When I started attending school at BYU, political correctness was still recently taking hold in American culture. In high school my English teacher, Mrs. Summers, specifically taught us that if the gender was unknown, we were to use “he” or “his” as the pronoun as these signified both genders. For example:
“Each student in the class opened his book to the page specified.”
And back then we spoke of mailmen, chairmen, policemen, garbage men, etc. A person with a below average IQ was “mentally retarded” and someone that was overweight was “fat.” It was just the way things were.
Old habits die hard.
My initial introduction to politically correct English were somewhat negative. For example, I remember reading an Editorial in The Daily Universe talking about how horrible politically correct English was with all its meaning deficient words like: “horizontally challenged,” “special,” and “mail person.”
My view changed when I took a Technical Writing course from a self proclaimed “radical feminist.” I remember her being very quirky and often hypocritical; and I have my doubts about many of the technical writing principles she taught. But she did an incredible job of explaining the need to avoid “sexist language” and by extension sold me on political correctness.
One example she used was the sentence I just mentioned above: “Each student in the class opened his book to the page specified.”
According to her, in a study done they asked a group of men and women to draw a picture based upon that sentence. The women all drew a picture of a mixed gender class. The men all drew a picture of a male-only class. I could see her point.
I appreciated that she was careful to avoid a mistake many advocates of politically correct English make; she did not blame the individuals. “Of course the men drew the picture as a male-only class,” she said, “that’s what it literally said. They were just understanding it more literally then the women,” she said.
The Power of Language
She pointed out that we think with language. Thus if there is a gender bias, even unintentional bias, in our language then it will translate to a gender bias in life. This is why politically correctness is so important.
This explanation helped me past one of my own biases against political correctness; I now knew it wasn’t about torturing old fogies that can’t get with the program. She taught me to see political correctness as changing the way we use language so that we change the way we think to be more neutral or fair.
The very words we use affect how we feel about something. Saying a person is “a porker,” “fat,” “over weight,” or “obese” all mean the same thing technically, but carry vastly different connotations. This is where the real power of political correctness comes from: connotations.
A recent example I came across illustrates this: it is not an accident that we now refer to the “jungle” as the “rain forest.” At a time when protecting the rain forest really is a top priority, this slight change of language is well justified as it’s very likely to affect how we think and thus how we act.
One unfortunate side effect of political correctness is that some words were experimented with that had no meaning. To this day this is what anti-political correctness advocates think of when they think of political correctness.
While there may be nothing wrong with referring to a mentally challenged individual as “special” there is an issue with communication that must be dealt with. The word “special” tells an outsider nothing about one’s mental condition any more than “horizontally challenged” tells them something meaningful about one’s weight. Words that don’t communicate are not good words. This form of political correctness must be allowed to disappear.
But then I have to wonder: who is keeping such meaning-challenged words alive? Is it political correctness advocates or is it people making fun of political correctness? I have to admit I’ve never actually anyone use “horizontally challenged” as anything but a joke.
Do as I Say, Not as I Do: The Dark Side of Political Correctness
In my opinion, another stumbling block to many for feeling comfortable with political correctness is the fact that the political correctness advocates are often such bad examples of what they are advocating. I’m afraid my professor was such an example.
I can still remember her insisting on tolerance towards women in one sentence and then suddenly breaking into a deep voice to make fun of other professors as BYU (who she obviously saw as all men, due to her deep voice) and their “authoritative” ways. This mocking of other professors (besides herself of course) was worsened by the fact that she was the only overly authoritative professor I ever had at BYU.
I still remember her telling us all that we’d get to pick our own grades and she wasn’t in charge of the class. Empty words coming from a professor that decided what the class wanted based on what she wanted. I would have preferred for her to just admit she was a tyrant and that we need to conform to her ideas. I would have received a better grade that way.
For example, she had this idea that you could make a resume better by using a yellow highlighter on it to call attention to certain points. Every student in the class knew what a bad idea that was. I made the mistake of believing her when she said we could talk her into changing our grade at the end of class if we disagreed with her advice. On the last day of class, when I sat down with her to discuss why I felt my grade should be higher because no one in my industry would look upon a yellow highlight on a resume as a good thing, she merely brushed me aside and used her authority (which she wielded like a sword) to insist that “the class has decided this was a good idea.” Oh yeah, show me one person in that class beside her that agreed. But of course they all feared her so no one would dare speak up.
I think this is a real danger of being an advocate for tolerance. You can quickly become your own worst enemy and not even realize it. This is something I see as a problem with myself as well. I think it is more common then we realize.
The other concern I have with political correctness, and tolerance in general, is the fact that we, as a society, apply it unevenly. We believe certain categories of people deserve tolerance while others should be left in the cold. My professor’s sensitivity to gender-bias against women but lack of tolerance to male professors was just one example of this.
Recently I was listening to a podcast out of Yale about over weight people going to Doctors. It turns out that obese people tend to hate going to doctors because doctors treat them poorly. For one thing, they tend to cringe when having to touch their body. If my doctor cringed when he or she touched my body, I’d hate going to the doctors as well. And if there was a doctor that treated, say, African American’s this way, we’d brand him or her fast as the bigot he/she is.
The speaker also made the point that on television obese people are often there for comic relief via over weight jokes. The speaker claimed he’d just finished a study with statistical evidence to back this up. The interviewer asked him “Aren’t you over reacting? Isn’t it just a joke?”
His response: “Would you say that about racial jokes?”
The Darker Side of Word Control
Perhaps more concerning is when “political correctness” is used as a weapon to control other people’s thoughts for the sake of intolerance rather than tolerance.
Due to my interest in tolerant language, I have become sensitive to how words are used. So imagine my shock when I realized that a certain newspaper I read solely referred to people in favor of legalized abortion as “pro-choice” and referred solely to people against legalize abortion as “anti-abortionists.” Do you think this choice of words was an accident? Do you think it’s meant to be neutral, fair, or tolerant?
This is the very reason why I find referring to Mormons as “non-Christians” – especially if done with intent to deceive – to be an act of intolerance and deeply concerning.
Political Correctness as a Gospel Principle
In the end, political correctness, or at least the idea behind it, is really “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” But it adds the interesting, but correct, point that through use of language we may inadvertently bias the way people think about others in intolerant ways.