PC balancing Act

Politically correct language between a rock and a hard place

Political correctness is under scrutiny. What’s okay to say and what isn’t? Currently, there is debate over what constitutes as offensive. Political correctness–when used well–fosters a progressively inclusive environment that welcomes all groups of people. However, politically correct language used incorrectly can negatively affect discussions around inclusivity in the face of diversity, creating hostility for those who try to use PC language and those who don’t.

PC culture aims to encourage inclusive, sensitive and accurate language around marginalized groups of people to give them the recognition and respect they deserve. This cultural shift around language is a testament to the changing nature of language itself and how it is used. If we use different language to describe something, we shift how we perceive it, potentially expanding or narrowing our point of view. This is called linguistic relativity.

Altering our language and the words we use to be inclusive isn’t simple. It also requires changing our perspectives and how we think about the world. These shifting perspectives include, but are not limited to, integrating a non-binary gender spectrum and recognizing racially driven microaggressions. Both have long ways to go, and political correctness can help push society in positive directions regarding these and other topics.

In the United States, PC culture is under attack. President Donald Trump, a known criticizer of PC language, seems to regularly say or tweet something which is offensive to one group or another. Trump has given a voice to those who felt they were shoved to the back of the closet: Those who believe PC culture is taking over and oppressing their right to free speech.

Along the same vein, being so-called PC has been stereotyped as being an overly sensitive idiot, which isn’t helpful for broadening the minds of our nation. It has been demonized and claimed to be infringing on rights and basic liberties. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated in  September 2017, “The American university…is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.” This attitude is missing the point; PC language exists to expand thought by allowing diversity to feel welcome, not to minimize it.

However, this line of thought can be dangerous too. PC language policing has been used to silence the very groups it aims to protect. “When women and people of color are told what words to use, and how to use them, it’s more than mere political correctness gone awry,” stated Jess McHugh for DAME magazine. “It’s a form of silencing that sustains a moral, class and racial hierarchy.”

In order for PC language to thrive, we need to let go of being wrong. “‘Politically correct’ is a term we use to dismiss ideas that are uncomfortable,” stated Amanda Tub for Vox. Instead of avoiding what we do not have the knowledge to approach accurately, we can ask questions.

Ignorance should not be confused with intolerance. People today are afraid if they don’t use PC language correctly, they will be criticized not only on their speech, but also on their character. Therefore, discussions are being avoided altogether. These important discussions on race, religion, gender and culture are critical to talk about. That said, it is important to recognize when you have messed up and potentially caused harm. Know when to make space for someone else instead of taking it.

The barriers politically correct language face are threefold. First, some see PC culture as overly sensitive and unnecessary, something that hinders our personal thought process. Second, PC language is overpoliced, hurting the groups of people it is supposed to protect. Finally, out of fear, people are avoiding progressive conversations because they lack the knowledge needed to be PC.

How do we hit three birds with one stone and balance politically correct language between a rock and a hard place? Evaluate intent. Is someone using incorrect language alongside the intent to learn and be a better ally? Or are they using language as a weapon to be hurtful?

There is still a long way to go on all issues politically correct language aims to help, but as long as we keep these conversations open, the more progress we will make.