I’m sensing something in the air these days, and it’s unsettling. At a recent dinner party, my host went on a rant about Caitlyn Jenner (whom she insisted on calling “Bruce Jenner”), which devolved, quickly, into a full-throttle tirade against being “politically correct.” Days earlier, I had gotten an e-mail from a friend ranting about how “the whole PC crap brings on gagging.” He cited a few of his non-PC preferences, including: “Orientals, not Asians. Dwarf/midget, not little person. Little bastards, not offspring of unwed mothers.” I think he knew better than to bring up any “PC” alternatives to gay.
These incidents came in the wake of Donald Trump’s nasty assertion: “I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.” Trump’s not the only GOP presidential candidate on the anti-PC crusade. In July, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) told Fox News: “The reality is we need a president who will stop being politically correct.”
“Political correctness” has long been considered a pejorative, an accusation hurled at those of us who choose our words carefully so as not to insult others. “It is invoked as a justification for some of the coarsest expressions of hatred and intolerance,” Daniel Letwin, an associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, told me. Over the past year, I’ve written a number of columns that have provoked such allegations, notably when writing about language or why words matter.
When I discussed the trend — especially among those who identify as genderqueer (neither entirely male nor entirely female) — to use gender-neutral pronouns such as “they,” “them” and “their” instead of “he,” “him” and “his,” the blowback was fierce. My advice, calling for respect, was hardly a PC manifesto: “Do your best to adjust to changing times and terms, and address people the way they ask you.” Among the many viperous responses came this one: “Any student in my composition classes at the university where I teach who uses ‘them,’ ‘they,’ or ‘their’ instead of the grammatically correct ‘he’ or ‘she,’ gets an F for the semester. . . . Is that enough respect for you?”
More recently, I wrote about Mx., a title increasingly preferred by those who do not identify as strictly male or female. I penned: “If people want to be addressed as ‘Mx. Bond’ [as artist Justin Vivian Bond prefers] . . . then that’s how I would refer to them. That’s called respect.” One reader quickly e-mailed me: “Why [are you] advocating Mx. for everyone?” — as though I had hit the delete key for “Mr.,” “Mrs.” and “Ms.”
When I wrote about Jenner’s public transition, I offered this advice: “When someone tells you they are transitioning, they’ll usually ask you to begin using their new name and pronoun right away. Follow their lead.” Instead, this anonymous
e-mailed response followed: “I suggest we go back to basics and not try to change the language, especially on the whim of ‘I want to be different.’ ”
Not change the language? Language evolves all the time, and a change that allows individuals and groups to claim their own identity increases civility, which costs the rest of us nothing.
Time and again, I hear some variation of this axiom: “Politically correct restrictions on what we can say and how we say it have been imposed by leftists to restrict debate and silence opposition.” That’s from Conservapedia, an online encyclopedia that defines itself as “free of corruption by liberal untruths.”
Personally (and as a journalist) I prefer the Economist’s style guide for reporters, which advises: “Avoid, if you can, giving gratuitous offence . . . you risk losing your readers. . . . But pandering to every plea for politically correct terminology may make your prose unreadable, and therefore also unread. So strike a balance. If you judge that a group wishes to be known by a particular term, that the term is widely understood and that using any other would seem odd, old-fashioned or offensive, then use it.”
To put it another way: My husband’s legal name is Vernon James, but he introduces himself as “Jim,” and that’s what everyone calls him. Why wouldn’t we, since that’s his preference? Likewise, why wouldn’t we respect the preferences of Asians, little people, unmarried parents and gay people?
Far from restricting debate, the language of political correctness has returned a new dignity to formerly marginalized groups. “People who argue that political correctness is hijacking candid, unabashed observations aren’t considering how their words are being perceived by all rather than just some others,” said Robert Connelly, an adjunct professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at American University.
Are there instances of excessive constraints? Yes. Penn State’s Letwin points to the banning of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for its inclusion of the N-word as an example. Can choosing your words properly be confusing? Sometimes, although listening usually helps.
Author Toni Morrison nailed it two decades ago when she told a journalist: “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”
“Call me Caitlyn,” says Jenner. Call me “Mx.,” says Bond. Call me Jim, says my husband. Call me “gay,” I ask. I suggest we listen to these voices and respect how people ask to be defined. It’s the considerate thing to do. And it takes no time at all.
Agree or disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments.