**standard boilerplate** I really don’t edit anything I say here. If it gets past my internal filters, it lands on the page, and I don’t do a lot in the way of proofing. It is what it is. I’m not bragging, I’m warning. Not because I’m edgy or dangerous (that would be bragging) but because I’m verbose and repetitive and poorly organized. No one should read this. I just need to write it.
This is my first outing, so let’s just fucking go for it:
Meta-debate words that aren’t part of the ancient codification of logical fallacies have their meaning diluted pretty easily. I feel like that happens on sort-of-purpose…it benefits people to have an emergency flame-war escape hatch that sounds official but also hip and dismissive. So terms like “trolling” and “political correctness” end up in a place where everyone is able to have their own parameters. “Trolling” becomes a catch-all for “anything that upsets me in what I feel is an intentional way” with a lot of nebulous ideas about intent and language use, and “Political Correctness” becomes a catch-all for “anything that limits me in what I feel is an artificial way”. There’s an almost-Godwin-like finality to their deployment, except the user is trying to overtly declare victory rather than unintentionally declaring defeat. It becomes part of the static rather than part of the signal.
And that’s a shame. Because we need these terms and some of the things they can mean.
Let’s start with political correctness, and unpack a little bit of the bullshit that some people want it to mean, vs. what it actually could be usefully used to refer to.
There are three big categories of false definitions of political correctness: 1. the placing off-limits of certain words or phrases for the sake of putting the larger ideas behind them into the dustbin of history, or at least refusing to continue perpetuating the harm that they do 2. the failure to find tragedy, prejudice, and hate-speech humorous and 3. the cultural situation of evolving language and awareness.
1. Yes, Virginia, there really are words that are never useful if you’re in a privileged position and not an irredeemable jerk.
Understand that I’m not talking about swearing or other “bad” words. I love swearing. I am quite fluent. I also don’t think that all name-calling is hate-speech. It’s not usually productive, and it should be used carefully since it says as much about the speaker as the subject, and for fuck’s sake try to be creative when you’re doing it, but I’m not advocating an end to anger or discord, just to very specific toxic rhetorical tactics. I’m talking specifically about “nigger” and “retard” and “faggot” and “fatass” and “tranny”…the six-letter words, not the four-letter ones (that’s an illustrative rule, not a hard-and-fast one…”rag head” belongs on that list, obviously, and way too many others). And no, I don’t mind spelling them out for the purpose of discussing them. I don’t think the sounds or letter combinations themselves have some mystical harmful power that makes me clutch my pearls and faint. These sorts of words do more than just toss a bit of colorful nastiness into the discussion. They are words designed and used to single specific “types” of people out, conjure them as a “type” based on ultimately trivial characteristics, revive a place of shame to put them, and to keep them in that place. That’s different from one person calling another person a name. That’s one person evoking the weight of systemic oppression and bringing it to bear, reminding another person to “know your place”, reinforcing the idea that they and everyone like them ought to stay silent or else.
It is cruel, and it is cowardly, and it is incorrect. Not *politically* incorrect, objectively incorrect. Because black people, fat people, gay people, disabled people, trans people…their characteristics are not shameful, not a reason they should be silent, not a reason you should be able to pull rank on them and tell them that your prejudice is their “place”.
The big irony here is that these words are on the hell-no list NOT because they’re “politically incorrect” but because using them is a really ugly demonstration that the user feels a distinctly political sense of supremacy and immunity and authority and entitlement. They’re there because they’re shameful implements of oppression and torture that have their own special place in our historical political toolbox. People have run and won on the platform of oppressing “niggers” and sterilizing “retards”, large institutions have made gobs of money on the politically presumed pathology of being a “faggot” or a “tranny” or a “fatass”…not always precisely in those words, but precisely in that spirit…”they” are the problem, “we” have a cure. The political assertion that there is a place for “those people” is a powerful one. No one would ever argue that people should be raped. “Whores” on the other hand…
So, no, we don’t get to use those words anymore without the concurrent recognition of what they do and what they are and what we are by extension.
