The Deep Politics of Words

It’s been a couple of weeks since Jonathan Chait published his controversial and much-discussed piece “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” in New York Magazine. I read it – twice – and had many thoughts about it, many of which were contradictory. At the time I thought about writing a response to it but there was so much Internet noise related to the article – either blasting it or praising it – that it felt like a needless exercise. The TL;DR version of what I would have written would read something like this: I think Chait is touching on something that exists but I am not sufficiently convinced by his piece. The examples he offered weren’t very compelling to me and his meandering argument was not satisfying. I did feel, however, that there is truth buried deep in his article and I wish had been more thoughtfully teased out.

As someone who spends a lot of time (too much time) on social media I can assure you there is tons of outrage. It’s daily, it’s constant, and it’s exhausting. Determining if it’s legitimate is much trickier though. To underscore this point Slate curated a list of daily outrages for the year 2014 and it ranges from “righteous fury to faux indignation.” Many of the examples feel like moments when the benefit of the doubt could have been extended and you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the well-meaning person being skewered by strangers on the Internet for an accidental slip of the tongue. But there are plenty of other instances where the outrage feels justified. While the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of social media can sometimes be unnecessarily unforgiving, they have also brought to light subtle but harmful examples of sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination that are seeped into the foundation of society. Finding the balance between these two poles is difficult and as someone who finds themselves in the space between the careless Chait argument and the virulent responses to his article I am glad that a debate  is happening because it is an important one to have.

Although the Internet is frequently outraged for any number of political and social reasons, often the specific dispute between the proponents and skeptics of “political correctness” is focused on language. As tense as the debate can be it’s a meaningful conversation to have because language is deeply political. If you don’t believe me, please go live in Quebec. I loved living in Montreal, I love French and am proud to be bilingual, but you can’t live there and not notice how political the relationship between Anglophones-Francophones can be. You can’t live there and walk away thinking that language doesn’t matter.

If you’re still not convinced, take a look at a recent University of Michigan initiative. The University is spending $16,000 on an “Inclusive Language Campaign” which, as MLive reports, is “an awareness program to help students be more aware of the fact that different groups around campus interpret words and phrases differently.” In recognizing the diversity of the campus, the campaign hopes to acknowledge the power of words and discourage students from using language like “fag” or “retarded” or “ghetto.” I like the initiative. In the past I have been guilty of using such words thoughtlessly and have made an effort to stop. Finding alternative language is not only more respectful it’s also, quite frankly, not that difficult. But of course, the comment section of the article is riddled with complaints that kids these days should grow a thicker skin, this is tantamount to thought policing etc.

It’s easy to dismiss this type of initiative on the basis that it’s “PC language/thought policing” but really it’s about recognizing that language matters. The campaign does not suggest or introduce mechanisms to punish use of specific language and I don’t buy into a slippery slope argument in this case. While I am wary of overdoing the outrage, there is outrage on both sides of the “PC-language” divide. Plus, I think acknowledging the power of language is valuable. How you describe people and situations says more about you and your prejudices than it does about what you are trying to describe. Asking people to think before they speak isn’t about stifling speech, it’s about encouraging empathy.