Sunday, December 7, 2008

America Needs Political Correctness

Originally posted at Swords Crossed. I made some modifications to fit this new context.

(Due to the recent debate regarding the use of the term `happy holidays,' I thought I would write a diary about political correctness to show its rational basis in linguistics and society.)

"The interdependence of thought and speech makes it clear that languages are not so much a means of expressing truth that has already been established, but are a means of discovering truth that was previously unknown. Their diversity is a diversity not of sounds and signs but of ways of looking at the world." ~ Karl Kerenyi

Referential Language
`Political correctness' falls into the realm of language. For this reason, it becomes difficult to discuss unless we tackle the `nature' of linguistics and how language shapes, or, at the very least, helps shape our reality. Much of our use of language is taken for granted, and we begin to think that language is referential instead of constitutive and differential. What I mean by this is that we think that we see an objective universe before us and we just attach `names,' `labels,' or `terms' to what is already objectively present in front of us. This idea started with Plato. Plato's forms present the idea of the referential view of reality. Plato argues that there are forms (think of these as ultimate or archetypal concepts of individual things) that exists independent of our mind and we just have to discover them, though they are already there. All the worldly forms are imitations of those otherworldly forms. That view of language and reality does not hold much weight. Referentialism is equivalent to `universals' in linguistics-never changing.

Differential and Constitutive Language
Most linguists now accept that language is differential instead of referential. What is the difference between differential and referential? Differential treats the world like one big nameless mush of matter. What we then do with this mush is differentiate things from other things in order to create order from the flux of chaos before our eyes. Once we are able to separate one thing from another, we then can differentiate it from the surrounding matter by giving it a name. Thus, only a small number of things before our eyes actually have names and are differentiated from what surround them. This idea works at the linguistic level as well. We differentiate the sounds of `t' and `d' for example to make the two separate terms `dot' and `tot', though they are extremely closely related (but are a small example of the untouched possibilities of verbal sounds. Interesting side note: most Asians languages do not separate the sounds of `l' and `r' which causes the mispronunciation of many English words that depend on the differences in these sounds). Differential is the equivalent to relativism in linguistics-various cultures see the world differently based on their language (Whorf [see below] did extensive studies on the differences between Native American languages and English to show that we `think' and `perceive' the world differently due to language. If you are fluent in a foreign language, think about phrases or words that are untranslatable to see how cultures view the world differently based on their language). Thus language is constitutive (constructs reality) because it shapes the way we receive the world since we are dealing with ready-made concepts that are differential.

Language Shapes Reality
"What in the hell does differentiation have to do with `political correctness'?" you ask at this point. Everything. I'm trying to show that in many ways we have a `selective' reality, and language helps to shape it. In fact, since we (as in me writing this and you reading this) did not create many of the words we use today; our reality has been shaped for us through the language given to us. Many of these ideas about differentiation come from Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (pay attention to the section on `difference') and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states:

"We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds-and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way - an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language... all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated."
- (Language, Thought and Reality pp. 212-214).

Since we have come to the conclusion that language shapes our reality, we must now examine how language is used in society to further understand `political correctness'.

Power Structures
Although there are some who may disagree, I do not believe we live in a perfectly egalitarian society. Rather, I think there are power dynamics at work in our society that give preferential treatment to some members of our society compared to others. For example, I believe we live in a patriarchal society. Evidence for this argument comes from multiple sources. One source is our names. Our lineage stems from patronyms. If you've ever done genealogy, you know that tracing the mother's line is much more difficult than the father's. Women also make 70 cents to the dollar for the same work that men do. I do not wish to focus my attention on this issue other than to show that we live in a society where some groups have privileges in this country for various historical reasons. Those with privilege are young, straight, white, middle-to-upper class males. (Please do not take this as a criticism of any of these traits. For all intents and purposes, I am all of these traits also, and none of us chose to have this privilege. Some just happened to win the luck of the draw.) As you can see, these privileges are based on sex, age, race, class, and sexual orientation. (Other factors exist in the periphery such as height, weight, and ability.) As I stated previously, for various and for the most part random historical reasons, we have a `norm' in our society. People that do not fit this norm are seen as `other'. For example, when discussing events, people usually point out race only if it is not white. (A reverse example may be in order to illustrate this for us white folks who do not pay attention to such things: we only discuss `white' people if we are in the minority or the `other' in a certain context, for example basketball. We say Larry Bird was a good `white' basketball player, but for Michael Jordan we just say he is a good basketball player, because the assumption is that he is already `black'. For anything else though, we usually point out the minority race.) Another example would be Danica Patrick who is always referred to as a `female' IRL driver. I've never heard the term 'male IRL or NASCAR driver' used before to describe a driver. It was assumed ahead of time. This practice has both positive and negative attributes. On one hand, it draws attention to inclusivity of those on the margins. On the other, it maintains the categorical distinctions of norms and margins. Still this practice can be viewed as another element in PC.

