There has been some discussion in the presidential campaign about political correctness. What’s going on? What’s happening? Wassup? Que’ Passa?
The words we use both reflect and shape our perceptions of the world. This is an insight Benjamin Lee Whorf and many others have expressed. The world is not “given” to us through our senses–we interpret what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, and we label things using language. The same child may be called “friend” by one person and called “enemy” by another. One animal may be called “bird” by one person and a “grebe” by another. Political correctness is about the kind of distinctions we make using language and its often about power.
“Secretaries,” once upon a time, answered the phone, took dictation, typed letters, filed reports, made the coffee, managed schedules, etc. The job, relegated to females, was perceived to be doing the basic, repetitive, mundane office organizational tasks that were largely beneath the male bosses dignity. Even though the work was honorable and many of the bosses would probably not have survived without the hard work and talents of their secretaries, the connotation of being a secretary was negative. The thinking that a person was “just a secretary” was widespread, and the consequences were often that secretaries were mistreated and asked or told to do many things not in the job description. Then the world changed. Lots of middle management jobs were cut to increase profits. Those middle managers, who often had secretaries, were forced to pick up the slack and accomplish more than they ever did before. Technology changed as well. Typing, thought to be female work, became keyboarding, a job for both males and females. As a result of new demands in the workplace, new technologies, and a greater consciousness of the value of women in the workplace, “secretaries” were formally given additional responsibilities. The world changed, our perceptions changed and our language changed when “secretaries” became “administrative assistants.” The new language more accurately reflected the work they had been doing. But, some preferred the old way of talking. Why? One word answer: power. It’s easier to control and look down on “secretaries” than “administrative assistants.” The boss can ask a “secretary” run an errand for him because she is just a secretary, but the boss may have to show the administrative assistant a bit more respect. People aren’t the labels people give to them, but words matter and they’ll affect people’s interactions.
Think about the phrase “sexual harassment.” That phrase did not exist before the 1980s. So, how did we describe that unpleasant experience? It was often called a “failed pass.” Sound like a minor setback at a football game doesn’t it? And if you fail at a pass, you should try, try again, right? A failed pass back then included what we would today call sexual assaults. The introduction of the new terminology, sexual harassment, altered how experiences were perceived. It affected dates, workplace behavior, and the courts. Power shifted a bit to the victims. The new term made people rethink and redefine their behaviors. Political correctness is using language that reflects the world in an accurate, respectful way. It reflects the world as it is or should be, not the status quo.
Do some take political correctness too far? Well, this phrase, “political correctness” has negative connotations. It’s used to describe liberal, picky, and inaccurate labelings, but these new descriptions are a part of the evolution of language. You can’t stop new words from appearing to describe experiences where existing words are inadequate. Relabelings will occur hand in hand with changes in perceptions. You can not freeze language. Some will try to relabel things using terms that exaggerate, but if the reality and the perceptions don’t support the new word’s attributions, people will make nonpolitical corrections. They won’t adopt the terminology. The new words will die.
Those who are angry about political correctness are really mad about “change” and their loss of power. They wish to stop the changes in the ways people perceive things when society opens its eyes wider to people’s oppression. The angry ones prefer the world where they made “failed passes” at their “secretaries.” The do not like losing their privileges or rethinking their perceptions. In time, fortunately, politically correct language, has won out, and the world has generally become a little more civilized.