On the Follies of the Politically Correct Language Police

Published on December 30, 2013 by Gad Saad, Ph.D.

Earlier today, I was listening to a radio talk show where the topic of conversation revolved around couples who choose to forgo having children. I noticed that the term “childfree” was being used instead of “childless.” One presumes that this is because the former connotes freedom to choose one’s reproductive status whilst the latter is “deeply hurtful,” “offensive,” and “insensitive.” As someone who escaped execution in Lebanon because of my religious heritage (for a brief description of my harrowing past see here), I am baffled by these manufactured first-world problems. There are astonishing injustices that take place daily around the globe against women, members of the LBGT community, religious minorities, apostates, atheists, children, animals, and countless other hapless victims, and yet entitled professional “victims” spend their lives coming up with ways to combat the “violence” of so-called politically incorrect terms. This movement stems in part from two separate ideas: 1) Deconstructionism, a postmodernist framework that purports that language creates reality (see my earlier article critiquing postmodernism here); and 2) Ethos of illusory victimhood, which in this case contends that politically incorrect terms are a form of violent assault (i.e., assault is not merely restricted to the physical realm). Put these two ideas together and you get a recipe for “language police” lunacy.

I conducted a few quick Google searches to identify some politically incorrect terms and their correct counterparts. Here is a small list of such words:

Secretary => Administrative assistant

Stewardess => Flight attendant

Janitor => Custodial engineer

Garbage collector => Sanitation engineer

Hairdresser => Stylist

Waiter => Server

Prostitute => Sex worker

Chairman => Chairperson

History => Herstory (or hertory)

Women => Womyn

Mankind => Humankind or humanity

Sex change => Gender re-assignment

Terrorist => Freedom fighter

Terrorist act => Man-made disaster

Founding Fathers (of the United States) => The founders

Birth defect => Congenital disability

Mentally ill => Person with mental illness (this is known as people-first language)

Handicapped => Differently abled

Healthy/normal => Able-bodied

Fat/Obese => Differently weighted

Black => African-American 

Oriental person => Asian person

Oriental rug => It is perfectly fine to use the term “oriental” in describing objects but not people

Illegal immigrant => Undocumented immigrant

Eskimo => Inuit

Native Indians (in Canada) => First Nations

Christmas => Happy holidays

I don’t wish to imply that language is an innocuous mode of communication. Of course, humans have used language since time immemorial to inflict injury and pain on one another. However, while it is incumbent on all decent people to do their best to avoid hurting one another, these politically correct language initiatives are misguided and harmful. They create highly entitled professional “victims” who expect to be free from any offense, and they engender a stifling atmosphere where all individuals walk on eggshells lest they might commit a linguistic capital crime (unbeknownst to them in the great majority of instances). It is not “dehumanizing” to call someone an illegal immigrant if he/she resides in the host country illegally. There is nothing offensive about the word “obese.” It is a descriptor of a person’s weight. Given the current meaning of “African American,” white South Africans and olive-skinned Algerians who are naturalized Americans cannot be called “African-American” even though they originate from Africa. The linguistic idiocy is endless. Of all possible ways that someone might work to make the world a better place, it is difficult to imagine a less worthy endeavor than engaging in endless and somewhat random linguistic samba (is it offensive to use the term “samba” here?).

By the way, I am very hurt that my physician stated that my body mass index places me in the obese category. He is being unduly offensive and is engaging in genocidal fatism. He should understand that in reality I simply have a different but equally beautiful physical form consisting of largely “soft” tissue. As a member of the (visible majority) community of the differently weighted, my feelings should be protected at all costs.

Given the topic of today’s post, it is quite an irony that I live in the province of Quebec where the provincial government has an official language police (l’Office québécois de la langue française) that imposes Orwellian laws to ensure that the French language reigns supreme (see for example the recent “pastagate” incident as well as the case wherein hospital employees were “caught” speaking to one another in Creole). These language police initiatives whether stemming from political correctness gone haywire or linguistic-based paranoia are an affront to freedom.

I wish you all a Happy New Year filled with health, love, and happiness.

Political correctness  (from the Economist off the internet. No date given.)

