My thoughts here stem from Kevin Frankel’s Dec. 6 article titled “War on Christmas,” but what follows is less a directed response to the “War on Christmas” than it is an exposition of my views on political correctness in general.
The tension between those who think politically correct English (PCE) marks the decline of America as a nation transitioning from a hardy noncomplainer to a wimpy and thin-skinned kvetch, and those who think the widening use of PCE is indicative of the country’s positive trend toward social equality is one that patently misses the point of the whole issue and just what PCE is and who it serves.
Both sides of the PCE debate treat PCE as if its usage’s intent is to be respectful and beneficial to those who could possibly be offended by a particular PC utterance’s non-PC ugly cousin (e.g. “economically disadvantaged” vs. “poor person,” respectively).
Critics of PCE usually seem to point to its vapidity, or to its distraction from pragmatic, effective political discourse, or to the idea that the recipients should simply quit being so sensitive. Even so, they agree that the purpose of PCE, whether or not it is in fact otiose in practice, is indeed to show tactful compassion to the recipients.
The reality is, however, that the true beneficiaries of terms like “economically disadvantaged” or “differently abled” are not poor people or people in wheelchairs, respectively; the true beneficiaries are the PC speakers.
The core hypocrisy regarding PCE is that its advocates act as if they are doing a service to the potentially offended, when in fact a good part of what goes into informing the vocabulary a speaker will use is his desire to have what he says communicate something about him.
Thus, PCE, as it is espoused on the basis of egalitarian principles, is actually paradoxically demonstrative of a kind of elitism and patronization. PCE both levels and widens the field in the same breath.
Do you think a poor person cares much either way if he is referred to as “poor” rather than “economically disadvantaged” or “pre-prosperous?” Does that make him feel more empowered or less affronted by society? I think in fact it makes him feel even more spiritually sapped, even more insulted, not just because it’s patronizing but also because it’s hypocritical and self-serving.
That PCE creates a fairer– or at least politer – social environment might just be a positive upshot of its use. I think the primary function of PCE emerges from the same sort of self interest that is masked in many altruistic acts – that is, PCE serves to announce and self-congratulate certain virtues in the speaker, such as a painstaking egalitarianism, a concern for the rights of all people, an incisive awareness of the political implications of one’s utterances, etc.
In all, it seems to me that PCE does more for the interests of its speakers than it does for its recipients. Thus, I think that if one is to critique PCE, rather than argue that PC usage is turning our nation into a bunch of softies, one should argue against the elitism, condescension and patronization that made PCE a seemingly viable and necessary counterbalance to the aforementioned inequalities in the first place.
And in so arguing, PCE critics might as well eschew any PC euphemisms altogether – not just because it would be argumentatively contradictory to do otherwise – but because real political and social progress often comes after the use of the ugly and sometimes offensive language which is more or less accessorial in a pluralistic democracy like our own.