Photo courtesy of Michael Havens / Flickr

The Boundaries of Politically Correct Language

The question of whether or not it is correct to refer to a group of people as “marginalized” as opposed to referring to them as “minorities” is not just a matter of proper distinction, rather this subtle differentiation in language also calls into question the appropriate boundaries of politically correct culture.

Politically correct language is an attempt to describe a demographic accurately and without undue restrictions (i.e. allowance of stereotypes). Ideally, politically correct language properly distinguishes said demographic without limiting it to one generalized interpretation. Where underrepresented or unfairly represented demographics are concerned, political correctness is particularly important because it removes language linked to harmful stereotypes, thus granting a greater degree of equality to those who, within the bounds of normal societal discourse, are not afforded such luxuries.

In the debate between the use of “marginalized” versus “minority,” political correctness in its purest form would most likely favor the term “minority,” employing a more neutral term in place of one that perpetuates stereotypes. To be a “minority” means to experience a difference in the size of the demographic compared to the majority population. By contrast, referring to a demographic as “marginalized” accentuates its members’ primary role as that of a victim, thus marginalized populations are inherently viewed within the context of pity. If the aim of political correctness is to overturn limiting, negative stereotypes about a particular demographic with more accurate and open-ended designations, then the term “marginalized” is a step away from political correctness.

When grounded in its definition, politically correct language ought to agree with normal societal language in that their standards preach efficient, accurate wording that minimizes confusion. Yet, when it is understood as a foreign ideology that aims to incorporate new ideas and labels into the existing vernacular, politically correct language can understandably be a bit of a headache. Humans are naturally resistant to change, and when that change happens to commonly used words within our vocabulary, the pushback can be strong.

It is important to realize that a failure, or even a refusal, to use newly introduced language, however politically correct the language might be, is not always an indication of antiquated beliefs like racism or sexism. More often than not, these failures are grounded in a resistance to change, more particularly, a change within one’s personal vocabulary. Generally, such resistance arises from defensiveness, and such defensiveness breeds an unintended ignorance. Very few people want to be seen as bigots, but if they’re not sure about the intricacies of politically correct language, then the very act of using language at all can become uncomfortable. Especially when those who are heading the politically correct movement instill these changes in language with some degree of judgment.

There’s a particularly telling scene in Superbad, where two white cops are questioning a black liquor store employee about the man who recently robbed the store. Attempting to avoid race labels, the cops instead ask the employee whether the perpetrator was “like us” or “like you,” to which the employee replies, “Like me? A woman?” In this scene, the cop’s attempt to avoid politically incorrect language is particularly evident. Uncomfortable with bringing up the topic of race and unsure as to how to express skin color, the cops settle for confusing language that could easily be misconstrued as offensive. With a realistic moral for an ending, the cops walk away from this interview without any correct details regarding the suspect. This is a case of extremes to be expected with a comedy, but it might not be as far off as you’d think. I have personally run into several cases where people feel uncomfortable mentioning race when describing someone’s appearance. Often in these situations, people would describe just about every other characteristic, from eye or hair color to height or build, to avoid stepping into any politically incorrect language regarding race.

One of the biggest mistakes of the politically correct movement is the judgment paired with improper use of labels. Most people do not devote their lives to the movement, so society is often slow to use the newest terms. People will question the validity of new terms, and they should, considering ours is supposedly the language of democracy. We have to approach language with scientific eyes and consider it within standards of efficiency, accuracy, and avoidance of restriction. Naturally, the terms will shift in attempting to meet those difficult and sometimes conflicting standards. We need to understand that the any changes in language take effect over time. Adopting politically correct language is not always a matter of overcoming bigotry. It’s about reteaching language, and our attitudes in introducing politically correct language should reflect that understanding.


+ posts

I am large, I contain multitudes. More importantly, multitudes contain and surpass me.