings me to my final point: we’re better IRL. When talking with friends, family, or coworkers face to face, people understand what we say and rarely take it out of context, because our meaning is more clear—and because being the argumentative contrarians people become online is socially un-calibrated, if not just straight-up rude face to face. Plus, people open up IRL in ways they’ll rarely do online: we can see who someone actually is—in some cases, we can feel it.
For those who read my manchild posts, there’s no place this is more true than in the world of dating. Online, people become the most shallow, capricious, absurd version of themselves, and frankly, if I had to rely on SOD to have a dating life I’d give up on women and go fishing a hell of a lot more often. Luckily I’ve learned to meet them IRL, and this has made a tremendous difference in the quality and quantity of the women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
We’re better IRL—it’s the theme of this blog, and I hope something we remember, especially before we attempt to police the speech of others.
Context, intent, time, and place.
That said: fuck political correctness.