I have a problematic relationship with the concept of Political Correctness. Problematic because I rebel against the exclusion of certain words or ideas from the national conversation, and even more from literature and history, while at the same time recognizing that very often what we call something determines our relationship to that very thing.
So this week, when someone posted this link, I thought that perhaps I could offer a few thoughts of my own on the subject. I’m not here to argue with Ms. Cooper, and I’m certainly not here to take up for Mr. Chait. Between the two of them, I’m as much with Ms. Cooper as an old white lady who came of age in the 50’s can be.
To that end, I googled a site wherein Ms. Lenora Billings-Harris offers a few examples.
Ethnic origin, skin tone:
Race once referred to any ethnic group of people – we had the Italian race and the German race and this race and that race. The word is still with us and won’t go away any time soon – but it’s being replaced on forms with “ethnicity” – so maybe that will help, but I’m not sure what difference it will mean in the end. We will still have words for people who aren’t us, whoever us are.
Jew-down, half-breed, and wild Indians (as well as the unmentioned N-word) – we can do without those. Don’t take them out of old novels or histories – we need to know how some people once referred to other people – but they have no place in our current lexicon. Speaking of N-words, however, the word niggard, meaning stingy (and coming from an old Scandinavian word) will have to go the way of the dodo. Lots of perfectly good words have become archaisms for less cause, and I’m afraid that niggard will have to fall on its sword, a martyr to the cause. I’m not certain of the inherent difference between Oriental and Asian, but apparently those who comprise those categories do so I will take their word for it, so to speak.
Black sheep: I don’t know why black sheep is at the top of the list (it’s a site that purports to suggest hints for professional behavior, and I can’t recall hearing the term black sheep used around an office that much, but it’s been a while since I’ve actually been in one.) Ms. Billings-Harris suggests using “outcast.” Which, I suppose, works in most situations except that “outcast of the family” means something entirely different from “black sheep of the family.” She also includes the word blacklisted, for which she suggests that we substitute “banned.” Which also works in a great many cases, except when referring to things like the “Hollywood blacklist” of the 1950’s. Because I can’t think that the phrase “list of writers banned from work in Hollywood” carries the same impact as the phrase “Hollywood blacklist.” Which had nothing to do with being African American. If that phrase is still okay.
White lie: She suggests we just say “lie,” and then, oddly to my mind, continues with, Calling it white does not make it okay. As if “white” is universally considered “good” just as “black” (see above) is universally considered “bad.” But that doesn’t seem to be her concern. Her concern is that a lie is a lie is a lie. I disagree. I rebel against our language becoming entirely black and white. Wonder how long it would take us to think in terms of little grey lies?
Women should never be called girls and vice versa, although I will occasionally refer to some women, familiarly, as “my girl so-and-so” because to call them “my woman” takes it to a place I don't intend to go. “Little Women” belongs on a book cover, but no place else. As for the wife – I can see some gay couples taking it up with a degree of enthusiasm, just for the fun of it - and then there’s “The Good Wife.” It’s possible that the wife has a long history ahead for itself in irony (not ironing) and self-mockery. “She Who Must Be Obeyed” is permissible only when used as a self-referent. Acting blonde is something I do every waking moment, and occasionally I do something very smart. Blonde jokes can only be told by blondes. We know who and what we are. Assertive and bitchy are two different things. I like to think of bitchy as the female counterpart to asshole, which for some reason I associate with males. (Being a bitchy blonde means that I don’t even admit to having an asshole.) So I don’t have a problem with bitchy as long as it’s not confused with assertive.
Policeman, postman, chairman, manhole, manning the project – man-o-man. As more and more women take up policing, delivering the mail, assigning staff, sitting in the big chair (which is where the concept of chairman came from in the first place – the head guy sat in the biggest chair – sometimes the only chair), and slithering into holes in the ground to fix stuff, genderless words will likely enter the language on a regular basis. I regularly refer to the device on which I listen to lectures from The Learning Company during my daily walks as my walkperson, but since those are going out of style anyway, I don’t suppose it will catch on. As for guys, I could almost see that word becoming completely androgynous, maybe because my ear likes the sound of, “Hey, you guys,” better than “Hey, group.” Maybe it’s just me.
Mental and Physical Capacity:
Retarded can resume its place as a word meaning slowed down or held back in regard to a project of some kind, and lose its place as a referent to a human being. However, I don’t quite understand the difference between handicapped and disabled or even challenged. I suppose someone can enlighten me. Wheel-chair bound is worse than being a person who uses a wheel-chair how?
Gifted and uneducated shouldn’t be generalized terms. I am, on good days, a gifted writer, but there are a lot of things in which I am not gifted. In some things, I’m actually uneducated, college degree notwithstanding. I don’t think my friend Jack ever finished “Dick and Jane,” but he can install a boat engine and salmon fishing apparatus and I can’t. Ms. Billings-Harris objects to No culture (when referring to parts of the U.S. where the opera and the theater are scarce or nonexistent) and wants to replace it with lacking European culture. I disagree with the replacement, since I wouldn’t want to conflate “theatre” with “European culture.” And don’t forget the Grand Ol’ Opry. If referring to someplace that lacks access to a specific kind of social cultural experience, perhaps one can simply say that these are folks who likely never heard of Eugene O’Neil or August Wilson, or never had a chance to see the ballet, since most places have one kind of social cultural experience or another.
Hmmm…what is left on Ms. Billings-Harris’ list?
Old people – As an official old person, I have less of a problem with that than with senior. Senior makes me feel like somebody’s father, and sounds like a euphemism for old people. In one of my traditions, we use the word crone, which would likely be anathema for the Politically Correct, but I’m fine with it. As an old crone, I can do that.
Going postal – oh, please. Even postal workers know what it means to go postal and probably use it among themselves. Perhaps one shouldn’t use it when there’s an actual postal worker in the room, but at least it’s got acting like a wild Indian beat all to hell.
Flip chart? Say easel instead? Easels are stands that can hold several kinds of things, among them flip charts. I’d never heard of this in reference to Filipinos before. I suppose we could start turning everything over – but wait. What about pancakes? What about flip-flops? No. Flip has some dandy synonyms – chuck, flick, jerk, pitch, snap, spin, toss and twist – but none of them describe the precise action that flip does. It’s a good word. I hope the Filipinos feel the same way about it.
Bottom line for me is: what does a certain word say about the object to which it refers? What is the image that comes with it? If you consistently use a racial slur of some kind to refer to another person, how do you picture the one to whom you refer? If you call your co-worker a girl, do you respect her opinion as much as you would if you called her a woman? How different is your reaction to someone you think of as a retard as opposed to someone who is disabled in some way. Which one do you want to help? You might not think that using different words will change your attitude, but I bet there is research somewhere which proves that it does. Think about the old glass half-empty, half full adage. See how calling it one or the other changes the way in which you see the glass.
And don’t get your panties in a bunch if certain groups of people make a practice of referring to themselves with words that you can’t use. You aren’t one of them. You haven’t earned the right.