Avoid, if you can, giving gratuitous offence (see Euphemisms): you risk losing your readers, or at least their goodwill, and therefore your arguments. 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. Context may be important: Coloured is a common term in South Africa for people of mixed race; it is not considered derogatory. Elsewhere it may be. Remember that both times and terms change: expressions that were in common use a few decades ago are now odious. Nothing is to be gained by casually insulting your readers.

On the other hand, do not labour to avoid imaginary insults, especially if the effort does violence to the language. Some people, such as the members of the Task Force on Bias-Free Language of the Association of American University Presses, believe that ghetto-blaster is “offensive as a stereotype of African-American culture”, that it is invidious to speak of a normal child, that massacre should not be used “to refer to a successful American Indian raid or battle victory against white colonisers and invaders”, and that the use of the term cretin is distressing. They want, they say, to avoid “victimisation” and to get “the person before the disability”. The intent may be admirable, but they are unduly sensitive, often inventing slights where none exists.

An example is given by Denis Dutton in his review of the editors' advice (“What Are Editors For?”, Philosophy and Literature 20, 1996). Mr Dutton points out that the origins of the word cretin lie in the Latin word for Christian. The term, he says, came into use as a way of acknowledging the essential humanity of a physically deformed or intellectually subnormal person. It is now used for a definable medical condition. The editors' aversion to cretin presumably arises from its slight similarity to cripple, a plain word now almost universally discarded in favour of the euphemistic physically handicapped or disabled.

As Mr Dutton points out, Thomas Bowdler provides a cautionary example. His version of Shakespeare, produced in 1818 using “judicious” paraphrase and expurgation, was designed to be read by men to their families with no one offended or embarrassed. In doing so, he gave his name to an insidious form of censorship.  

Some people believe the possibility of giving offence, causing embarrassment, lowering self-esteem, reinforcing stereotypes, perpetuating prejudice, victimising, marginalising or discriminating to be more important than stating the truth, never mind the chance of doing so with any verve or panache.  They are wrong. Do not bowdlerise your own prose.  You may be neither Galileo nor Salman Rushdie, but you too may sometimes be right to cause offence. Your first duty is to the truth.

You also have a duty to grammar.  The struggle to be gender-neutral rests on a misconception about Gender, a grammatical convention to make words masculine, feminine or neuter. Since English is unusual in assigning few genders to nouns other than those relating to people (ships and countries are exceptions), feminists have come to argue that language should be gender-neutral.

This would be a forlorn undertaking in most tongues, and even in English it presents difficulties. It may be no tragedy that policemen are now almost always police officers and firemen firefighters, but to call chairmen chairs serves chiefly to remind everyone that the world of committees and those who make it go round are largely devoid of humour. Avoid also chairpersons (chairwoman is permissible), humankind and the person in the street—ugly expressions all.

It is no more demeaning to women to use the words actress, ballerina or seamstress than goddess, princess or queen. (Similarly, you should feel as free to separate Siamese twins or welsh on debts—at your own risk—as you would to go on a Dutch treat, pass through french windows, or play Russian roulette. Note, though, that you risk being dogged by catty language police.)

If you believe it is “exclusionary” or insulting to women to use he in a general sense, you can rephrase some sentences in the plural. Thus Instruct the reader without lecturing him may be put as Instruct readers without lecturing them. But some sentences resist this treatment: Find a good teacher and take his advice is not easily rendered gender-neutral. So do not be ashamed of sometimes using man to include women, or making he do for she.

And, so long as you are not insensitive in other ways, few women will be offended if you restrain yourself from putting or she after every he.

  He or she which hath no stomach to this fight,
  Let him or her depart; his or her passport shall be made,
  And crowns for convoy put into his or her purse:
  We would not die in that person's company
  That fears his or her fellowship to die with us.

In some contexts, though, she can be a substitute for he:

  That ever was thrall, now is he free;
  That ever was small, now great is she;
  Now shall God deem both thee and me
  Unto His bliss if we do well.

