This holiday season, I’ve been told, was all quiet on the PC front — meaning, I guess, that those pesky people who push politically correct language didn’t manage to ruin anyone’s Christmas this year.
(All this time I’ve been ruining Christmas! I never knew.)
Having a few conversations with those who expressed relief at not having been wished a “happy holiday” instead of a “Merry Christmas” got me thinking about why I no longer use the phrase “politically correct.”
The term PC has an interesting history and its meaning has shifted over the decades, but in common, contemporary terms, using PC language represents — or at least is intended to represent — a commitment to avoid language that is oppressive. For example, language is oppressive when it has a history of dehumanizing people (such as the N-word), or when it employs stereotypes (which are by nature reductive and dehumanizing), or when it assumes, as “Merry Christmas” sometimes does, that the beliefs and traditions of the majority population are more important and more legitimate than the beliefs and traditions of minority groups.
But PC has an alternative, pejorative meaning, one with which we’re all familiar, and it’s the refrain of people who can’t comprehend why they are being asked to change their behaviour for other people’s benefit.
“Nobody can be PC all the time! It’s too much work!” is the complaint, and I find that perplexing, because it completely misses the point.
There is no gradient of more or less PC. It’s not a game, where you win a prize once you’ve achieved 85 per cent “PC-ness.” Politically correct language is not a hat that you put on in public and take off when you come home — or at least it shouldn’t be.
The goal of political correctness is not to be the language police, telling you what you can and can’t say: It’s about understanding why some language is harmful.
If you’re not doing that — if you’re only aware that certain words or expressions are “bad” because someone will yell at you if you say it, and not because they are used to oppress and delegitimize — then you’ve not got the point.
And once you understand that the language you’ve used is harmful, you recognize that it’s always wrong, not just when someone of a specific religion, racial group, sexual orientation or gender is around to hear what you say.
That’s why I resist using the phrase “politically correct,” and why I wince when I hear it used as a pejorative. It reduces the goals of complex movements for social justice, racial equality and women’s rights into a simple “just don’t say X or the language police will get you!” formula.
Canadians are frustrated, I suppose, with having to take other people’s opinions and feelings into consideration in ways we never had to in the past. There’s a fear that using language that reflects multicultural tolerance is changing the fundamental makeup of our society, and this fear always ramps up around Christmas time.
Christy Wampole recently published a highly discussed opinion piece in the New York Times that declares that “maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline.” Which is true, I guess, if you squint, but the necessary addendum here is that if white men are losing their privileges, they are not losing their rights. They are now just regular people. Meanwhile, the rest of us have been fighting for decades, centuries, to be treated like regular people. It’s pretty hard to lament the fate of those who have fallen to the level to which the rest of us are aspiring.
While it might seem extreme to some that I’ve written a piece on oppressive language in response to a simple “Merry Christmas,” these things are related.
Assuming that everyone shares your religious or cultural celebrations makes one more hurdle that non-Christmas-celebraters have to navigate, regardless of whether or not you meant it kindly.
If we want to live in a society of equals, we have to make room for each other. I love Christmas and I have every right to. I also have the responsibility not to assume that everyone else celebrates it, and to adjust my behaviour accordingly. And that’s all political correctness is, really — but let’s not diminish it by calling it “PC-ness.”
Let’s call it what it really is: Respect.
© Copyright 2013