The Humbug of Political Correctness

What better time than Christmas (that’s right, I said Christmas) to address the issue of why political correctness needs reforming?

The weakness in the whole inclusive language argument is that today’s politically correct term evolves into tomorrow’s insult.  (Thank you, original sin.) The word “idiot,” once a legitimate medical term, had to be changed to “mentally retarded” not long after it hit the playgrounds and boardrooms.  When that term went into insult circulation the social workers were at a loss, but then came political correctness to the rescue with the word “special.” A nice word.  A pity we can’t use it anymore thanks to all the jokes.  Ditto for “gay” and a host of other words, once safe but no longer acceptable in polite company.

But there’s a deeper, more sinister fault line here, the one thing about political correctness that drives me absolutely batty: the fact that it so often speaks for people mistakenly assumed incapable of speaking for themselves.

I’m not alone in my annoyance.  You only need Google “political correctness gone mad” to see that inclusive language has been a sticking point from the git go.  But my problem with it has less to do with its weirdness than with the sanctimonious hypocrisy of terms created not by the marginalized but by those offended on their behalf.

The list goes on and on: middle and upper-class feminists dictating what poor working women should be calling themselves, white folks dictating what non-white folks should be called, anglophones who claim francophones get offended when we mispronounce French words, walking people dictating what people in wheelchairs should be called, etc.  Deaf people have told me they don’t like to be called “hard-of-hearing.” Black people often refer to each other in very un-politically-correct ways.  And on it goes.

I wrote an article once about how to become a creative Sherpa by always going out into the world armed with things like a sketchpad, a journal, writing implements, a camera, and a recording device.  I was soon told that Sherpas get very offended when people usurp their vocations and exploit them as metaphors.  I was mortified and immediately changed the article’s wording.  Now I wish I’d told the complainant, not a Sherpa, to go stuff it, or at least to find a Sherpa willing to back him up.

The idea behind political correctness isn’t bad, and it’s actually quite noble: Let’s refer to persons, events, and conditions in a way that includes people and respects their dignity.  Yet somewhere in the process of developing and using inclusive language the respect rolled off into the ditch.  As Saul Bellow pointed out, “We mustn’t forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals.”

Which brings us around to Christmas.  Whether or not the “Christmas or holiday” debate was designed to stir up animosity against Muslims belies the fact that it has certainly done so.  Most of us have had to listen to red-in-the-face ranters asking why we should change just because the Muslims don’t like Christmas.  I know from experience, so don’t bother; asking them if they actually know any Christmas-hating Muslims won’t even slow them down.

When I lived in a Muslim country I was frequently greeted, at Christmastime, with “Merry Christmas!” and this from people who knew nothing about me except that I was obviously of European descent.  I’ve never met a Muslim offended by the idea of Christmas.  I’ve met a few Christians who refused to celebrate it, but no one seems to worry about them feeling excluded.

Here’s an idea.  Let’s forget about the labels — they’re so rarely even necessary! Let’s simply respect each other and show it.  Let’s insist that those around us refrain from blatantly insulting people or groups.  And let’s let people speak for themselves.

Merry Christmas, and “God bless us every one!