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Politically Incorrect

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Occasionally, someone who reads my writing or listens to me speak will offer a "correction" to some of the words I choose to use. Some will go several steps further, launching into diatribes, with a few even attacking my character. My transgression that prompts such reactions is a simple one: political incorrectness.

There are some who believe that to be a modern, thinking man is to be politically correct, reflecting in speech and thought a recognition of certain sets of principles like the equality of the sexes. Language both reflects and reinforces lines of thought, so changes in speech theoretically lead to changes in thought and behavior. Thus we have the conscious "reconstruction" of certain words, with the suffix "-man" becoming quite forbidden. All of this in the name of pursuing a noble goal: equality of all persons.

The very notion of political correctness, however, is an intellectual fraud. Reshaping of the language to avoid "gender-specificity" trivializes the actual injustices that exist in the form of sexism. Architecture of language to advance a political agenda is an attempt at thought control. Insistence that phrases like, "Each student will conduct his own experiment" be "fixed" leads to replacements which are unequal, less precise, and even ambiguous.

Restriction of any human being's autonomy is fundamentally a restriction of his humanity. Any serious review of history will reveal that women were denied the right to vote in societies where men had such a right. Even in our own, having women seriously involved in the process of public discourse and decision-making was not built-in, and took many years to achieve. These are facts worth remembering. "Sexism" is not a word used to describe a useful or constructive ideology. Much of the reason why the word "sexism" has meaning is because we are easily reminded of the worst of basing too much on a chromosome.

If we, in our zeal to rid the world of sexism, start to attach the label to things like the use of a word like "chairman" or "spokesman", we dilute the meaning of the word "sexism". A term that once described an obviously destructive ideology could easily change into one that describes any reference to sex. Thus, what obviously had undesirable consequences changes (through misuse of the term) into something with no discernible consequence. In the end, the struggles to ensure that women have basic human rights assured them are trivialized, brought down to the same level as whether someone uses one suffix or another when forming a word.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell explored the relationship between language and thought. In that novel, the Party had a ministry devoted to language, the language of the party, Newspeak. In Newspeak, the goal was not to increase the words available, but to create a pattern of thought that inherently supported the Party and its goals. Workers responsible for Newspeak took no delight in the creation of a word, but instead in its destruction. Arguments in favor of politically correct speech bear no small resemblance to the design principles of Newspeak.

Furthermore, attempts to avoid references to gender through creative phrasing frequently lead to imprecision in speech, and even in the introduction of ambiguity. Let us consider the aforementioned example,

Each student will conduct his own experiment.

This statement is clear and direct. Anyone who is a student will conduct an experiment apart from anyone else conducting an experiment. A typical suggestion to avoid the use of the "sexist" "his" would be,

All students will conduct their own experiments.

Careful review of the new phrase will show it to be ambiguous or ungrammatical. Instead of talking about each of the students individually, we're talking about the group. Of course, if we're talking about the entire set, that doesn't necessarily mean that each student in the set will conduct an experiment.

Another possible suggestion might be to entertain the long-debated singular "they", e.g.,

Each student will conduct their own experiment.

Use of the singular they by Shakespeare and Austen notwithstanding, I don't buy it. In the original phrase, would anyone seriously wonder whether a female student would conduct her own experiment? We've added no clarity, given ourselves no difference in meter, though we might find a win somewhere in the possibility of a rhyme.

Political correctness isn't just about speech, though. Looking at it in its other forms and in other contexts can help us to understand what other wonders it holds.

Consider how in the 1950s in the U.S., the voter registration records were used to identify Communist Party members and sympathizers. Investigations would then follow -- some lasting years and being very expensive indeed. Targets found themselves "blacklisted", unable to engage in normal work as they had previously. All without trial. All without jury. All because of fear that someone's political convictions might not be correct.

Consider in the years following the 1917 revolution that created the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (U.S.S.R.). Failure to join the Party would result in extreme hardship. Higher rent and greater attention from one's upravdom, inability to get food without buying it from "speculators" (private tradesmen), and as a final indignity, inability to get any kind of job. Bourgeois politics were incorrect in that time and place, making merely living nearly impossible.

Political correctness isn't just about rephrasing things to accomodate some of fragile sensibility, it is an attempt to establish some baseline political beliefs and then to impose them on others. In other words, it is an attempt to deny autonomy to those whose opinions, thoughts, or deeds are unpopular with the current fashion, and there is nothing noble about that.

Created by cmcurtin
This article originally appeared on Sunshine Poultry.
Last modified 2004-09-29 10:15 AM

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