January 1, 2008
“—Also, Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian American, please.”
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.”
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”.
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.