You can call it "politically correct," if you like

“Politically correct” comes accompanied with a sneer, directed at weak-minded liberals who pander to every minority group imaginable by adopting whatever ridiculous euphemism is fashionable at the moment. (Those who use the term should feel free to comment if I have misconstrued the connotations.)

The subject came up in a Language Log post last week on the politics of prescriptivism. A reader commenting as Andrew B. pushed the discussion in this direction:

[T]he left's form of prescriptivism is as strong or stronger than the right's, and it certainly has more cultural cachet, or oompahpah, as you called it. It's popularly known as "political correctness" and occurs any time a conservative says anything that is then accused of being racist or "hate-filled." While I abhor racism, the statements in question can be harmless, and the liberal writers who accuse face no consequences for being wrong. I'm thinking of Paul Krugman's column "Climate of Hate," or Frank Rich's new column in which somehow the marxist Lee Harvey Oswald becomes a product of the right wing. Or Bill Maher's "denying racism is the new racism."

You tell me which I should be more concerned about, the right's qualms over dis/uninterested, or the fact that I cannot open my mouth in some liberal circles without being a "racist" producing a "climate of hate" that could cause death and murder. To reiterate, your Tory says language produces uncleanliness. These writers say mine produces murder.

I’m going to explore political correctitude in a moment, but first I want to look at this comment and another by Andrew B. by way of introduction. Racist language used to be commonplace and clear-cut. People used to say things on the floor of the United States Senate that would make you shudder today. They make you shudder because overt racism has become as socially unacceptable as advocacy of slavery. It’s gauche. But it would be naive to imagine that racism has vanished merely because it is no longer public and explicit.

So while one should hesitate to call someone a racist, one has to be able to say that a statement sounds racist, whether it is knowingly or unknowingly so. Take uppity. A few years ago Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia described Barack and Michelle Obama as uppity, saying in the minor uproar that ensued that he had grown up unaware—in Georgia (!)—that the word had racist overtones. And a week ago Rush Limbaugh used the same term to characterize Ms. Obama. It may well be that people in their twenties and thirties who came to adulthood in the post-civil-rights era are unaware of the ugly history of the word, but Mr. Limbaugh can hardly claim innocence.

Andrew B. has a further comment in the discussion that merits examination:

I ran into a group of friends discussing the sexuality of another friend, whether he was gay/bisexual etc. Without any hint of malice I said he was "queer." It seemed to be the only word left that could describe this friend of ours, without more information. My use of the word was met with silent glaring, broken by a friend replying only with "You can't say that."

There is a very good reason for Andrew B. not to talk that way, and it has nothing to do with any left-wing totalitarian political correctitude. It has to do with common courtesy.

We know, or should know, that members of a group are free to talk within that group in ways that outsiders may not. We learn that from the family unit, in which the members may say all manner of cruel things to one another but join ranks to oppose any insult from the outside. African-Americans often use racist terms among themselves that I as an aging white guy had better not. (And if you should utter some slur against people from Appalachia, you may well get a glare from me.)

In Andrew B.’s example, he might have known that queer from heterosexuals is a slur that some homosexuals have adopted to take the sting out. The friend who advises him not to talk that way is not disparaging him because he is a self-professed conservative, but because he is socially awkward.

It falls to me as an editor and keeper of my newspaper’s stylebook to rule on whether language is acceptable for publication, because the goal of the publication is to be factually accurate and clear without wantonly offending readers. (That’s why we’re prissier about swearing in the publication than we are in the newsroom.) There are perfectly acceptable principles behind what is dismissed as political correctitude:

Item: We call people by the terms by which they identify themselves, aware that these terms are mutable. Think of Negro, black, African-American. Think how long many newspapers resisted gay for homosexual until it became embedded in common speech and writing.

Item: We avoid language that is gratuitously insulting, or describes groups of people as less than fully human. Retarded, once a classificatory term, has become an insult to be avoided in describing either an individual or a class of people. Ethnic slurs also fall into this category.

Item: We resist precious euphemism. While we no longer use crippled, we’re not about to swing over to differently abled. People who have handicaps or disabilities can be called handicapped or disabled. We get some pushback over those terms, but unless they happen to become fully pejorative, we will continue with them.

Item: We try to stick with neutral, factual language. Illegal immigrants are people—not aliens—who violated civil law by entering this country. Calling them undocumented is an apologetic term used by their advocates. We don’t say confined to a wheelchair. Polio patients in iron lungs were confined, but people who use wheelchairs achieve a degree of mobility.

A decade or so ago the Los Angeles Times revised its stylebook along these lines and was widely criticized for political correctitude. That’s fine. Call those of us on stylebook enforcement wimpy liberals as much as you like. Political discourse in this country has always been robust, to say the least, and no one in this business intends to fetter your political expression.


Today’s background music for blogging: Handel’s violin sonatas, with Andrew Manze, violin and Richard Egarr, harpsichord.



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