(15th-century carol)

Avoid, above all, the sort of scrambled syntax that people adopt because they cannot bring themselves to use a singular pronoun: We can't afford to squander anyone's talents, whatever colour their skin is. Or When someone takes their own life, they leave their loved ones with an agonising legacy of guilt. Or There's a child somewhere in Birmingham and all across the country and needs somebody to put their arm around them and to say: “I love you; you're a part of America.” (George Bush)

A Politically Correct Lexicon

Your ‘how-to’ guide to avoid offending anyone

BY Joel Bleifuss

In the late ’70s, “politically correct,” “PC” for short, entered the public lexicon. Folks on the left used the term to dismiss views that were seen as too rigid and, also, to poke fun at themselves for the immense care they took to neither say nor do anything that might offend the political sensibilities of others. “You are so PC,” one would say with a smile. In the ’80s, the right, taking the words at face value, latched on to the term and used it to deride leftish voices. Beleaguered progressives, ever earnest, then defended political correctness as a worthy concept, thus validating conservatives’ derision. Today, on both the left and the right, being PC is no laughing matter; three decades of culture wars have generated a bewildering thicket of terminology.

To help me parse what’s PC and what’s not, I had help from people attuned to the nuances of words, particularly those that describe race, ethnicity and sexual identity. Rinku Sen is a 40-year-old South Asian woman. She is the publisher of Colorlines, a national magazine of race and politics, for which she has developed a PC style manual. Tracy Baim is a 44-year-old white lesbian. She grapples with the ever-evolving nomenclature of sexual identity and politics as the executive editor of Windy City Times, a Chicago-based gay weekly. Lott Hill is a 36-year-old white gay male who works at Center for Teaching Excellence at Columbia College in Chicago. He interacts with lots of young people–the font from which much new language usage flows.

African American: In 1988 Jesse Jackson encouraged people to adopt this term over the then-used “black.” As he saw it, the words acknowledged black America’s ties to Africa. “African American,” says Hill, is now “used more by non-African-American people, who cling to it because they are unsure what word to use.” Sen says, “African American” is favored by “highly educated people who are not black. Whether one uses ‘black’ or ‘African American’ indicates how strong your social relations are with those communities.” And Chris Raab, founder of Afro-Netizen, says, “People who are politically correct chose to use African American, but I don’t recall any mass of black folks demanding the use of African American.”

Asian: The correct term to use for anyone of Asian ancestry. When accuracy is desired, nationality of origin is appended to “American,” as in “Korean American.” Sen, who describes herself as South Asian or Indian American, says that there is “some push around not conflating everybody into Asian. This is mostly an issue among new immigrants. If there hasn’t been time for a generation, it seems to be hard to move those folks to the Asian category.”

Bitch: A word, says Baim, which is “absolutely being reclaimed by a younger generation of women who are asserting their sexuality and control of their sexuality.” Successfully repurposed by Bitch magazine over the past decade, ‘Bitch’ is now becoming passé as less edgy writers like Cathi Hanauer, author of The Bitch in the House, adopt it. Similarly, though more slowly, “slut,” “whore” and “cunt” are being reappropriated. “The young people use those terms all the time teasingly and sometimes to even refer to themselves,” says Hill. “It is more common to hear someone say ‘I am a slut’ than ‘I am a whore.’ ” “Cunt” is gaining currency among some young lesbians, though Baim says it is a word that gets stuck in her throat. “While it is a reclaimed word, it is one I can hardly say, the same way some older blacks have trouble saying the n-word.”

Black: At Colorlines “black” is used with a capital B, while The Associate Press Stylebook advises use of the lower case.

Boi: A word, says Hill, that is “used by young queer people to refer to either young gay males or young females who are presenting as males.”

Brown: A general term for people who are not white. Colorlines uses “brown” in a casual or playful way. “We might have a headline ‘Brown People to the Back’ in a story about restaurant hierarchy,” Sen says. Sometimes used to refer to Latinos, as in the “black-brown” coalition that helped elect Harold Washington mayor of Chicago in 1983.

Chicano: Correct term for people of Mexican ancestry, popularized during the civil rights movement. “We use it to refer to U.S.-born people of Mexican descent,” says Sen. “Mexican American is the more distant, politer thing to say.”