Political Correctness
Let's review: 1) Language shapes our reality. 2) There are power dynamics at work that give privilege to some groups over others (no puppet master controlling this situation, but that's just the way it is).

With these two things in mind, we are ready to see why `political correctness' is important. We can consciously try to reshape our language to create new modes of thinking that change reality. The article at Wikipedia on `political correctness' says this better than I do:
The goal of changing language and terminology consists of several points, including:
1. Certain people have their rights, opportunities, or freedoms restricted due to their categorization as members of a group with a derogatory stereotype.
2. This categorization is largely implicit and unconscious, and is facilitated by the easy availability of labeling terminology.
3. By making the labeling terminology problematic, people are made to think consciously about how they describe someone.
4. Once labeling is a conscious activity, individual merits of a person, rather than their perceived membership in a group, become more apparent.

In other words, we can take the terms that give power to one group and diffuse that power to make things on a more equal footing. Isn't that what we want in this society to make things fair for everybody? The system only works if we all start out with the same opportunities. Racial bias, sexism, homophobia, etc make it so some start out without the same opportunity. To help eradicate these thoughts and the subsequent actions that stem from these thoughts, we must help change the reality (perception) that leads to them. A real world example is the tendency toward gender neutral terms. Instead of saying fireman which excludes the idea of a woman fulfilling this occupation, we now use the neutral term firefighter so that reality (through language) tells aspiring females that they are not excluded. Simple enough and no big deal right?

I should also note that PC is inclusive rather than exclusive, though the majority term is often not noted (as discussed above with the `male' NASCAR driver etc.). The minority term is not supposed to exclude the majority; it is only to make it apparent that it includes the minority as well. For example, bathrooms are now `wheel-chair accessible'. Does that mean it impairs the ability of able-bodied users to use the restroom? No, it just makes it clear that those who may need extra help have it. Another example is the term `hearing-impaired. This is an umbrella term which covers deafness, those partially deaf, or even those in an area too loud to focus in on one audio source (such as a TV in a bar). Again, it is unnecessary to state that those with properly functioning hearing can listen because it is assumed. This discussion pertains to our current `Happy Holiday' debate we hear from the right. This is comparable to `Merry Christmas' in that `Happy Holidays' already covers Christmas (Christmas is the majority holiday), but sometimes we find it necessary to make the minority term overt to make it clear we also include the minority too. If we found it necessary to include the majority terms always, for every NASCAR driver we would go through a ridiculous and redundant list of assumptions (straight, middle-aged, male, etc).

Political correctness should not be confused with its counterpart, `Identity Politics'. Identity politics is related to PC, but only in the same way that religion is related to evolution through creation stories, tangentially. In other words, PC and identity politics both deal with the inegalitarian social structures in our society but they take different approaches. Identity politics thinks the best way to settle power differences is to separate from the major group and draw attention to their cause in radical ways, usually (but not always) by attempting to reverse the hierarchy and claim the minority subset is more superior than the majority group. Some examples of I.P. are the Black Panthers, the radical feminist movement (womyn), a lot of nationalist movements, etc. There is some overlap with PC, but to call these separatist groups PC is incorrect because its strategy is exclusiveness rather than inclusiveness.

A common criticism says political correctness is mind control and newspeak. In a way this is right: political correctness is attempting to change thoughts and behaviors. These changes are for the better in my view, since they help dissipate the reality that leads to an unjust society. What this criticism does not understand is that the language we use now is not more neutral than the `politically correct' terminology. It is just as loaded and creates its own version of reality and newspeak. The only difference is that one leads to positive results and a more equal society, while the other traps groups in negative connotations (thus subjects them to a less-empowered reality).

Another criticism states that political correctness does not change behavior. Although there is debate about the degree language can modify behavior, Sapir and Whorf made compelling arguments that are accepted in the social sciences. If you do not follow my argument about how language shapes reality, a good book for you to read to further understand these points is Language, Thought, and Reality. One would basically have to argue for a referential view of linguistics to say that language does not shape thought and one word is just as good as another (since the concepts are everlasting in their forms). Most linguists would laugh at this assertion. I'm not claiming PC is a cure-all, but it will lead in that direction instead of maintaining the status-quo by using the less-empowering or downright insulting pejorative terms.

For these reasons, I believe `political correctness' is valuable. If you also value a society that embraces the American ideal that anyone can make it because we all have the same opportunity, then I hope you find a new appreciation for `politically correct.' If not, then I think you are hindering American ideals in favor of aristocratic beliefs in which established classes or categories have structured favor. I do not expect everyone to agree with this argument. I'm aware there are excesses and it is impossible to accommodate everyone. But that does not mean PC is entirely worthless. Perhaps if you do not agree, at the very least my argument will create more understanding on the topic.

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