What are your thoughts when it comes to Political Correctness?

Seriously though, before you read on, take a few moments to answer that question. i doubt this is something many people need to think long about because people tend towards the extremes on this one. “It is out of control” vs “We could be doing so much better.”

What does Political Correctness mean? To you? When you hear the term, what immediately comes to mind? And a helpful follow up question might be – what emotion do you feel as you think of the term?

What does Politically Correct mean?

Sure, we could look at a definition, and we will, but perhaps the best way to illustrate which ends people find themselves at, is with these two illustrations.

Politically Correct t-shirt

The first group of people tend to use the term ‘Politically Correct’ as an insult suggesting that it has come about as a result of people being too sensitive. This if often coupled with a “When I was young…” analogy that ‘proves’  to the person sharing it that things used to be better because we could say all the things we can’t today and it was fine. When what they really mean is “it was fine for those saying the things”.

The second group of people tend to use the term ‘Politically Correct’ as a means of making life easier or more balanced for people, often those in minority groups who have been marginalised in different ways:

Politically correct cartoon

What’s amazing about that cartoon is that the use of the word ‘Arsehole’ is absolutely going to offend some people i know who will feel like the same message could have been gotten across without having to resort to “such language”.

Although i just realised now that maybe the difference between these two groups is one of the other words used in this cartoon and perhaps it is somewhat a divide between the sensitive and the insensitive. Because that is how the second group would view Political Correctness – choosing to be sensitive in our word usage [and behaviour] so as to minimise the hurt we cause for other people.

How i got here

Let me tell you what got me thinking about this topic. i really like the idea of not hurting people or making them feel bad if there is a way to avoid it and so the idea of trying to be more sensitive when it comes to language has been on my mind of late. 

i read or heard somewhere that the word ‘crazy’ is not a good one, and actually found this on the internet which sums it up for me:

Despite how common this word is – it’s one of the 2,000 most frequently used words in American English – there is a growing movement to encourage people to reconsider using the word crazy in recognition of how it stigmatizes mental illnesses. When crazy is used in a derogatory way—to describe someone who is acting irrationally, for example—it reinforces negative stereotypes about people living with mental health conditions. That’s why experts in the field and mental health advocates recommend avoiding the word crazy (along with other similar terms like psycho and nuts) to describe someone with a mental illness or characterize the way someone is acting. [Dictionary.com]

So a couple of weeks ago, i started being more mindful of when i use words like ‘crazy’ that could relate to mental health issues, in every day language and the results were staggering. “That’s insane… no, stupid… no, mental…” and so on… i have now started actively trying to substitute more appropriate, less offensive words whenever i would naturally choose a word like crazy/insane and it has been quite challenging.

Does God have a penis?

i still have so much to learn when it comes to the gender stuff – and there are parts of the conversation which for me feel like too much or like we’ve perhaps gone too far, but i am trying to keep an open mind and interrogate where my own comfort and what i am used to is the problem more than new suggested ways of speaking and living.

But one area where i have been working even longer than the whole ‘crazy’ words thing is when it comes to the lack of gender with God. Now, if you’re a Christian you should consider sitting down cos this is going to blow some of your minds.

It is so obvious to everyone i think that God is not a boy. God does not have a penis. Everyone pretty much gets that. i can’t imagine too many people would argue.

Me: Okay, so we’re agreed? So the thing i love about God is when She…

Christian [interrupting!]: U-u-um! Just wait. You mean ‘He’?

Me: Well we agreed God is not male, right? God doesn’t have a penis. God is God. A supreme being. Omnipresent and all that?

Christian: Oh yes, of course, God is not male. Absolutely.

Me: Right! So when She…

Christian: WAIT!

[Ad finitum] 

A Christian is able to agree that God is not male, but it will blow their mind if you start using language that suggests she is female. But they are totally fine with using language that suggests God is male, even while believing God is obviously not male.

Gotta love the Christians. But seriously, though, this stuff will blow many of their minds away.

So what i have started doing – which feels completely unwieldy and uncomfortable for me – is substituting the word ‘God’ every single time i would have previously said ‘He’. And i’ve done this for maybe even over a year but it’s just been a me thing so don’t think i’ve even spoken to anyone else about this before. Just felt like a good self-correction i could make so as to help women who may have had very negative associations with men, to feel that tiny bit more at ease. It literally costs me nothing. Except a little effort. So it becomes: For God so loved that world that God…

Political Correctness

Those are just two examples that have got me, Brett “Fish” Anderson, thinking about these things. Do i think you need to adopt my thinking on them in the way i have? Not necessarily. But i do hope you will start thinking a little more about the words you use.