“But wordhose, what about when black people call each other the-n-word? (or when women refer to themselves as ‘bitches’, or a trans person references the word ‘tranny’)
Frankly? I don’t have a problem with it. I know there are (in the n-word example) black people who do, and I think their voice in that debate is more valid and significant than mine. The short version of my feelings on it is that a black person using the word “nigger” is referencing the same place-creation and shame-creation that word means when anyone uses it, but it’s done in a very different way. I think it’s ok to talk about that, because it’s an ongoing problem that still needs to be talked about and processed, it’s just not ok to *use* it on people. There’s a difference between processing the problem and perpetuating the problem. Do I think its possible for black people to use “nigger” in a regressive and perpetuating way? Yeah. I think everyone should be careful when handling place-putting words. That still doesn’t make it less than super-secret-double-disingenuous for white people to treat the way some black people process racism like it has any bearing on the way white people perpetuate it.
Think about it like it’s a demon’s name in a fantasy story. According to legends, you can use a demon’s name to summon it, or you can use a demon’s name to bind and banish it. Power-majority people have historically been all about using these names to summon the demon and get it to hurt people, so even if you’re the nicest power-majority-person in the world, if you’re not laying down a serious binding circle with the explicit intent to process instead of perpetuate, just don’t fucking go there because you’re an idiot and it’s a demon and it’s going to fuck something up whether you mean for it to or not. Power-minority people have been that demon’s victim, so if a member of a demon-afflicted group wants to use that name to bind and banish that demon, it is not within my purview to even offer criticism. When it comes to fighting that demon, any given person that has ever been hurt by that demon can use whatever weapons they want. The rest of us are just Mickey Mouse thinking there’s no harm in making a magical broom do some scut work for us.
Seriously. Mostly-comfortable-majority-type person to mostly-comfortable-majority-type people, it’s darn near impossible for us to reference that place and that problem with that kind of word without there being some real fallout as if we were *using* it to place-put someone, even inadvertently. That is just what those words are and what they do in our mouths…they remind everyone of the unjust and politically reinforced power-structure at play. And we stand there looking all thunderstruck and saying “I was just trying to clean it, and it went off…” like we had any business picking up that gun after what has been done with it in our name. And that’s not the fault of our gun-shy contemporaries, it is squarely the fault of our gun-happy contemporaries and predecessors. Sorry about it, guys, but there are some words that are just not for our use. That’s not “political correctness” that’s “giving a shit about others even if their experience of the world isn’t the same as yours 101”.
“But wordhose, this is all just a bunch of whining by people that want everything sugar-coated for them and can’t handle a person calling a spade a spade.”
Really? I was asking for sugar-coating? Because I’m not the one here wanting to ignore the ugly things these words mean. It’s the super-proud “politically incorrect” crowd that are the ones who want to pretend like black face and the confederate flag and the n-word have no harmful past or present, want to sugar-over the lingering facts of *absurd* inequality that they represent and perpetuate, that want to act like free speech only applies to them, that whoever gets hurt by the words they choose should be enjoined from mentioning it, screaming “censorship” when all that’s really happening is criticism.
And, for the goddamn record, you’re not getting called out for “calling a spade a spade”. No one ever gets called out for that. Go out in the garden and point at a digging tool and call it a spade and see how many flame wars start up, even if you were pointing at a trowel. You get called out for calling a human being a spade. You get called out for calling confirmation bias a form of inductive reasoning. You get called out because you’ve made it clear that you *really believe* that “niggers” are a thing that exists rather than a crummy mythological notion for the purpose of explaining why some people don’t get to be treated like people, because you’re admitting that you think that that concept is a meaningful, useful, complete descriptor of some person you’re talking about or to. Thinking that hate-speech is useful vocabulary is going to get you called out, not because I hate or “can’t handle” honesty, I just hate and do not tolerate the bigotry your honesty reveals.
“But wordhose, if people just didn’t let the words hurt them, they would lose their power. Sticks and stones, right? It’s people being so sensitive that’s the problem.”
Some words have a bad habit of being backed up by and used in conjunction with sticks and stones. When we use select and specifically-dehumanizing place-putting words, one of the many things we’re saying with them is “just so you know, I could do whatever I want to you and nobody would stop me or punish me, because you’re not a real person to the point that there’s a word for what you are.” It has never ever ever ever ever EVER been the group these words are used on that are at fault for making these words into something special and awful that can’t be used without that underlying connotation. These words got made into that by the people who have lynched and raped and laughed while they did it and used these words as their calling card and unifying pledge. That’s just what they mean. Wanting to hand-wave that meaning away so we don’t have to recognize or apologize is just one more seriously-fucking-wrong thing we’re using our privilege in conjunction with these words to do.
Which brings us to…
Lindy West is smarter than me and has already written far better, smarter, more concise, and more hilarious stuff on this topic than I expect to here. Go read her stuff instead. I will not be the least bit offended. You will be glad you did.
