Saturday, June 6, 2009

Castrating Our Language

Political correctness is a great thing. But only when its goal is to create a space where everybody feels respected and comfortable. Often, however, I observe that it becomes an end in itself that creates more discomfort than anything else. It turns into yet another self-congratulatory tool that allows people to police themselves and others with a passion that would be better engaged in some actual political causes.

Here is a conversation I had with my students last semester, which illustrates my point:

Me: I come from a 3rd world country.
Students (visibly uncomfortable): You shouldn't say that. It's wrong.

Me: Why on Earth not?

Students: It's offensive.

Me: To whom?

Students: To you.

Me: Believe me, I'm not trying to offend myself. What should I say?

Students: That you are from a developing country.

Me (trying to make a joke): But my country is not developing because it doesn't feel like it.

Students (after struggling with it for a moment): Hee hee hee.

Another strange experience with an excess of political correctness happened on one of progressive sites that I follow. One of the participants referred to some truly silly article as "lame." She was immediately berated in a pretty aggressive way for using ableist language.

Of course, we all want to create a comfortable unoffensive space for those around us. But as soon as we start to self-censor ourselves and others in this extreme manner, we will stop talking, arguing and promoting dissent. We might soon find ourselves saying nothing but approved, diluted, boring things. Controversy is crucial to promote thinking, creating new ideas, bringing them out into the space of open and free discussion.

With my students, we discussed political correctness at length. The conclusion that we reached was the following: what makes speech offensive is intent. If we know that our interlocutors did not harbor any offensive purposes, then we should avoid trying to censor them.

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Pagan Topologist said...

This is great! I am of the same opinion, but so many people do not seem to have the intellectual power to grasp it.

Clarissa said...

Oh, I missed your comments, David!!

As for the topic of this post, I have a great excuse not to police my language. Whenever the topic arises, I immediately say in a tragic voice: "English is not my first language. You have to excuse me for making mistake." Then I start to sniffle, and people are chastened by the thought they seemed to be intolerant to an immigrant. :-)