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In search of the correct words

After discussing a controversial subject, a friend told me she was glad we were at my house instead of a public place because some of the things she said weren’t “politically correct.”

I laughed a little bit at first. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to resent the idea.

“Politically correct” is a term I heard all the time in college – sometimes to call attention to a serious stereotype, sometimes as a joke to hint that someone was speaking too candidly about his or her opinions.

But “political correctness” has become a social rulebook of sorts, with both written and unwritten codes telling us what is acceptable to say in today’s society and what might offend someone.

A group called the Global Language Monitor even created a list of the top politically correct words and phrases of 2012 in the global media. Typical suspects such as “his and her” made the top list for gender neutrality, but they were joined by unassuming phrases such as “peanut butter sandwich,” which was apparently deemed “culturally insensitive” by a Portland, Ore., grade-school principal because some cultures don’t eat sandwich bread.

It just goes to show, you never know what might be offensive to someone, according to Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst of the Global Language Monitor.

“This year’s survey once again illustrates the difficulty in engaging in public dialogue without offending those on the right, left, center, or various combinations thereof,” Payack wrote. “We are seeing that continued attempts to remove all bias from language is itself creating an entirely new set of biases.”

That got me thinking: Even though political correctness is intended to help us respect one another, I have to wonder whether we’re truly interested in respect or whether we’re more interested in protecting our own image and impressing our biases on others.

Opinions about political correctness reach opposite ends of the spectrum. Some called it a form of cultural Marxism akin to “newspeak” in George Orwell’s “1984” that’s created to limit free thought and usher us all into a totalitarian regime. Others called it an important way we examine and reject personal stereotypes to foster a less offensive community.

But I’m not sure I entirely agree with either of these perspectives.

I believe all people are worthy of respect, and I wouldn’t want to purposely offend others while expressing my ideas, so in some ways, political correctness is a good thing. Reporters even have guidelines to help us determine what’s the most politically correct and unbiased way to describe someone or something in the news. For example, instead of “pro-life,” we use the term “abortion-rights opponents.” And instead of calling people “disabled,” we say they’re “people with disabilities.” For the most part, these guidelines help us maintain integrity, avoid favoritism and avoid (subconsciously or consciously) labeling people in offensive ways.

Since many people with many different opinions make up the same newsroom, we put all of these rules in a stylebook to help us write with a cohesive voice and provide the news as accurately as possible.

But the same guidelines that prove practical and necessary for news organizations and other groups become difficult on a personal level. Most people develop stereotypes and beliefs that work themselves out in our words and actions over time, so pretending we’re unbiased feels dishonest, and censoring other people is more like picking petty fights than fighting for worthy causes.

It feels counterintuitive: The most meaningful conversations I’ve had with people are often the ones where they let their guard down and tell me what they’re actually thinking instead of tiptoeing around social taboos and searching for words in our dictionary of what’s acceptable. It’s good to be conscious of other people’s feelings, but if we’re so afraid of upsetting others that we feel as though we can’t have constructive conversations, perhaps we’re taking it too far.

Most of us know what it’s like to say the wrong thing in the wrong situation or to express ourselves in the wrong way, so maybe truly respecting someone is more about understanding we’re all imperfect and talking about our differences, and less about making sure we’re “correct” before we speak.

If we’re honest with each other, being politically correct is a little overrated.

Kara Hackett is social media writer for The Journal Gazette. To see more of her work throughout the week and participate in the conversation, go to www.journalgazette.net/coffeebreak, where this column first appeared.

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