Is political correctness impoverishing or enriching our language?

“That’s so gay”

Back in my school days, everything was gay. Science class was gay, bumbags were gay, a chip packet missing a Tazo was gay.

Of course, no one says that anymore. In this day and age, it’s frowned upon to use gay in a derogatory way. Or really to mean anything other than homosexual, even if the original meaning of the word was “happy”.

We had other words we used in the same way: science class, bumbags and a chip packet that should’ve contained a Tazo but didn’t were lame and dumb as well as being gay. For whatever reason, we used these terms as synonyms for pathetic.

It’s pretty harsh when you think about it. We spoke carelessly. Perhaps we still do, in general, until someone calls our attention to what we’re saying.

Is it really pathetic to be homosexual? To be unable to walk? To be unable to speak? Derogative terms based on sexuality and (dis)ability and any other kind of basis of discrimination seem a cruel or at least thoughtless use of language.

Because what we actually mean when we describe things as gay, lame or dumb is not that they are inherently pathetic or stupid – but simply that we do not like them as a matter of taste, rather than fact. We may not value them (subjectively), but that does not make them inherently (objectively) value-less.

Everything else about this photo is très chic, but you’ll never convince me bumbags are cool. Photo credit: Melody Jacob.

The moral dimensions of language

As much as I am often frustrated by excessive political correctness, it has led me to appreciate that language has a strong moral dimension. After 9/11, more than 20 years ago now, we often talked about how one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. (Oh, and I just used the masculine man to refer to human beings in general – don’t hate me).

Regarding current polemics, we might ask if we’re talking about:

  • Reproductive rights or abortion?
  • Assisted suicide or euthanasia?
  • Marriage equality or gay marriage?
  • Climate change or global warming?
  • Illegal immigrants or asylum seekers?

They’re really powerful distinctions that, although they refer to the same thing, shape discourse, and consequently opinion, on the moral and ethical issues of our time.

I think we can all see this in public discourse – but how often do we stop think about the way we as individuals use language in our everyday conversations?

Photo credit: Timothy Dykes.

Language and values

For sure, language is a device to communicate information and we’re quite intentional in our use of it to that end. The transmission of information and even opinion is what they teach us in school.

I am fascinated by the purpose of language as a device to communicate value. This is more than gossiping or passive aggression. It’s more than the use (or not) of derogatory terms like the n-word or the c-word. It’s more even than the use of adjectives like gay, lame and dumb. And it’s mostly unintentional.

Learning Indonesian and Spanish have helped me appreciate some of the embedded morality in the structure of language:

  • Bahasa Indonesia tends to construct sentences with an object focus, suggesting less agency and activeness on the part of the speaker and reflecting greater fatalism and less focus on the self. (I admit this is a simplistic assertion but it’s illustrative).
  • Español or castellano is one of many gendered languages, where the sun (el sol) and a tree (el árbol) are masculine but light (la luz) and leaf (la hoja) are feminine. The plural form for mixed gender nouns is masculine by default and there has been debate about changing grammar to make the the Spanish Constitution more inclusive.

What can I say about English? It warrants a little more thought, but at a glance I’d say it:

  • Lends itself to direct speech but we often use indirect phrasing when we’re trying to soften or hide something
  • Has great capacity for double entrendres
  • Uses sarcasm far more than any other language I’ve learned; and I know sarcasm is foreign to several languages I don’t speak (and the cultures corresponding to them). It probably is the lowest form of humour and it’s certainly not designed to communicate anything kind, even if you attempt to use it gently.

I’m interested to hear what other observations you might make about English and potential values it embodies.

Photo credit: Brett Jordan.

How do you speak?

But let’s make it personal. What does your speech – your use of language – say about you? Are you a fan of sarcasm, what kind of adjectives do you choose, do you subscribe to or resist political correctness?

While words may only make up 7 percent of what we communicate (38 percent being tone, 55 percent body language), words are nonetheless significant. After all, $7,000 out of your $100,000 salary is no measly sum – especially if you give it to someone who’s monthly wage is closer to $500.

I am certainly guilty of speaking carelessly. While I have written on the value of silence and like to believe I have a filter, I could definitely think more before I speak. Sometimes I still find myself saying things unnecessarily or even in an accidentally passive aggressive way.

Circling back to the question that forms the title of this post, political correctness cuts both ways. On the one hand, it impoverishes the use of language by keeping us from calling a spade a spade. On the other, it enriches our language by pushing us to be more conscious about our use of language and intentional in our choice of words.

What are your values and does your speech reflect them?

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Colossians 4:6 (NIV)
Photo credit: 1983 (steal my __art).

Header image: Jason Leung.

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