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Mailbox: When Saying "Politically Correct" Is No Longer Correct

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Readers had many thoughts on that artifact of the current cultural wars, namely, political correctness. Below are some of the most thoughtful and provocative, led by Melanie Huff, the Assistant Dean of Students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where I am currently a visiting professor. She offers some illuminating personal history.

Back in the late 80s when I was in grad school, I ran with an unabashedly liberal crowd whose favorite acronym was PC for Politically Correct. I do not know when the term was coined but it felt fresh and exciting. If we had had a mission statement it would have been to render the world more PC. We devoted much time and intellectual energy to deconstructing all that we encountered for white, male, wealthy, heterocentric exclusivity. PC summed up in two easy letters everything in which we believed.

Our zealousness was fueled in large part by anger at the AIDS epidemic. Several of my friends were active in ACT-UP.

AIDS and the world's reaction to it cast a bright light on many of the decidedly un-PC premises still in place in spite of the civil rights, women's rights and gay rights victories that had been achieved at that time.

The mood then was to view political correctness not as a long-range goal to be achieved through education, but as a concept whose time had come and whose immediate implementation was imperative—people were dying!

They were not wrong and Act-Up and other activists of that time achieved a great deal.

But it is perhaps that urgency and sense of rigid orthodoxy—you are with us or against us—that made the term suspect. In disallowing discourse and seeming to attack those who didn't subscribe, the mission was undermined. Looking back, I think that is how the term devolved. While the underlying beliefs of the PC doctrine are absolutely something to which to aspire, the term is undeniably tainted and at this point likely counterproductive to a dialogue that can result in substantive, positive change.

I agree that being political can be noble. It is perhaps the word correct that is more problematic. Correct is understood to be the opposite of wrong. It is a fixed notion. Perhaps we need a new term that isn't so easily perceived as accusatory. Politically sensitive? Politically inclusive?

NPR newscaster Jamie McIntyre also weighed in:

After reading your thoughtful discourse on the use of the terms "politically correct," and "political correctness," and "political correctness gone too far," I was struck with the inescapable irony that labeling the phrase "politically correct" politically incorrect is the ultimate in political correctness gone too far.

The danger inherent in attempting to speak in a "politically correct" manner, is that in an effort to avoid offending the most sensitive members of our society or audience, we ban the use of perfectly good, accurate descriptive phrases for fear of running afoul of a small group of people with a political agenda. Hence the phrase "politically correct."

At its worst, political correctness can be a form of Orwellian newspeak in which non-pejorative descriptions that accurately convey clear unambiguous thoughts are demonized, and banned in favor of bland replacements. A "war-lord" becomes a "faction leader." Words are drained of their meanings.

Hence people who are in the country illegally are "illegal immigrants." We should NOT be afraid to use that description, which is, by the way the style followed by both the AP and New York Times. The phrase "undocumented immigrant" may be more accurate for a specific person, for whom we don't know their legal status. But it's not a great substitute for "illegal immigrants."

That's just one example. But to suggest that when we have debates about when political correctness goes too far, we can't or shouldn't use the perfectly serviceable and descriptive phrase "politically correct," well, that just strikes me as absurdly ironic.

People want to ban words because they don't like the ideas behind them. It's one step away from banning ideas.

That is not to excuse or to condone truly hurtful, hateful and inaccurate words and phrases that reinforce stereotypes and should have no place in civil discourse, much less our reporting. We need to choose words carefully, and avoid insulting formulations. I, for example never use "Mecca" to refer to a popular place, as in "shopping Mecca." I consider that insulting to Islam, even if many people don't.

But here's the real chilling effect of pretending political correctness is itself a pejorative: it means we can't talk about it in a meaningful way. It suggests that excessive political correctness doesn't exist. And it labels those of use who think of it is a real phenomena and a real problem insensitive Neanderthals.

Julia Schauble (JuliaNadine) wrote, referring to NPR's vice president for diversity, Keith Woods, who considered the term a pejorative to be avoided:

I agree with Keith Woods and am glad that you looked it up in the dictionary for me. The last time somebody used the term "politically correct" to describe something I said, I was offended because I thought that implied insincerity and saying what I thought I was "supposed to" say. Consideration and sensivity are good; political correctness is bad. So don't use the word unless you intend it to be pejorative.

Tom Hanks (Not_The_Actor) wrote:

It was bound to happen. It is no longer politically correct to call political correctness "political correctness."

Miss M (Marceline) wrote:

Political correctness is a pejorative term for what used to be called common courtesy. People who don't want to be bothered with thinking about how their words and action affect other people are usually the first to charge someone with political correctness.

For instance, is it politically correct to use the term "Native American" where we once said "Indian?" Or is it just accuracy? Some people don't want to have to think about such things. Those are the ones who are the first to complain about "political correctness."

Cullen Seltzer wrote on Facebook:

My sense is that the term "politically correct" is almost always used disdainfully as an objection to being unnaturally forced to accept something as true when the speaker knows it to be false. A typical example: "I know it's not 'politically correct,' but I walk across the street when I see a young black man walking towards me." The speaker wants the listener to believe he isn't a racist, he's just a realist, and that only a fool would ignore reality in service to some hyper-idealized notion of liberal sentimentality.

As I expected, my idealistic conception of political correctness lost out to the pejorative connotation now attached to the expression. I agree with the apparent position of McIntyre and Hank, however, and not with Woods, over whether one can even use the term "political correctness." Your own continued thoughts are welcome.



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