Frag-Ments: Language and Identity

By Andy Pragacz

So I have been pretty hard on political correctness. In this piece I would look at the ‘good’ parts of political correctness and undesired effects it may have had on spoken English. Politically correct ideology comes from a good (liberal) place. Politically correct ideology asked us to reconsidered our language and think differently about our word usage (even though a ‘correct’ usage and/or euphemism is always pre-established). This is not a bad thing: anything that forces us to speak more intelligently, intelligibly and eloquently is probably a good thing. As stated in previous pieces, the ban in politically correct ideology is not effective, at not least in banning words and phrases. Rather, it seems that incorrect terms have been re-contextualized, moving away from general usage to more specific times and places of utterance. The transformation of a word or phrase caught up in politically correct ideology parallels the religious distinction between profane and sacred objects. Profane objects are things related to everyday use, while sacred objects are set aside and have a special significance. Again, politically correct ideology endows politically incorrect terms with a magical power; the utterance of such words has the power to shock, disturb, offend and/or hurt. As such, the politically incorrect word becomes sacred.

With such a magical power attached to the word or phrase it is not longer acceptable in general usage. So common incorrect phrases (‘this/that sucks’), which may have no inherent bias in them because they are used so widely, become unacceptable. With the magical power of the word and its connection to certain subordinate identities established, the site of verbalization shifts. Perhaps the most notable shift is the use of the ‘n’ word in certain African American communities. While this may not be due to politically correct ideology itself, it certainly demonstrates the point. Whereas once the term was widely used (although it may be hard or impossible to see the word as somehow not political), it now has a special place of utterance.

There seem to be many ways in which these terms are utilized depending on the context. They can be used to emphasize a point. For example, a friend of mine recounted the debate surrounding the use of girl in a colligate context in the late 1980s. The logic states that college age female students should not be called girls because this would locate them in a role that called for parental (patriarchal) guidance and protection. My friend protested that it would be equally inappropriate to call a female acting in a childish manner a woman insofar as it would devalue the term woman itself. Even though my friend still used the word ‘girl,’ he reserved it to refer not to the group of female students but specific females doing childish things. Now what counts as womanly activity and girlish activity is a problem in itself, a problem I will not address because I mean this as pure example.

A politically incorrect word could also be used in communal context. A good example of this is gay people referring to one another as gay in the derogatory sense. This example has many possible interpretations. In one sense it could be seen as another marker of otherness against the larger populous insofar as the word ‘gay’ used in certain ways can only legitimately be spoken by other gays. It could also be seen as a way to reclaim the word much like what has happen with the term ‘queer’. Using the word ‘gay’ with a negative connotation by a gay person could be a powerful experience insofar as the usage tacitly makes fun of people who may use the word in a reckless manner. It could be seen simultaneously as a ‘coping’ mechanism and a protest against the dominate system.

Now to go back to the first point in the last paragraph that the word ‘gay’ (or worse) is a verbal marker of communal difference. With this in mind one might ask a gay person using that word if this is how they want to represent their community. Of course we immediately come to a problem: without certain items such as clothes, words, music, movies and/or TV shows marked as ‘gay,’ could there be a gay community? We could ask that question of almost any group. And I, truthfully, have no idea. It does not seem plausible to have a community without certain things it can claim as its own and around which to build and stabilize a coherent identity. Should we then be fighting equally hard against such communal demarcations?

At the end of the day what are we to do with this mess, with these special words that only certain people or any person but only in certain instances can say? We must first acknowledge that these words do have real power (thanks to political correctness) and that cannot be denied. We should not all go around saying offensive things just because we have determined that these words are not necessarily offensive. The re-profanation of politically incorrect words would be a mistake. But at the same time if there are words that cannot be spoken we have acknowledged a bias that cannot be erased. This won’t do either, nor is it likely to work, as we showed with the discussion on the ban. So are we only left with this in-between option reeking of centrist compromise? All of these options seem lacking.

Another element must be taken into consideration. At some level the attempt to ban words or even to re-contextualize them is a tacit attempt to remove emotional expression from language. For me, there is something deeply gratifying about swearing. Phrases like SOB or ‘this/that sucks’ express raw emotion that defies logic and intellectualization. Even vulgarities like ‘shoot’ or ‘O rats’ pale in cathartic power, at least for some people. The way one expresses these types of emotions vary from person to person for innumerable reasons but the expression of these emotions even through ‘inappropriate’ or hurtful words must also be acknowledged and validated.

So I leave the question for you to consider: how do we retain the possibility of language while at the same time ensuring that the members of our communities do not feel otherized and belittled in the process?

Next week one of two things will appear. If I receive any responses regarding this article series it may be on politically correct ideology. If this series is of no interest to anyone then it will be about how the medico-industrial complex is attempting to control our lives through the H1N1 scare.

Andy Pragacz ’10 can be reached at [email protected]