We call that kind of consideration manners and common decency. Were it not for the negative connotation, we might equally call it political correctness. But the negative connotation exists and, as connotations go, this one is powerful. It is not a little ironic that in some circles political correctness is treated as politically incorrect.
The negative connotation is not terribly hard to understand. For one thing, none of us likes to be corrected. The less kind the correction, the less we like it. For another, while the offense of “that person is fat” is universally understood, it’s not so easy to understand why a word with a history of acceptability in our own culture is suddenly to be avoided the moment another culture says, “We don’t like that.” Nor is it easy to understand the need to abandon a once-acceptable term when it begins to take on a new, unacceptable meaning.*
Yet attention to the effect of words on people coming from a different frame of reference tends to move society, albeit sometimes kicking and screaming, in a positive direction. Empathy, the art of identifying with what’s going on in someone else’s head, is a worthy talent to acquire and grow.
To be sure, sometimes PC speech is carried too far. Sometimes it is used to bully. Sometimes it is ambiguous, deceptive, excessively euphemistic. These are not arguments against PC speech. They are arguments against carrying it too far, against using it to bully, and against ambiguity, deception, and excessive euphemism.
The usual objections to PC speech do not hold up well. Take the fellow I know who frowned and lamented, “It’s getting to the point where you can’t disparage any group anymore.” That’s a bad thing? Or another who told me he resented having to “think so much” before opening his mouth. That, too, is a bad thing? Take my friends who, when I pointed out that a certain phrase was in fact a racial slur, apologized and pledged never again to use it. Ha, ha, just kidding. They launched into a diatribe on how “They” shouldn’t be so sensitive. Why not “We” shouldn’t be so insensitive? Or take those who reply, “lighten up,” “it was just a joke,” or “you don’t have to get so upset about it.” These knee-jerk defenses born of wounded pride are understandable, but they need to go. The more constructive reaction is to pause, think, and, where needed, apologize and make a mental note to do better.
I recall being corrected, not kindly, upon using what I theretofore did not know was a sexist term. To add to my humiliation, the colleague doing the correcting disliked me (which went both ways) and sought at every turn to sabotage my career (which did not). Trouble is, her correcting me was called for, and I have avoided the term ever since. I contented myself with finding other reasons not to like her, which abounded.
* It’s important not to fall prey to the Genetic Fallacy, that of holding to what a word once meant but no longer means. These days it’s not a good idea to refer to laymen as idiots. On the other hand, the former racial slur Samaritan has become quite the compliment.
Avoiding default racism
It troubles me that much of western literature tends to bring up race only when a character is non-white.
That’s race in the sense of geographically correlated appearance traits, not in the socially harmful and biologically irrelevant sense.
Most of the time, western authors treat white as the default. Yet I can think of no reason, other than lazy writing, that there should be one.
I wondered what would happen if, assuming it was important for readers to know any character’s race, the author identified every character’s. And, if it wasn’t important, identified none at all.
It can be done. I have read contemporary authors who pull it off. Kudos to them.
I’m trying to do it with my current project. Know what? It takes a lot of work not to let it get ridiculous or, worse, patronizing. I’m not above putting in the work. We are finally coming around to not calling an individual from a mixed gender group “he.” If we can avoid default sexism, maybe we can take a stab at avoiding default racism.
Welcome to Cunoblog
... where I share thoughts about writing. I don’t consider myself a writing authority, but that doesn’t keep me from presuming to blog like one. Oh, and I reserve the right to digress when I feel like it.