January 1, 2008

“—Also, Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian American, please.”

Posted in Conservatives, Language, Musings at 9:46 pm by The Lizard Queen

I’m getting to the point where I almost fear for the next person who uses the phrase “politically correct” in front of me. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot since November, when it came to light that Santa Clauses in Australia were being told to say “ha ha ha” instead of “ho ho ho,” ostensibly because someone had decided that the latter was degrading to women. This, of course, was like a beautifully wrapped present to Fox News (I’m not linking, but their story comes up first if you do a Google search for ho ho ho), who jumped on the story as an example of political correctness run amok.

Here’s the thing, though: the story wasn’t true. It wasn’t hard to guess at the truth, considering that I’ve never met a single person who thinks Santa is using a slang term for prostitute, but, again, it was exactly the sort of story Fox News et al wanted to hear.

At close to the same time, there was an argument over at Evil Bender’s place about race as a biological category (as opposed to a social contruct), which came about not too long after James Watson’s offensive comments about Africa’s prospects. Those were both situations in which the politically insensitive/incorrect — politically correct binary came into play. People who objected to what James Watson said were characterized as being overly concerned with political correctness, which is to say that we didn’t really disagree with what James Watson said, but just with how he said it, or with the fact that he’d said it at all. As if we progressives are perfectly okay with racist ideas as long as you don’t express them out loud. But of course, I’ve read Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (and couldn’t recommend it more highly), so the reason I object to what James Watson said was because I disagree, not because I think he should have phrased it in a nicer way.

A section in the Wikipedia entry on political correctness sums up my feelings/suspicions nicely:

Some commentators argue that the term “political correctness” was engineered by American conservatives around 1980 as a way to reframe political arguments in the United States. According to Hutton:

“Political correctness is one of the brilliant tools that the American Right developed in the mid-1980s as part of its demolition of American liberalism….What the sharpest thinkers on the American Right saw quickly was that by declaring war on the cultural manifestations of liberalism – by levelling the charge of political correctness against its exponents – they could discredit the whole political project.”[34]

Such commentators say that there never was a “Political Correctness movement” in the United States, and that many who use the term are attempting to distract attention from substantive debates over discrimination and unequal treatment based on race, class, and gender (Messer-Davidow 1993, 1994; Schultz 1993; Lauter 1995; Scatamburlo 1998; Glassner 1999). Similarly, Polly Toynbee has argued that “the phrase is an empty rightwing smear designed only to elevate its user”.[35]

As another example, take the title of this post, which is a line from The Big Lebowski.  The term Asian American is generally preferred over words like “Chinaman” because a) the former is generally more accurate, and b) the latter is racist, or at the very least has racist connotations.  So, progressives like me — if I may make a sweeping generalization — tend to prefer to use terms that both are accurate and won’t offend the people to whom they correspond.  As far as I’m concerned, as long as a person doesn’t mind offending someone else (and that would be a legitimate offense, as opposed to the sort of offense that triggers the “do you snigger at me, sirrah?” reaction that certain parties I’ll mostly leave unnamed often put out there), then they’re certainly free to use whatever term they wish.

Oho, but there’s the rub.  Far too many people out there want to be able to use offensive terms freely without having to face the consequences of people being offended.  Example: Ann Coulter referring (somewhat obliquely, if I’m being generous, but still) to John Edwards as a “faggot.”  She was appalled that people were offended:

Coulter called the whole controversy another example of the mainstream media’s “speech totalitarianism” and says she sees no reason to apologize for a joking comment that was taken out of context.

I feel like the idea of “speech totalitarianism” is merely an extension of “political correctness,” first of all.  Secondly, I’m not sure I see how there could be a context in which her comment wouldn’t be offensive:

I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I — so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.

But maybe progressives like me* can find a compromise with the sorts of conservatives who whine about having to be PC all the time.  You may reserve the right to use all the antiquated, inaccurate, and/or potentially offensive terms you like, provided I may reserve the right to call you a motherfucking bigot.

*a vituperative, foul-mouthed blogger on the left, natch.

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13 Comments »

  1. whatsername said,

    Yah I have to completely agree with your sentiment here. Political correctness is only ever brought up to basically say “you’re being too nice, you don’t really think that, you’re just as racist/sexist/generally bigotted as the rest of us” and totally dismiss whatever point you were making.

    It’s annoying, at best.

  2. Evil Bender said,

    Well said, LQ. The entire anti “political correctness” movement is predicated on the idea that calling out bigotry is somehow totalitarian. What Watson said, for example, was bad science, bad politics, unsupported, stupid and bigoted. Yet the same people who were crying “PC police” were also defending Watson as non-racist.

    Interesting how silencing viewpoints is always attributed to “being PC” while somehow straight white males aren’t being told to keep silent. Hmmm.