Dyke: A word lesbians have reclaimed. Hill, however, says that among the young it is “on its way out.”

Fag (faggot): The new “queer.” “Like the n-word, it’s a word that can be said by gay people,” says Hill. “I hear ‘fag’ a great deal, especially among queer-identified young people, like ‘don’t be such a fag’ or ‘you are such a fag.’ “

Feminist: “A word that the younger generation doesn’t always embrace,” is how Baim, 44, describes it. A lot of young women, she says, are “feminists but they don’t want to be pigeonholed.” “Feminist somehow became a tainted word along the way,” says Hill. “I have heard a lot of people say, ‘this sounds feminist’ or ‘I used to be a feminist.’ “

Gay: The word used to refer to males and, inclusively, to the whole gender-bent community. “College-age people are more likely to refer to themselves as queer,” say Hill. “People out of college are more likely to refer to themselves as gay.”

Girl: “‘Girl’ is used by older women,” says Baim. “It is kind of nice because it used to be used derogatorily and now it is used in a fun way.”

GLBT: Shorthand for GLBTQ2IA.

GLBTQ2IA: The acronym for Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Transgendered, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Allies. “This is coming from the youth movement, the college campuses, it has not seeped into the whole community at this point,” says Baim, who at the Windy City Times uses GLBT, an acronym the New York Times has not yet seen fit to print.

Guys: Very controversial. Used, especially in the Midwest, when referring to a group of people. “In Chicago that word gets used a lot,” says Hill. And Baim says, “I use it all of the time.” Some feminists, like Andi Zeisler, the editor of Bitch, find “guys” problematic. “We assume the descriptor ‘guys’ denotes a quality of universality,” she says. “It would be hard to imagine a group of men being addressed by their server as ‘hey you gals’ and not taking offense, but the reverse happens all the time.”

Hir (hirs): Gender neutral for him and her. At Wesleyan University, incoming freshmen are instructed to use gender-neutral pronouns in campus correspondence. As one person wrote on the university’s online Anonymous Confession Board, “I am usually attracted only to people of hir original gender, rather than hir intended gender. As such, I’m afraid that I’m, like, viewing hir wrong, or not respecting hir wishes or something.”

Hispanic: “We never use Hispanic,” says Sen. “It privileges the European roots of the identity of Mexicans born in the United States.” Hispanic, however, is the preferred term of people in the Southwest whose families are descendents of Spanish colonists.

Indian: The preferred term for Native Americans. “Indians either use their specific tribal name or use Indian,” says Sen. “You use the qualifier American when you need to distinguish from Indian Indians.”

Latino: (Capital “L,” with “a” or “o” at the end used to connote gender.) Politically correct term for those from Spanish or Portuguese speaking cultures. “We use it instead of Hispanic when we want to refer to many different national groups where there has been an indigenous-European mix,” says Sen.

Lesbian: “The younger generations are less connected with the terms ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’,” says Baim. “Lesbian is out of favor as a self-identifying label, it means something political, something more rigid than the younger generation is comfortable with.”

Macaca: The latinization of the Bantu “ma-kako,” meaning monkey. According to the Global Language Monitor, former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) helped make this the most politically incorrect word of 2006 by using it to refer to an Indian American.

Native American: Some Indians object to the term, seeing it as a way to linguistically eradicate “Indian” and thus the history of their oppression by whites. “I almost always hear Native American, and in the more enlightened conversations there is usually ‘indigenous’ thrown in there somewhere,” says Lott. Sen says, “Native American seems to be a more distant construction, developed by academics.”

Nigger: “It is a word that white students struggle with and black students use pretty freely,” says Hill. “Young people are much more open to using it, especially young people who are black or who have been exposed to more diverse groups of people.” While Sen says, “I can’t imagine a political or a social multiracial situation where it would be appropriate, but I know that is because I am too old. The word is so prevalent in the popular youth culture, grounded in hip-hop, that I wouldn’t like to predict where that debate is going to end up. But if the popular culture ends up agreeing that it is okay to use, then I think there are a lot of pretty scary implications.”