Sometimes in this life, a joke will bomb. It happens. There’s any number of reasons why a joke won’t hit. Maybe it’s old and we’ve heard it before. Maybe it wasn’t terribly clever. And sometimes it’s about a subject that elicits a different feeling in people than laughter or amusement.
This is why “off color” comedy is risky, because it skirts all three of those territories. Hating on a minority? Yeah, that’s pretty much been done to death. Good comedians can do it to process and raise awareness, crap comedians do it and perpetuate. Because, unfortunately, there are lots of ways to wring laughter out of people, and not all of them have to do with being funny (that is, witty, insightful, challenging, amusing, humorous, artful, tension-relieving), so “off color”, while being a hard risk for genuine laughter, gets used as a crappy crutch by hacks scrounging for laughs of shock, embarrassment, or delight.
Delight? Yeah. Communing in a comfortable prejudice, wallowing in the spiteful and familiar, is delightful to our monkey-brains. It’s one of those god-awful things about human beings that we need to be aware of. It’s the chemical hit that makes high-school-kids keep pushing the “tell the gay kid to kill himself” button, not out of genuine fear or any kind of pain or problem of their own that needs redress, but the simple delight of all being in agreement and having the freedom and power to toy with another person’s agony while feeling nothing themselves. That’s why it would be “hilarious” to some people for a woman to be gang-raped in a comedy club for not communing with them on how side-splittingly funny rape is. On the smaller scale, it’s why we feel all warm and fuzzy around our best friends when we’re venting about how much we can’t stand someone else. There’s no joke there. It’s a push button response, like shock or embarrassment or tickling. If you put a person in a setting they feel safe in, and push their privileged-spite button, they laugh.
But what about when they don’t. What about when you bomb? What about when all you brought to the table is re-warmed racist caricature and stereotypes about women and how much you just don’t get what’s up with The Gays, and it doesn’t push anyone’s button. Just because you told “a joke”, that doesn’t obligate anyone to laugh. Just because you told “a joke” that doesn’t make you immune to whatever reaction they *did* have. It’s the jokes, not the people, that are humorless in that case. That’s you, not them, that don’t have a sense of what humor is, because if you did you wouldn’t be trying to coast on easy delight and shock responses. That’s you expecting your privilege to contractually obligate other privileged folks to chime in (and if you’re a MAJOR asshole, you also expect fealty-laughter from the oppressed). And the ONLY way to make yourself an even bigger loser after that point is to try and enforce that contract by getting angry at the people you’ve failed to entertain.
Because it’s old. We’ve heard it before. It’s only “edgy” in the sense that it’s on the trailing edge of culture. I don’t find it offensive out of some inauthentic self-policing “political correctness”. It’s my genuine response to someone being a mean-spirited douchebag and wanting a cookie for it. Laughing when I don’t feel like laughing just because someone “told a joke” and that’s the response they expect would be a fakey political act.
3. Such a HASSLE
“Oh MAN, you can’t even say OH MAN anymore without some woman crying oppression!”
I KNOW RITE? Gawd. Doesn’t it seem like every other decade some group or whatever is making up all these new rules that censor the crap out of what you’re allowed to say and how you’re allowed to behave? What a DRAG. Who can function when you have to learn all these WORDS. I mean, women and gays and blacks…or is it people of color again? Darn this is so hard…but that’s the point, right? These people with their thought-policing, they just don’t know how HARD it is to learn all these specific fiddly rules, let alone follow them!
Actually, in the first place, we do know. We really do. It’s why we give a shit about the language people use. Because we are intimately fucking familiar with how allll the little phrases and idioms that have wormed their way into our cultural soup in the past dozen-hundred years of white-male editorializing help to maintain our status as invisible, subjugated, and worthless. We know what it’s like to have to follow subtle, shifting, ever-changing rules that only apply to us but were made by people who are not us, who make us an “us” in the first place simply by having all the power and insisting that we’re not part of “them”. We know *all about* regulating our thoughts and behaviors and actions to be acceptable to society.
