One of the most common arguments by people who use the term “politically correct” is that people who say they are hurt by language are just being “oversensitive.”
Remember your friend whose boyfriend just died? Would you accuse your friend of being “oversensitive” at the mention of root beer floats, or sappy movies, or any number of other things that serve as a reminder of the loss? Most people wouldn’t, because your friend’s pain is culturally accepted as real and understandable.
Yet whenever someone’s pain goes against mainstream cultural norms, that’s when “oversensitive” comes out. Death is a pretty universal experience, but when it comes to things like sexism, racism, ableism, classism, and so on, not only is not everyone negatively impacted by these things, but by their very design some people suffer while others benefit—which creates an unconscious incentive to deny the pain experienced by people who are negatively impacted.
As an example, I have blue eyes. If someone made fun of blue-eyed people in my presence, I would probably think they were rude, but it wouldn’t really impact me. That’s because not only have I never been made fun of for having blue eyes before, but my eye color is actually valued and affirmed by the culture I live in—people who have blue eyes are seen as normal and even beautiful and are positively represented in all sorts of contexts.
However, as a trans person, when someone disparages trans people or does something insensitive like unthinkingly use my birth name to refer to my child self, it has a profound impact on me. I feel my heart beat faster, my face flush, and my breath become short and shallow. And as much as I wish I could shake it off, I sometimes find myself reliving the experience for hours, days, or weeks afterward and feeling the same physical effects each time.
This is because there is no isolated, individual event when it comes to my gender. Every insensitive instance tugs on a thread that’s connected to a huge blanket that covers my entire life—a blanket woven by every institution and authority in my world, a blanket designed to dampen my spirit and convince me that my experience of the world is wrong. The more oppression a person has faced, the less resilience they have when it comes to hurtful language—meaning it takes longer and longer for them to “bounce back” and language has more and more negative impacts.
That’s the difference between an individual experience that impacts our relationship with language and a systemic one. It’s the difference between the kid who gets bullied once or twice at school for no particular reason and the kid who gets bullied every single day because he’s fat, or an immigrant, or effeminate, or Black.
If you have never been the kid who gets bullied every single day because of some aspect of yourself that is seen as “not normal” by mainstream culture, you probably can’t imagine the profound impact that language can have on someone with a marginalized experience.
It’s okay to not understand. But it’s not okay to say that because some word doesn’t bother you, it shouldn’t bother anyone.
“Politically correct” communicates that every interaction with language is an individual, isolated event, and every instance where someone says something insensitive is the equivalent of a blue-eyed person being made fun of for their eye color. “What’s the big deal?” says this line of reasoning. But oppression doesn’t hinge on any one individual encounter—it’s woven into the fabric of everyday life, and language plays an incredibly powerful role in maintaining it.
So let’s do away with “politically correct” once and for all.
[Description of featured image above: Reason #4 for why we need to stop saying “politically correct”: it focuses on individualism instead of systemic oppression. “PC” mythology speech bubble says: “Words are inappropriate when they communicate individual prejudices. Changing the words solves the problem.” Radical truth-teller speech bubble says: “Words communicate unconscious cultural values and norms. Liberation requires changing hearts, not just changing words.”]