Frag-ments: The reality of politically correct language

By Andy Pragacz

My weekly column ‘Frag-ments’ is less than a formal argument but more than a bullshit session. It’s an exploration that is my practical response to understanding thought as fragmented. If all thought is a fragment of something larger or turns out be only a fragment as opposed to a totality, then thinkingis a journey best embodied as a series of questions.To stay true to this form of exploration, ‘Frag-ments’ will be composed of several series of articles centered on a theme. Each week one piece (understood as a fragment looking at other fragments) will discuss part of a topic and the following another. At the end of each series, one article will be dedicated to the feedback that I have received. In order for this enterprise to work then I encourage everyone to respond to the various positions presented in ‘Fragments.’ I am always looking for new ideas to think through and discuss. Let the questioning begin!

The first series is focused on political correctness. What is political correctness? Political correctness is a ban on words and phrases labeled to be homophobic, racist and/or sexist. It is an attempt to purify language of certain biases that are understood as somehow intrinsic to a given word or phrase. The logic goes like this: certain words and phrases are inherently “bad” because they devalue queer sexualities, women and/or minority races. As such they uphold and legitimate straight white male privilege by rendering “bad” certain activities, appearances and “modes of being” connected in some way to particular “subordinate identities.”

As an example, let’s (re)construct the logic surrounding the ban on the phrase “that/this sucks.” As a perjorative, this phrase is considered both sexist and homophobic because it gives a negative association to a sexual activity connected with gay men and women. Thus it devalues women and gay men by connoting a specific sexual act as unseemly.

However, many people (including myself at one point) used this phrase without knowing its connection to upholding an order of domination.

These poor souls are told that they are insensitive to its connotations (used as an example of their obliviousness to gender bias in general), but now that they know what “this/that sucks” really means they can show off their sensitivity by a) not using the term and b) politely relaying the message to others.

By now it should be clear that the idea that certain words and phrases are “off limits” seems fishy to me. In the first place, there is no inherent truth behind a word or phrase. The Oxford American Dictionary gives as one of the definitions of the verb “to suck”: “draw in a specified direction by creating a vacuum.” So then, when used as a pejorative, “this/that sucks” could refer to being drawn into a whirlpool that is certainly bad and would suck (both literally and figuratively). While I am not proposing that we now are able to go around saying this or that “sucks” with reckless abandon, I am trying to point out that labeling this phrase as only sexist/homophobic is only one of many possibilities within the phrase.

More damning to political correctness is that by making the connection between a phrase, an act and a subordinate identity the association between the identity and the act becomes solidified. With the introduction of politically correct ideology the act of “sucking” is something that only a woman or a gay man can do and only as a sexual act. Now sucking is to be used as evidence that gay men and/or women are different from straight men. The naming reifies difference itself. Couldn’t it also be said that straight men also suck in certain sexual activities?

Thus the connection between a phrase and a sexual activity is (or can be) the work of politically correct ideology itself. As we have seen there are two moments in establishing a phrase as “politically incorrect.” The first moment is the naming of the phrase as sexist, homophobic, racist, etc. This repetitive naming of the phrase as ‘incorrect’ then closes off other possibilities of the word or phrase in order for the ideology to maintain its own stance on those incorrect phrases. As such the phrase is not sexist/homophobic until it is named as such. At this point, and not before, does the sexism or homophobia become the Truth of the phrase; the naming itself makes the phrase sexist.

The assertion that political correctness is complicit in establishing/maintaining difference points to the problem of the ban as a strategy itself. For me the goal of feminist and queer studies is not simply to point out all the ways our culture/language/everything is demeaning to women and queer people but to render gender and sexual difference as something akin to eye color; a difference that has no bearing on how the wider culture receives or perceives a person.

By cordoning off parts of our language with a “do not enter” sign because these words or phrases are inherently sexist, homophobic, and/or racist implies that there is a difference more salient than eye color, but a difference that we dare not speak about (at least as a pejorative). In this calculation a world where gender and sexuality do not determine one’s place in society is a world where ‘this/that sucks’ could be used with reckless abandon and no one would find it offensive.

Stay tuned next week for a further discussion of the form of the ban as it is used by political correctness and also why political correctness does not go far enough in its effort to purify language.

Andy Pragacz can be reached at [email protected]