Books can be the best Christmas gifts, at least in my humble opinion. I have already finished one novel that I received for Christmas, Singapore Exile Murders by F. van Wyck Mason. Written, published, and set in 1939, the novel incorporates the responses of Europeans and Americans in southeast Asia to the global events leading up to World War II, making it an intriguing historical artifact based on one person’s imaginings. As a piece of data, the language in the novel surprised me at points, including the off-hand use of terms for African-Americans and Chinese that would be considered offensive today.
Beyond illustrating how what is considered acceptable has shifted in the past 75 years, these problematic terms (by our standards) also illustrate the ways everyday language reinforces, even makes appear normal, social hierarchies. The ways that Europeans and European-American characters use these terms in casual speech places African-Americans (who do not appear as characters in the novel) in the position of menial, hard laborers and Chinese (who are primarily servants, rickshaw pullers, and the like) as clearly inferior. The condescending labels thus socialize people into particular positions of inferiority and superiority by making the hierarchy appear natural, simply the way things are.
Political correctness can refer to the effort to counter the power of pejorative labels. Avoiding labels that contain negative connotations or masculine nouns and pronouns for mixed gender groups, thus, reflects an effort to foster equality more broadly. However, some people resist the call for revising everyday language, finding it either too much trouble or too threatening to their position. Others have used political correctness negatively to reference problematic (in their view) changes in language or symbols. For example, the guy who, according to some, initiated the furor over the red cups from Starbucks a few months ago described the design as a sign of political correctness removing Christianity from public expression. A range of political candidates and commentators similarly use the term “politically correct” for movements that they reject and wear their resistance to it as a badge of honor.
One blogpost specifically attacked political correctness as an effort of progressives and the government to impose thought control. The post defined political correctness as “the conscious, designed manipulation of language intended to change the way people write, speak, think, feel, and act, in furtherance of an agenda.” While describing efforts to demand politically correct language as propaganda, the post (ironically) presented a propagandistic attack on “progressives”, contrasting presumably powerful proponents of political correctness to “liberty-loving people” who oppose it, and concluded with both a call to arms (at least rhetorical arms) and a request for donations.
What was particularly faulty in the logic of the post was its assumption that the opposite of politically correct speech is a description of the ways things are. The author declared, “Like all propaganda, PC is fundamentally a lie. It is about refusing to deal with the underlying nature of reality, in fact attempting to alter that reality by legislative and social fiat.” On one level, the author is correct that the promotion of political correctness involves an agenda, but so does any speech. Everyday language, like the labels commonly used in 1939 but rejected today, reinforces particular differences and hierarchies, making them appear to be just a simple description.
Assuming that language that does not adhere to politically correct standards (whatever that means) is free of imposed social relations is naïve. Since calls for politically correct language challenge positions of dominance and inferiority, attacks on politically correct efforts make sense, as a shift in how people describe things threatens the privilege of those whose experience as the dominant has been naturalized in the language of the everyday.
Image credit: Laurence Francois “Words Have Power” via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)