Why I am for PC speech,
SOME YEARS AGO it was my misfortune to be acquainted with a 20-year-old who, often in front of his mother, used “you woman” as an insult directed at men. One day I said to him, in front of his mother, “I believe your mom is a woman. How is that an insult?” By way of reply, he invited me to engage myself in sexual intercourse. I understood him better when, years later, I happened upon a book about psychopathy. Of the 10 symptoms the authors listed, he displayed 15.
As for us non-psychopaths, most of us prefer not to say hurtful things when we needn’t. That’s why we train our children not to point and bellow, “That person is fat.” It’s why we’re mortified when the wrong person overhears what was intended as a private remark.
“Smile when you say that. Better yet, don’t say that.”
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 moves 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.