The phrase ‘Less Harmful Words’ sums up a lot of the goodness that i think lies behind the kind of Political Correctness i am for. But let’s see some other definitions a simple google led me to:

Politically correct definition

And then this one which is slightly different:

Politically correct definition

And then of course another example of the other side of the border on this one:

Political correctness definition

Politically Correct correction

i don’t particularly like the term ‘Politically Correct’ to be honest. That makes it feel like something that is being done to keep people happy [toe the line of the law] as opposed to something being done because you’re a kind person and seeking not to unnecessarily offend or hurt people.

It tends towards problematic because it is subjective and so it lends itself to people being able to go too far. Because people can choose to be offended or hurt by anything.

Let me put it this way. If you ask me do you think Political Correctness has gone too far, my answer would be Yes, Absolutely. If, however, you ask me if Political Correctness has not gone far enough, my answer would then be: Yes, absolutely. i think we have gone too far and i don’t think we have gone far enough.

i do tend to be a Both/And guy [rather than Either/Or] and so that’s where i land. But the key for me of where political correctness is most valuable is in relationship. Which is why i think i prefer the term ‘Less Harmful Words’ which encourages me to constantly be asking myself: What words can i use in this situation with this person so that they do not cause unnecessary harm? 

How this plays out

In the context of South Africa, i have friends who call themselves ‘Coloured’ and love the term and are busy doing the work of exploring their identity as Coloured people in the context of the country in which they live.

i also know people who would be seen as ‘Coloured’ by many in South Africa who absolutely hate the term ‘Coloured’ and some of them choose to be called ‘brown’ and others ‘black’ and so when i am with them i will not call them ‘Coloured’ because i know it is painful for them.

i know in America and perhaps some other countries, the term ‘Coloured’ is just plain offensive and so i am very careful that when i am explaining things about South Africa in a context where there are Americans that it may be necessary to explain how our term ‘Coloured’ is very different from theirs.

The more deeply you love people, the less you will want to hurt them if you can avoid it. i don’t think it’s about being a pansy or a wimp or any other form of weakness-insinuating names that people have given it. The types of people who dismiss political correctness in those kinds of ways typically don’t strike me as kind or compassionate people in my experience anyway and so this just becomes one more way in which they can demonstrate their character.

i don’t think it is set in stone. i think it changes over time. Words and meanings change and people change as well. And hopefully, as we discover something that we say which causes someone else pain, we will try to find better ways of communicating which are more loving and considerate. What is acceptable in today’s world may need to change sometime in the future. i hope that i am big enough to move with those changes, even if it perhaps causes me a little more effort.

How about you? i would love to hear how you view this topic and whether there are any areas you are working on right now in your own life.

Some thoughts i received from others:

I find older people tend to “tell it like it is” and are tired of filtering themselves. I find it upsetting that blurting out truth is somehow preferred over having a deep empathy as a filter. Different from political correctness which looks similar but is for personal gain.

[Kirsten Wilkins @contestedspaces]

People having to be scolded like children to finally accept that words matter. Ones who scorn political correctness are usually people with whom you wouldn’t want to share a meal, bus, taxi or planet with. It’s usually people who want to go through life only on their terms.

[Dame Mbali Zibi @MabaleeZeebee]

My take on the “political correctness” is that it is a blanket term that makes it easy to hide from doing the right thing and we should stop using it.

Obvious examples are that we should stop being racist and we should stop being sexist. But when people are told not to use racist or sexist language, they often complain about being sick of “political correctness” or “political correctness gone mad” rather than considering that what they said actually _was_ racist or sexist.

Calling it “political” makes it feel like it doesn’t have any real impact on people’s lives and is all theoretical, so allows people to brush aside any criticism of their behaviour as irrelevant rather than considering that it really does affect real people.

[Stephen Tjasink]

I think we hear the word political and panic – thinking that a way of being is being enforced on you by governments. Someone once said to me that PC culture as its most basic is just being a decent human being/common decency which makes more sense.

[Tara Dominique Macpherson]

[For a piece i wrote on choosing Brave Spaces over Safe Spaces, click here]