We’re pretty much never going to not know. So why should you get off without knowing? If I have to have an intimate education in the nuanced meaning of what a man means when he calls me a “twat” depending on place, time, tone, and context (lest I earn some sterner censure), so do you. Since trans* folk labor under a highly specific burden of knowledge of all the epithets and labels (not to mention jokes, laws, punishments, and portrayals) that are meant to apply to them and why they hurt, since they have had to spend long hours over their decades in the shadows trying to figure out words and phrases that will help dismantle the mess of dehumanization that has so carefully been constructed for them, you can damn well bet we have to shut our stupid faces and listen when they are kind enough to give us the cliffs-notes version of their opinion on the matter, because they are extending to us an expectation of our rational intelligence that we have done NOTHING to deserve and everything to squander.
Yes. Learning a foreign language can be hard. This is not that. This is learning your own language, which in every subject is a life-long experience, and which doesn’t seem to raise as many red-flags of “oh gawd so harrrrrd” when it’s about internalizing the the difference between a “cell phone” and an “iphone” or a “hybrid” and an “electric” car as it does when a person is being asked to learn how to exert bare-bones-basic-not-pooping-on-the-dinner-table courtesy to someone that they (secretly, fiercely) resent having to endure the existence of.
Changing the language to *accurately* reflect the worthiness and humanity of everyone is the correct thing to do, and it is a political reality and necessity, but it’s still not properly termed “political correctness” any more than using correct language to talk about your phone or your car are…they’re words that let you say what you mean. They let you call a human being a human being. They let you see and hear the places we’ve been ugly and cruel and factually off this whole time in talking about each other. If you don’t know enough about a subject to know the most basic words, don’t try to talk on that subject. You’re not being asked to build or repair a transmission from scratch, Einstein, you’re just being asked to know the basic user difference between an automatic and a manual. That’s not harrrrd, that’s the kind of knowledge that’s out there and is mostly only avoided by people who are actively avoiding it. Shit, people that don’t drive at all know the difference between a manual and an automatic. You know where teh google is, and there are plenty of “not being an asshole” resources out there. Super-easy cliffs notes. Shit you probably have already absorbed but are fighting on screwed-up principle.
Oh here’s a thought…clear out all those othering and place-putting terms you keep in there just in case you ever run into a spade that really really needs to be called a spade (you won’t…that’s not a thing) and I assure you there will be MORE than enough room for a quick google of why people put an asterisk in “trans*”.
Again, not “politically correct”. It’s a correction, definitely. We’ve been cramming racist, sexist, homophobic crap and other juicy tidbits into all the nooks and crannies of American English since we decided that would be a thing. Every generation has had whole new batches and developments on hate-themes full of vocabulary and nuance. Nobody ever complained that learning those was harrrrrd. Learning the right words is no harder than learning the wrong ones. But it’s not political. It is not an abstract strategy. It serves the purpose of political equality, but that’s not the first or most important reason. The first reason is the same reason that there are some nicknames you’d like to have and others you wouldn’t. Because you’re you, and you want the people who talk to you or about you (and who take it upon themselves to voice opinions about what’s up with you) to show that they know your name.
“Ok, wordhose. So if none of this stuff is “politically correct”, what does that phrase even mean?
Have you seen “Dexter”? Dexter is politically correct. He has no internal awareness that killing is wrong, no wired grasp of other people’s pain, but he has a list of things he knows he needs to do to avoid being punished for killing and hurting people.
That’s “political correctness”. Stuff that’s just for show. Manners without morals, that rely on selfish motivations. Manipulative lies.
People that don’t beat their kids…in public.
People that love to throw around the term “political correctness” bug me. A lot.
Because what they’re saying is, basically, they don’t *really* believe that (insert minority) are people that don’t have a “place” they need to be put in, and they don’t really believe that anyone else believes it either. That it’s all just a big silly scam that will be gone in another generation or two and oh won’t my face be red. The fundamental worthiness of a person regardless of skin color is just a scam, and they’ll go along with it if there’s something they want (just like everyone, they think) but yeah, they know it’s all just a lot of talk.
Lip service. The stuff of politics when politics is not the basic process of living as self-governing people but the thoroughly-rigged-thoroughly-gamed system of tricking the people you despise into giving up their vote to you. You might memorize the words without ever bothering to internalize them, or you might fob off the job of correcting your speeches and apologizing for your gaffes onto an aide.
The “politically incorrect” people are no better. They are every bit as convinced that the present progress of civil rights is just a laughable sham, but since they’re not running for election they figure there’s no reason to even pretend like they aren’t bigoted, pampered, tiny-minded heaps of crap. They just want a cookie for it, also.
So yeah, depsite all the things that get called political correctness that aren’t, the phrase it still useful. It tells you a lot about the person using it.