  3. bob said,

    Well said, squared. As if they have a valid viewpoint that is being suppressed.
    This is the treason in defense of slavery crowd, the liebensraum crowd, the Stalinists, the Khmer Rhouge, pick a reactionary totalitarian movement and this is them. The name REPUBLICAN will go into the history books along side NAZI, FASCIST, COMMUNIST, INQUISITION, and other such mass inhumanity parties. Fuck these motherfuckers.

  4. Batocchio said,

    Nicely put, LQ. Honestly, there are times I’ve seen “politically correct excess,” normally linked with the earnest excesses of youthful activism. But it simply ain’t the dread menace conservatives paint it to be, and activism is a good thing (and maturity makes it better). Actual bigotry and class warfare by the rich and powerful are far more dire.

    As for language, the simple rule I tend to follow is this: if I respect someone, I call them what they want to be called. Not too hard.

    Coulter’s schtick is to complain she’s being oppressed while throwing bombs herself. Her core complaint is that people object to her making personal attacks – since that’s all she’s got – but of course, she makes those attacks anyway. Coulter wants credit for being a provateur, but simultaneously disavows any responsibility for what she says. It’s pretty gutless, but then, she’s one of several conservatives who’s disowned her own thesis while nominally defending it.

    And you’re right, of course what Watson said was offensive, and it’s not as if finding it offensive is some character flaw; just the opposite. The same dynamic’s come up with the NYT’s shameless defense of hiring Kristol as a columnist. They’re pretending people are objecting to Kristol simply because they don’t like him or agree with him, as if his utter lack of merit had nothing to do with it.

  5. Batocchio said,

    Err, make that “provocateur.” D’oh!

  6. lightning said,

    Heh.

    Call the current administration “fascist”. Or the current Christianists “satanists”. Or the Country Club republicans “aristocrats”. Watch the fun! Much insulted sputtering.

    “Not politically correct” means insulting to those outside of the current power structure.

  7. DavidD said,

    My memory may be faulty as to how the terms “politically correct” or “politically incorrect” evolved into the present, but I’m sure that at one time, this was not about offensive speech, but indeed speech that was somewhat artificially obsolete because it was out of touch with a new political reality, which was gender equality, long after racial equality was settled, at least in theory.

    My memory is that I first heard “politically correct” applied to attempts to make the language gender neutral. Some of those proposals were about as unnatural and doomed to failure as Esparanto, but time came up with better neologisms. “Letter carrier” is better than “mailperson”. “Firefighter” beats “fireperson”. “Meter reader” beats “meterperson”. I admit I still use “mailman”, partly since ours happens to be a man, partly because no one in my home is “politically correct” in the sense that term was originally used. There was indeed a politically correct movement at one time that would have corrected my speech on this point, even annoyingly and self-righteously. There were many other words where my vocabulary has changed because I mostly agreed with that movement. It didn’t have to be well organized or last long since our language did change. Does Lisa Simpson still push this agenda? I haven’t watched her in a long time. I can’t remember the last time someone pushed political correctness around me in the original sense of the word, just the opposite.

    Because I lived through that movement and was somewhat changed by it, I cringe now each time the head of social services where I volunteer refers to the casemanagers under her as “girls”. Hey, if she wants to be a 31year-old girl with all these other girls working for her, who am I to question that? I think I said something once. It was a pointless effort. I’m not that pushy to force someone to change.

    On the other hand, ethnic slurs have been around for a long time. They’ve been called many things – insults, fighting words, stupidity, attempts to oppress the group being attacked. Refraining from using such words wasn’t called “political correctness”. It was called “humane”, “peaceful”, “righteous”.

    Attempts to insult a group scientifically based on race wasn’t fought with “political correctness”. William Shockley, who won the Nobel Prize in the fifties for the transistor, fashioned himself a geneticist in the seventies and proposed a study of IQ, predicting that the amount of white ancestry an African-American had would correlate with a higher IQ on average. Lots of people said that was stupid, some in a more scholarly and documented way than others. No one called that “political correctness”. The term didn’t exist in the early seventies.

    I haven’t followed the flap about James Watson, but I take it some now say that attacking racist ideas is “political correctness”. That’s using the phrase to mean something other than what it originally meant. “Political correctness” was about something superficial, like what to call the person who delivers the mail, something that need only be changed for a political reason, not something that’s a matter of fact or even humanity. In some ways it was artificial. If it had been purely artificial, it would have gone the way of Esparanto, but it was more than that. It was about equality, an equality that won.

    Some people would like to get rid of all cultural evolution since the fifties. When it comes to Supreme Court decisions, I wonder if conservatives would let Brown vs. Board of Education stand or do they want to turn the clock back even before 1954? Some definitely want to have state mandated prayer returned to public schools, despite how impossible it is for that to be Constitutional. Have some changed the meaning of “political correctness” to include anything that’s changed since the fifties? I don’t follow Fox News closely enough to know, but I take it the change in that term is in that direction.

