Check it out: “politically correct” came into common usage in the United States in the 1940s and ’50s, when Socialists and Communists clashed over Stalin’s alliance with Hitler. Communist party doctrine was called the “correct” party line.
“The term ‘politically correct’ was used disparagingly to refer to someone whose loyalty to the [Communist party] line overrode compassion and led to bad politics. … [It] was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in equalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance.”
People who were “politically correct” were people who said racism and genocide didn’t matter; people who claimed the party line was more important than actual people’s lives.
“Politically correct.” It’s a term used widely by everyone from right-wing pundits to preachers to diversity trainers, and pops up in myriad scenarios. It’s every bit as loaded as a baked potato, but nowhere near as delicious.
I’m here with a message about “politically correct” for folks like me who want to use language in ways that increase respect, rather than deepen divides. To quote the great Inigo Montoya, I do not think it means what you think it means.
Radical copyediting helps language describe the best, most radical reality we can imagine—a world free from violence and oppression where all life, all identities and experiences, and all ways of making meaning are valued.
This means that radical copyediting is about helping people use language in ways that increase respect, love, and care for one another. The goal of radical copyediting is not to “correct” language for the sake of promoting one “right” way to use words—rather, the goal is to help people understand and care for each other across different identities and experiences.
In short, radical copyediting is not language policing.
United States mainstream culture promotes the idea that language is either “correct” or “incorrect” (in terms of grammar, spelling or pronunciation, word choice, and content). But language—along with everything else in this world—is so much more complex.
As a radical copyeditor and as someone who believes that words have incredible power for destruction, oppression, healing, liberation, and more, I understand language to exist on a spectrum from actively hateful to profoundly loving—and I strive to help people use language in the most life-affirming ways possible.
A few months back, I shared on my Facebook wall a fabulous short video from The Guardian in which Mona Chalabi explains why “grammar snobs are patronising, pretentious, and just plain wrong.” In my post, I enthusiastically proclaimed: “Radical copyeditors unite against grammar snobbery!”
Now, I share a lot of stuff on social media that some people might consider challenging. After all, I’m an activist whose passion is helping folks connect the dots between oppression and privilege based on race, class, sexuality, ability, gender, and more. Yet it is invariably my posts about grammar that incite the most heated reactions on my Facebook wall—so heated that I have to warn friends to watch their mouths.
On this occasion, I was flabbergasted when friends and acquaintances started insulting each other and raging over the idea that using less and fewer interchangeably might not be the worst possible offense.
Before you get it twisted, let me be clear: I would never argue that grammar doesn’t matter or that we should throw out all language rules and conventions entirely. Quite the contrary. I will go to my grave ready to launch into a passionate defense of the serial comma at a moment’s notice. Why will I throw down for some grammar conventions and not others? Because I’m a radical copyeditor.