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OnWords: Political Correctness

Adam Gerard, flickr Creative Commons

The term “political correctness” arose over twenty years ago from the Pentagon’s attempt to package war as cleanly as possible--think “collateral damage” instead of “civilian deaths.” It’s largely been kept alive by conservatives angry at liberal overreach and liberal free speech activists who feel constrained by their own tribe.

As loyal OnWords listener Steven Johnson points out, the term as used could cover everything from simple politeness to, in his words, “the obnoxious tyranny of hyper-sensitive prigs.” He goes on to note that there are, indeed, multiple perspectives that can be simultaneously valid. And he’s right: political correctness, in practice, would preclude honoring that truth.

In the category of politeness, I’d put what people choose to be called. This is complicated by identity politics, of course, but as a guy with a funny name, I’m happy to call anybody whatever they want. If you want to be “differently abled,” that’s fine by me: you may have very important reasons for wanting to use that term to describe yourself.

On the obnoxious end, however, we don’t want to lose such straightforward English words as “crippled” or “disabled.” I’d hate to think that I’d have to “differently able” the traction control on my car when I want to spin the wheels.

There’s a difference between a description and a label, after all, and it arises from the same place all meaning in language comes from: context.

What political correctness comes down to is frustration that the other guy won’t see where we’re coming from. We force our view—or resist that force—because we feel we don’t have a seat at the contextual table.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.