Queer: Anyone who falls outside the lines of straight. “It has been reclaimed far ahead of faggot or dyke,” says Baim. “It is our buzz word,” says Columbia College’s Hill. “It is how we avoid saying all of those letters [GLBTQ2IA].” REM lead singer Michael Stipe, for example, is queer, not gay. “For me, queer describes something that’s more inclusive of the gray areas,” he told Butt, a pocket-sized Dutch “fagazine.” “It’s really about identity I think. The identity I’m comfortable with is queer because I just think it’s more inclusive.”

Transgendered: (trans) A person who is not presenting as their biological gender. “It is fascinating how transgendered is becoming like an octopus with all the tentacles of identity and personal design. The transgendered movement is burgeoning and fluid, they are creating all of these new ways to define who they are,” says Baim.

Ze: Gender neutral for he or she. As Mary Boenke writes on the PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) Web site: “When talking with Leslie Feinberg, noted transgender author, I asked Leslie which pronouns to use. Ze shrugged hir shoulders and said ze didn’t care.”

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

Leftists’ politically correct dictionary

Activists redefine words to promote socialist values

- - Monday, October 15, 2012

Since the 1960s, a “correct” political language has been imposed on Americans.

For example, none of the following set of terms was in the New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language in 1971: African-American, entitlement, environmentalism, Hispanic, multiculturalism, Native American, nonjudgmental, sexism, victimization. Just 15 years later, all of these leftist terms were in Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary of 1986.

A further sampling from now-widespread leftist terminology would include: feminism, Chicano, sensitivity training, homelessness, consciousness-raising, right-wing extremism, Islamophobia, bullying, male chauvinism, no-fault divorce, racial profiling, lifestyle, Christian fundamentalism, social safety net, bilingual education, sexual harassment, hate speech, underprivileged, same-sex marriage, and social justice — the politically correct synonym for socialism.

Left-wing activists have seen to it that students entering universities receive lists of forbidden words, such as the use of “man” in generic reference to human beings (for example, the word “congressman” for any member of Congress, which is said to be an affront to women). Those lists provide substitute diction for the censored words (e.g. “freshperson” for freshman).

American children nowadays begin learning the concepts of environmentalism and homosexual “marriage” as early as first and second grade.

Language activists also redefine words. “Discrimination,” which used to mean to make distinctions, now means to manifest prejudices. “Abortion” used to mean destroying human life in the womb; now it means the right to choose without regard to what is chosen. The word “diversity” had its meaning changed to the forced matriculation, hiring and promotion of “underrepresented classes.” The term “budget cut” now refers to an increase in government funding that is below the previous year’s percentage of increase.

Even core words of America’s culture have been redefined. “Freedom” has become liberation from the authority of the Ten Commandments. “Equality” means giving special privileges to “victims of oppression.” “Patriotism” means the desire to transform America.

The goal in many of these vocabulary changes is to form a new primary identity. By giving women, blacks, persons of Mexican ancestry, homosexuals and other such “identity groups” a sense of belonging to oppressed biological classes, language activists have forged a weapon for class struggle that is more effective than economic status.

When oppression is defined biologically — skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation — the idea of oppression persists no matter how well off an individual may be because no one can change his or her biology. Oppression based on biology can only be eliminated through cultural “transformation” (i.e., the creation of a new culture).

The widespread use of politically correct language is “deconstructing” American culture. Our shared belief in God-given, equal birthrights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is being destroyed, along with belief in constitutional government, Judeo-Christian morality, marriage, the free market and personal responsibility. These American cultural beliefs are being replaced by the ideas that society is responsible for everybody’s welfare, that government regulation must be centralized and unlimited, that only justice that is “social” matters and that “saving the planet” has far greater value than the “greed” that leftists claim is the essence of a free-market economy.

After two generations of being browbeaten by accusations of “sexism” and “racism,” many Americans have accepted the ideology of the left and have stopped acting on the cultural beliefs that made us a great nation and have attracted more immigrants to the United States than to any other country in the world.

Candidates for Congress often promise to make decisions to rein in runaway government spending. The politically correct language that is producing socialistic ways of thinking and behaving here in America prevent those promises from being kept.

John Harmon McElroy is a retired University of Arizona professor and author of “Divided We Stand” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

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