By Andy Pragacz

Last week we asked the question: what is political correctness? We partly identified political correctness as an attempt to purify language of certain kinds of bias through the banning of words and/or phrases that have been defined (by politically correct ideology) as somehow negatively portraying ‘subordinate identities’. This week we will interrogate the ban as a strategy for purifying language.

In the first place, the form of the ban is ineffective and does not acknowledge how and why politically incorrect words and phrases are used. In this instance (as in the rest of my discussion of political correctness), I am referring to a conversational usage of such terms as opposed to intentionally harming a person or group of people. Any expression, politically incorrect or not, that is meant to harm and instill fear, is deleterious. Back to the point, most usage of politically incorrect words is not an expression of hostility (including tacit bias) toward minorities. Rather, they are verbal markers of a community like clothes, music, hairstyle etc. We can (and should) interrogate how and why a community uses certain words or phrases but this is a point for a later piece. What is important is that when someone is told such and such a word or phrase is ‘bad’ by an authoritative moralizing ‘NO!’, explicit in the ban, it can be perceived as an attack on that person or a community. Most people do not want to inflict harm on others, but they also want their experiences to be validated. The ‘NO!’ of the ban in itself cannot do this.

Furthermore, as the old maxim goes: ‘laws were made to be broken’ and insofar as political correctness is the law of a ‘tolerant’ and ‘liberal’ society, politically incorrect utterances become an expression (albeit perhaps a poor one) of a person’s dislike for certain institutions or people associated with political correctness. How many times have you heard attacks on political correctness on FOX News? The critique of political correctness has nothing to do with political correctness, but it is a tool used to attack the liberals in American politics specifically motivated against perceived liberal proselytizing. So instead of removing and confronting bias, dichotomies are created with each side re-represented the Other as Other, i.e. not like them and somehow ‘bad’. The politicization of politically correct ideology is unfortunate, but since the ‘NO!’ of the ban is viewed as an attempt to tell people what not to do it should have been expected.

I want to take an even more controversial stand, not particularly rooted in reality but theoretically sound none the less. Let’s step into the mind of a racist or a homophobe or a misogynist. This person is not someone who hates a minority group, it is rather someone whose identity, be it personal or cultural or both, is dependent on definition against what they are not: women, people of color, or LGBTQ people. The ban in political correctness, the ‘NO!’, acts as an attack on their identity. It is scary to be confronted by the ‘NO!’ which forces you to re-conceptualize yourself as something other than that. And this is where political correctness fails miserably. It doesn’t force us to re-think this, but rather allows bias to stand, especially in the face of such intensity, and condones (because it uses) euphemism as opposed to change. There is no way out, no alternative way of being for the racist/homophobe/misogynist: if you accept political correctness you are a liberal or you are something you do not identify with and worst yet you are not you. There is fear: not necessarily fear of difference but fear of being disembodied from yourself.

I would also like to put into consideration that politically correct language acts a verbal communal marker as well. It becomes readily apparent, in some cases, when a person uses the politically correct term as opposed to a ‘normal’ term. Addressed to certain people politically correct language can be just as alienating as politically incorrect verbal formations. Just as slang can be lead to misperceptions about the user and be misunderstood by others, so is the case for both politically correct and politically incorrect speech.

The ban utilized by political correctness is also logically self-defeating because it demonstrates that language cannot be purified. If certain verbal expressions are off limits to utterance, then language as a whole cannot be bias-free. To ignore these expressions is an attempt to put bias ‘out of mind and out of sight,’ which is the opposite of dealing and overcoming bias. And insofar as it is political correctness that has marked certain words and phrase as intrinsically politically incorrect the ban is self-defeating: the ideology gives a Truth to the word, bans the word, thus marking certain words or phrases as ‘unspeakable’; even though certain terms are a part of a language they have been located outside of acceptability.

Furthermore, the ban does not recognize how language is constructed. Linguists since Ferdinand Saussure (1857-1913) have been arguing that language is constructed relationally, meaning that every word only makes sense in a given language system. For example, take the noun ‘handicap’ which is politically incorrect insofar as it equates differently abled (I hope that is the vogue term) with beggars (handicap=cap-in-hand). The New Oxford American Dictionary defines ‘handicap’ as: “a condition that markedly restricts a person’s ability to function physically, mentally, or socially”. The word, like any other word, does not have a positive content insofar as the dictionary definition really means ‘to be not normal’ and to be normal would be ‘to not be handicapped’. Continuing, one cannot give a positive concept of normality or abnormality because they are socially negotiated concepts. What we see as normal today will not be normal in twenty years. In short, the normal/abnormal dichotomy must be look at as one unit as opposed to two insofar as they require each other to have any meaning at all.

Continuing with the former line of reasoning, not only should negative words be banned (i.e. ‘this/that sucks’) but also words that tacitly affirm dominate behaviors or modes of being. In politically correct ideology, phrases such as ‘give it to me straight’ should also be banned because they equate straightness with objectivity or ‘realness’-taken to be a good thing. The type of phrase outlined is just as politically incorrect as ‘this/that sucks’ because straightness and gayness do not exist outside of their relation to one another. So any sublimation of straightness is a tacit disapproval of homosexuality.

Even more radical feminist and queer theorist have gone as far as to conclude that the English language itself, as a totality, is phallocentric and/or heteronormative; even (and especially) the pronoun ‘I’ is a gendered conception in these accounts. In this mode of thought, the attempt to purify language through the use of the ban is not only impossible but would literally render us speechless and even then bias would surely still persist.

If we conclude that politically correct ideology does not go far enough then we come across another potential problem. From the perspectives outlined in the last paragraphs, political correctness functions as a cathartic illusion to cover up, ignore or neglect bias; it provides those who obey political correctness with the sense not only of moral superiority, but also with a false sense of non-bias or purity. This false-consciousness is just as damaging, if not more, than being blatantly politically incorrect insofar as biased words, phrases and actions of the politically correct person become pure and closed to interrogation allowing bias to run rampant over their tongues and through their lips.

Of course, the former representation of the politically correct person is also not without bias and in fact I would venture to speculate that politically correct ideology is a symptom of fear; a fear of offending
someone or some type of person. It is a fear that marks any possible action or word as potentially offensive to such a extent that legitimate expression and action are crippled and laid aside for thoughtful introspection. More harming is the belief that language is in fact just heteronormative or racist. Such an understanding removes any ability to change the status quo or even to think outside or apart from bias. This total disempowerment is the teleology of political correctness as I have outlined it insofar as when one looks for bias in a situation they are bound to conclude that it is. Take for instance women’s movements of any sort. They are predicted on the fact that women have been culturally constructed as less than men. When they look at the world all they can see are the ways in which women are oppressed; they can never see equality. As long as movements such as this exist, so too will bias.

Next week, we will re-examine political correctness in light of the evidence piled against it. What are the good things political correctness does and how can we begin to re-think political correctness to make it ‘better’?