Q: In response to your piece about person-centered language, my mind goes to difficult situations where I’ve interacted with marginalized people who use/identify comfortably with terms I understand to be oppressive, e.g., a trans woman using the term “tranny.”
In another more privileged direction, I’ve interacted with people who don’t identify with the term “cis” despite being cis, and have heard members of oppressed groups say, “you don’t get to choose not to be cis.”
So I guess my internal query is, how far does the agency of one’s identity go? And does language that marginalizes an oppressed group supersede the desire of an individual in their expression of identity through language?
I follow the school of thought that the purpose of language conventions and standards is to help people communicate as effectively as possible across lines of difference, not that their purpose is to promote one “right” or “correct” way of speaking, writing, or being.
Holding “correctness” as sacred means valuing rules more than lives, homogeneity more than diversity, norms more than divergent experiences, and standards more than feelings. There is nothing sacred or inherently valuable about being “correct.” Here’s what’s sacred and valuable: respect, care, agency, empowerment, liberation.
So don’t ask yourself, “Am I being politically correct?”—rather, ask yourself, “Am I being respectful and caring toward the full range of human experience?”
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.
Imagine you have a friend whose boyfriend just died. Words are really powerful in this situation: they can help communicate your care and empathy for your friend, or they can hurt your friend and cause pain. If you were to say, for instance, that it was your friend’s fault that the boyfriend was dead, those words could have a deep impact—so deep that it might even drive your friend to suicide.
Far more minor word choices could be hurtful as well. For a long while after the tragedy, you would probably try to be sensitive and aware with your language so that you don’t unintentionally cause your friend further pain. You will probably choose not to gush about the guy you’re crushing out on right now. You may decide against inviting your friend to go see that new movie with a sappy love story in it. You might avoid certain topics because you know they will serve as a reminder of the loss.
You wouldn’t do these things because you’re trying to be “correct” or avoid “offending” your friend. You’d do these things because you care about your friend and you’re (hopefully) not a royal jerk.
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.
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.
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.