Language isn’t correct or incorrect, it’s a spectrum from violent to liberatory. When I strive to use language in ways that are inclusive of the full diversity of human experience, it’s not about being correct or avoiding offense. It’s about creating the opportunity for perspectives that have historically been squelched to shine. It’s about empowerment, and agency, and collective care. It’s about liberation.
The idea that avoiding “offending” people is the primary goal of sensitive language is inherently minimizing—it automatically calls up the idea that being offended is a result of being either overcritical or oversensitive, nothing more. It also squarely puts the burden of how language is experienced on the people who are hearing or reading it. It says that if you are offended by particular language, it’s your fault, not the speaker or author’s.
Focusing on “offense” doesn’t allow for the possibility that a person could be negatively impacted by careless or hostile language—the worst thing they can experience is being offended. Everything about this line of reasoning is dismissive in nature. The solution for “being offended” is not for responsibility to be taken by the person who caused the offense, it’s for the listening or reader to simply stop being offended—“toughen up,” recognize that no offense was intended, “grow up.”
Avoiding offense is not the point of inclusive and sensitive language. The real issue is that certain language causes harm and perpetuates violence, not that it “offends” people.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Over the course of decades, heterosexuality has been privileged as the only valid form of sexuality and everyone who is not straight has been painted as perverted and deviant. When language confirms this, not just once but over and over again, by teachers, media, religious leaders, judges, politicians, and all kinds of other people, it causes real harm. Its effects on people who are not straight are every bit as real as physical violence.
So if someone asks two women, “So, who’s the man in your relationship?” those words build on a century of oppressive language that has kept non-heterosexual people marginalized. The two women might react with anger, frustration, tears, stony silence, dejection, or resignation. Are they offended? Sure, but that’s not the point. The point is they’ve been hurt, and their pain has deep roots.
Perhaps the person didn’t mean to hurt anyone. After all, many people who ask that question are trying to be insulting, but many others are genuinely curious and have no idea how gender roles play out in same-sex relationships.
But the fact remains that the words this person used have caused harm. They are a reminder that same-sex relationships are not “normal” according to the mainstream—as well as the fact that women can’t be understood as full human beings in their own right without any reference or relationship to men. And these words have potentially called to mind every similar slight these two women have experienced over the course of their lives.
Using sensitive language isn’t about protecting yourself from angry, offended people. It’s not about finding the right words to gloss over or obscure your biases and prejudices while leaving them intact and unquestioned. Using sensitive language is about caring for the people who interact with your words.
The term “politically correct” does nothing to support this truth. Instead, it denies the fact that words can cause harm and blames people who are hurt for being unjustly “offended.”
It also communicates that people care about language solely for the sake of following a set of politically defined rules about it, rather than for the sake of the people behind the words.
[Description of featured image above: Reason #2 for why we need to stop saying “politically correct”: it focuses on “offense” instead of violence. “PC” mythology speech bubble says: “The goal of sensitive language is to avoid offending people.” Radical truth-teller speech bubble says: “The goal of sensitive language is to avoid causing harm and perpetuating violence.”]