Friday, February 19, 2016

Politically Correct

Before becoming a blogger, I spent decades writing for the printed page. The thing I like better about blogging is that when you make a mistake, be it a typo or a factual error, it's usually an easy matter to jump back into the post and fix it. Yesterday, however, I made a mistake I don't know how to completely erase. I originally published the post with the word "transgendered" in the title when it should have been "transgender."

As always happens when I screw up, kind readers immediately pointed out the grammatical error, and some warned me that there are those who find that particular term insulting. I immediately made the corrections in both the title and the body of the text, but whenever the post was shared on Facebook, and it was shared many times, the old title, with the original sin, kept showing up. I explained to one friend that the only way I could "change" it completely would be to delete the post and re-publish it as a new post, but then I would lose all the comments and break all the links from people who had already shared it. She suggested that I add a note to the post explaining my error with an apology. This was a good idea, I think, because my mistake is a common enough one and my own flub provided an opportunity to draw attention to it so that others could avoid repeating it.

Of course, that correction brought reactions from other readers, also kind, bemoaning "political correctness."

We hear a lot about political correctness these days, with one of our major presidential candidates who even seems to be running for office based largely upon his opposition to it. And listen, I get it, it can be annoying to be corrected, especially in public or when you're in a flow and trying to make a larger point (I'm thinking of those amateur grammarians who interrupt to "fix" your mistakes over cocktail party conversation: "I think you mean may I, not can I.") But, there are some things that must be called out, like the use of racial slurs, the repetition of stereotypes, or the espousal of hateful or insulting demagoguery of any kind.

When people complain about "political correctness," what they are usually complaining about is that they don't like being criticized for saying things that they don't find insulting, but that others do. Some even attempt to evoke their First Amendment rights to say whatever they want. What they forget is that the backlash they receive, the "political correctness," is just the rest of us exercising our own right to free speech: that's how the famous "free marketplace of ideas" is supposed to work. The theory is that it's from the bare knuckled brawl of open discourse that political truth emerges, and political correctness is part of how that truth has always looked.

I understand that this leaves some folks feeling as if they must always walk on eggshells, fearful that they will say something unintentionally insulting. That's where kindness comes in. It made me feel awful yesterday to have my mistake pointed out to me, but since it was done in kindness, in the spirit of helpfulness, in the name of education, I was able to hear it that way. And because these things are always changing, it can leave even the most progressive among us uncertain. Uncertainty can be uncomfortable, but it's simply a sign that there are still things left for us to learn.

As far as I'm concerned, anyone can say anything they want, I don't want to censor you, but, at the same time, I also won't let your slurs and stereotypes and insults stand without comment. If it feels like an innocent mistake, one made from ignorance, I'll try to take you aside, to do it kindly the way readers did for me yesterday, to help replace your uncertainty with truth and knowledge. If it seems like you're trying to hurt my fellow citizens, I probably won't be so kind because now I'm not educating you, I'm role modeling for others how to stand up for truth.

Yes I do want to be "politically correct." Thank you for helping me with that.

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MoLiver4u said...

First off - I love your blog. I've been reading it for years and I continually grow from it as a person and a parent, even though my daughter is no longer a preschooler. Political correctness though is a topic I struggle with. Not because I "don't like being criticized for saying things that they don't find insulting, but that others do" but because I really am someone who cares and I find it demoralizing and distracting to the real issues.

When I was in college my father, a liberal himself, was still calling Asians "Orientals" and due to his Alzheimers, could not seem to understand why this wasn't really ok. I used to cringe every time he said it in public and insisted on correcting him, even though I knew it was for naught. In those days, I was surrounded by the young Intelligentsia, who have the time and passions to change the world. Many of my classmates would hotly debate whether the term "African American" was a good option as many of my classmates were recent Haitian immigrants and did not consider themselves African. It was taboo to call someone "Black" at that time - they were all different shades of brown but not black.

Jump forwards to now. It's been years since I've been active politically in any way (I'll save arguments about being part of the problem by not being part of the solution for another post) but I'm starting to pay attention again. I have tried to figure out if it's ok to use the term African American still or should I be using Black which now appears to be acceptable. This confusion actually keeps me from joining the conversation as I don't wish to insult anyone. It frustrates me that I could cause someone discomfort and pain merely by lack of knowledge and no definitive source to gain that knowledge.

In our history the term "Gay" meant happy and had very positive connotations. After it was used to describe the homosexual community, it became an insult, general enough that it became an adjective to describe things that were not cool or acceptable. "That tv show is so gay" or "Dude, you're a dork, stop being so gay" were the type of things I commonly heard in my teens. The problem, as I see it, isn't in what term is applied to a group, it's in your perception of the group. Any term applied to something for which your paradigm is negative will become negative by association after awhile. Changing the terms repeatedly doesn't change the hearts and minds of those who are already negatively inclined towards you, it merely serves to frustrate those who are trying to understand, trying to help and trying to see things from the inside despite not being there themselves, IMO.

I understand the power of language and labels. But the labels keep changing and trying to please everyone which is never going to happen. It is important to address when labels are used to spread hate but it's more important to address the issues which cause this hate (which I think you did a GREAT job of in your transgender post) but I really think that people need to be flexible and understanding of these errors and address corrections with delicacy not just for those whose feelings may have been hurt, but for those who really did so out of no malice whatsoever.

Labels are inevitable in any society as they help us all make sense of our world. The emotions that attach to those labels are really the issue we should be focusing on.

Enough rambling. Thanks for letting me have my say. I'm sure I'll get flamed as a giant racist but I feel strongly enough about this issue to risk it. I welcome friendly and open discussion on the points I've made above.:)

greyhoundgirl said...

I am a long time early childhood teacher who now works as a child development consultant, working with teachers and parents. I also am a lesbian and chair an LGBTQ organization in my city. I have a lot of friends who are transgender and have worked with very young (2 to 6 year olds) kids, their teachers and their parents about gender issues and identity. I don't believe in 'political correctness' and I wish the term would disappear--similar to what you say, I think it is a term used by one group of people to shut down dialog with another group of people. Your apology reads as extremely sincere. It can be really difficult to know the current terminology around this issue. It used to be acceptable to use "transgendered'--now it's not. But you don't know unless you know, if that makes sense. It seems clear that you have a lot of respect for your former student and your mistake was simply a mistake. I've been working to support transgender people for many years and I also still make mistakes. I'm impressed and appreciative that you wrote about the anti-trans bill and I'm sure you educated some parents and teachers with your post.

Sandy said...

Well said, as usual. This is a discussion I find myself embroiled in frequently. The term "Political Correctness" has morphed in meaning from its original intent I believe. When it first appeared it essentially was a wake up call to all of us that some of the terms and expressions used to describe people or groups of people were actually very offensive. For instance the term 'invalid' was used to describe people living with any number of challenges. Look at the word... Invalid. Which literally means, of no consequence. However, as time has gone on, people use the term to express their frustrations at having to go the extra mile to express their concerns about any particular subject. Essentially, the lazier they are, the sooner they slump into offensiveness and use "political correctness gone wild" as their excuse. Not everyone is going to be eloquent, but they do need to realise that care must be taken with language, because words hurt very deeply. And who knows, one day we may be the people who are in the firing line.
As always, a great column. Thanks :)


Rebecca deCoca said...

To me, most of this should be called "social correctness" instead of "political correctness." To me it's just simple consideration and politeness, especially referring to any group of people by the name they prefer. I suppose you could also call it "identity politics," but to me it's more social consideration. I really don't understand why people have a problem with it, but there's a lot I can't fathom of some people's attitudes these days.