Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Defense of Political Correctness

Obama v. Limbaugh: The Watercolor Debate


Context is everything. Consider the following statement:

"Mixing yellow and blue watercolors gives you green."

Fairly innocuous, right? This is just a statement of fact. What if I said 

“Obama is on the record as saying that mixing yellow and blue watercolors makes green watercolor.”

The source of this statement, namely that it is coming from Obama, entirely changes the way people will interpret it.

“Obama wants to force everyone in a socialist society where you can just mix whatever colors you want.”

“Obama is trying to take away my rights to keep my colors unmixed!”

“Obama is probably going to levy a huge tax against mixing watercolors.”

These reactions say more about the people making them than the original statement. It works both ways, though:

“On his radio show today, Rush Limbaugh said that mixing yellow and blue watercolors makes green.”

“Rush Limbaugh is trying to enforce his narrow-minded view that the only two watercolors that can be mixed are yellow and blue.”

“Rush Limbaugh only sees color when he looks at watercolors, not inner beauty.”

“Rush Limbaugh is offensive to people who self-identify as ‘yellow’ by suggesting that they can only be in relationships with people who self-identify as ‘blue.’”

All of this ties in with political correctness. If I see two men kissing and I say

“Wow, that’s really gay.”

It could be considered offensive. It is, however, just a statement of fact. What could be more gay than two men physically expressing their affection for one another? Here’s another factual statement that really upsets people:

“The word ‘retarded’ is really offensive to people with developmental disabilities.” 

There’s no quicker way to upset someone who uses the word “retarded” in their casual, everyday vernacular than to point out the simple fact that a lot of people find it offensive. Throughout the course of my life, I’ve found myself on both sides of this argument. I still very clearly see both sides of it. However, after considering it for a while, I’ve decided that my final position is to err on the side of political correctness. I’m sensitive to people on the other side of the argument as well: I wouldn’t ever use the word “gay” in a derogatory sense, but I would never tell someone who does that they’re wrong. Generally, I just pretend to misunderstand what they’re talking about:

“What’s so gay about putting ketchup on macaroni? I’d venture so far as to say that this behavior transcends sexual orientation.”

So what are both sides of the argument? Well, since I’m ultimately going to argue against it, I’ll present the anti-PC side of the argument first.


Point

If someone regularly uses the word “faggot” to describe something towards which they have a negative disposition, does it make them homophobic? I don’t think so. I would hypothesize that most people who use that word are not homophobic. I used to use that word quite often. I never had a problem with gay people, and I never used that word as a way to denigrate a gay person; to me it was a multi-use word. Someone is being disingenuous? Pretentious? Ignorant? Rude or disrespectful? Call them a faggot. Someone is being gay? Fine by me. People are too sensitive. In fact, I had a friend who knew a group of women who would get offended every time he called them guys.

“Hey guys, how’s it going?”

“We are not ‘guys,’ we are women.”


An attitude like that makes it difficult to talk to someone. It feels like you’re in danger of offending them every time you say anything.


The word 'retard' literally means to 'delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment.' It was unfairly used against people with developmental disabilities, and that purely innocuous word became offensive. In fact, the word 'faggot' has only recently been used to describe gay people. It has been used historically to describe a pile of sticks, a cigarette, and a few other things. In our modern society where homosexuality is generally accepted as okay (with a few exceptions), can't we just use the word 'faggot' to mean something other than gay people? Why does everyone have to be so sensitive?

I was recently informed that the word ‘transvestite’ is considered offensive. I didn’t believe it until I looked it up on a GLBTQ website about offensive words, and there it was. I’ve since forgotten the inoffensive term, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that term becomes offensive soon as well. What, after all, is wrong with ‘transvestite?’ Trans = different, vest = clothing. The term is for people who wear clothing different than you’d expect, considering their sex. What is so offensive about that? It seems like the perfect word to describe people who choose to dress this way.

Counter-Point

I once got into an argument with a friend about the word ‘midget,’ and the correct way to refer to people who choose to dress in the clothing of people of the opposite sex. ‘Little People’ is not a specific enough term. Children are little people. Babies are little people. I’ve met someone who is about 4’11 before - I would consider that person to be littler than most. My friend’s side of the argument was this - why do I care how specific it is? Will I ever find myself in a situation where, in context, people will not know whether I’m talking about a baby or a full-grown adult? Also, if I am not a member of this group of people, who the hell am I to tell them what they should want to be called? This argument works the same way for people who choose to wear clothing that’s generally reserved for people of the opposite sex. If someone is born a man but insists on being referred to as “she,” why should it bother me? If your name is Allen but you prefer to be called by “Tim,” then I’m going to call you Tim. It’s your name, not mine. I can’t imagine a situation in which someone’s sex at the genetic level would be important, unless I were a doctor.


The brother of a very good friend of mine is gay. He also studied film. In high school, I remember having a conversation with him in which I was describing an interview I saw between two actors, discussing a film they’d made. In it, they were insisting that it was not a “movie,” but in fact deserved to be called a “film.” I told him how gay I thought this was. It didn’t seem to bother him, but after I said it, I realized that it may have. What I meant to say was pretentious, but what I said was gay. Did it bother him? I don’t know. This brings up another point - if I had meant pretentious, why did I say gay? If I am trying to get my point across in a coherent and understandable matter, shouldn’t I be using vocabulary that adequately conveys my message? 

These days, the word that bothers me the most is the word ‘stupid.’

“That movie is stupid.”


“That joke was stupid.”


“That guy is stupid.”


It doesn’t bother me because it’s mean, it bothers me because the above statements give me absolutely no information about the speaker’s opinion of the subject, other than the fact that whatever those opinions may be, they’re criticisms. I say please criticize away, but without specifying what these criticisms actually are, these statements are not conducive to a constructive discussion. I can intellectually defend any silly movie I like, but when someone says “That movie is stupid,” I have no idea what it is about that movie they don’t like. The same arguments could be made about the words ‘retarded’ and ‘gay.’ Since, to the speaker, these words have transcended their offensive definitions, they should be able to articulate what it is they are trying to say without being offensive or linguistically lazy. Using words that require no consideration of the message they’re trying to send makes that message rather impotent.


Anne Coulter tweeted something about Obama being a ‘retard’ during the presidential debates. The response was immediate: huge groups of people called her out for being narrow-minded and offensive. Ann Coulter and her ilk responded with cries of ‘word police,’ and things like that. I think that the best response to this incident was a letter written by an athlete at the Special Olympics named John Franklin Stevens, which can be found here.

All of these examples highlight the reason I’ve chosen to strive for political correctness in my everyday speech. I’ll be happy to discuss the issues of hyper-sensitivity and preachiness (I still think that women insisting they not be referred to as ‘guys’ is taking it way too far), but in an effort not to hurt anyone’s feelings, I’m going to avoid using words which bother people. If you choose to dress in a way that defies societal norms, if the way you’ve chosen to love bothers people, or even if you’re just shorter than most people, you’ve probably been made fun of in your life, just for being who you are. If there are a certain set of words that you often hear when being ridiculed, I’m happy to avoid saying these words as a gesture of friendliness.

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