    There was a movement to have a politically correct language, however revisionist attacks on that successful movement have changed the meaning of “political correctness” to mean anything liberal, I suppose. I guess conservatives get tired of just using “liberal” in the manner of an ethnic slur, a synonym for “stupid”, “coward”, “spineless”, “unprincipled”, just because they outnumber us 3:2, and we’re such nice guys who don’t often fight fire with fire. So they’ve hijacked other words, too. You’d think they’d want to be more precise. We children of the fifties were taught to be precise, most of us anyway. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. It’s not political correctness to fight racism, even if one goes too far in the effort. It’s hatred of racism, which is not just about politics. Now anger and hatred are psychologically incorrect, so some try to avoid admitting to being guided by them. Unfortunately “psychological correctness” is a term that never caught on, even among Scientologists. It’s a pity.

  8. Lurker said,

    The name “Republican” will not go down next to NAZI in the history books. That’s a fucking travesty to say something like that. You should tuck your tail between your legs and be gone forever. I was looking for the exact Big Lebowski quote, and I ran across this self-laudatory garbage post. You have a good point that people should try to avoid using terms that offend others, especially if it’s no more inconvenience to them. Where you went wrong is with this conspiracy theory bullcrap. Your commenters are scum. Facist isn’t a slur, it’s a label with deep connotations. Sadly this MTV generation of lefties doesn’t even know what that word means.

    The sad tale for the left is that you’ve won the election, and you’ll probalby win again. You have oodles of uneducated Gen-MTV kids who believe in liberal values even though they don’t have a clue why. It’s kind of sad, really. They’re as brainwashed as any of the right-wing Christians you malign in this hate-promoting blog. You’re part of the problem, not the solution. I think even Obama would not be proud of you.

  9. I was looking for the exact Big Lebowski quote, and I ran across this self-laudatory garbage post.

    Really? Looking for that quote was your only motivation? Are you not the same “Lurker” who left a comment over on Jamelle’s blog re: abortion within 10 minutes of this one? I’m inclined to call bullshit, in that I think you were trolling.

    Let’s say I’m wrong, though. That means you did an internet search for the Lebowski quote, stumbled across my blog, read this one post, and then decided you knew everything about me, the blog, and my commenters. That’s intellectually vigorous, right there. Bravo.

    You’re certainly entitled to disagree with me on the “conspiracy theory bullcrap.” I’m guessing you didn’t read the comment above yours, from DavidD, but you might note that he, too, disagreed with me on that point, or at least pointed out that it’s a significantly more complex issue than I made it out to be. Somehow he managed to do that without calling me suggesting I am “uneducated,” “brainwashed,” or “hate-promoting.” Fancy that!

  10. Evil Bender said,

    Man, Lurker’s comment was awesome.

    I love it when trolls reply to posts that only exist in their heads. It must be so much easier than actually having to respond to anything their opponents actually said.

    But hey, conflating a post’s views with those of its commenters and mashing it all up into some grand “conspiracy theory” that is suggests no conspiracy at all–that takes a special talent.

    I love “…self-laudatory garbage post. You have a good point…” it takes a special kind of intellect to pair those two thoughts. It’s like some kind of postmodern troll masterpiece!

  11. Lurker said,

    I really did just discover this last night looking for the quote. I agree with most of the actual post, it’s just the commentors who seem to have a problem. Thanks for the reply.

  12. Lurker said,

    Are people not allowed to make comments based on a single post? If I debate someone’s opinion in a debate class am I required to hire a private investigator to look at their background before I can even engage them in a discussion.

    I don’t feel like there’s anything intellectually dishonest about commenting on a single post as long as that post says enough that it could be taken in context.

    I did commit a serious fault, however, and evil bender pointed it out. I took the commentors (or commenter?) ideas and mix those ideas in with yours. That was intellectually dishonest. I did try to acknowledge that in my post.

    I called the MTV generation brainwashed. Not you specifically. I did say your blog was hate promoting, but that was incorrect and dishonest, that was my bad. I was just so frustrated with the comments from some above I couldn’t help but comment. I did not call you uneducated, unless you self identify as part of this MTV generation that gets all their political news from “rock the vote” and news shows on Comedy Central.

    My apologies. You seem reasoned and rational. Maybe I’ll have to take a look at the rest of your blog.

  13. Lurker:

    a) “Are people not allowed to make comments based on a single post?” and “I don’t feel like there’s anything intellectually dishonest about commenting on a single post as long as that post says enough that it could be taken in context.”

    versus

    b) “I took the commentors (or commenter?) ideas and mix those ideas in with yours” and “I did say your blog was hate promoting, but that was incorrect and dishonest, that was my bad.”

    What I was irritated by is exactly what you copped to under b). I appreciate that, but the fact that you went on the defensive at the beginning of your comment makes me less inclined to take you seriously. Indeed, it’s almost like it was written by two different people, one who’s rational and interested in discussion, and one who’s kinda troll-ish.


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