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To PC or not to PC

| Friday, January 28, 2022

When we discuss politically correct, or “PC” language, we inherently examine the culture and/or movements that have created the new and more progressive terminology. How do we approach topics like these while maintaining our values of tolerance, acceptance, equality and free speech?

Generally speaking, the terms in this prompt reflect a trend toward non-gendered language: “firefighter,” server” and “homemaker” suggest that these formerly-gendered roles ought not to be assigned to either men or women. The positions have broadened to become more inclusive. Also on the point of gender, the new terminology allows room for people who identify as non-binary (or NB/enby), agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, trans, or otherwise to fit within the descriptions of the terms. Therefore, a “homemaker” could be a woman, a man, or someone who identifies as neither of those things. 

The other examples in the list in the prompt reflect different changes in societal attitudes toward various minorities. “Banned” in place of “blacklisted” discourages the association between the color black and negativity or being “bad.” This is among the more subtle word associations but nonetheless important. “Differently-abled” allows people to reframe the language around what was formerly called “disability,” creating a more positive and accepting voice around the minority population. Viewing learning differences like dyslexia and ADHD as just that — differences — allows for an acknowledgement that having these differences is not “bad” or “wrong,” but rather just a different way to experience life. “Happy Holidays” in place of the generic “Merry Christmas” shows an acknowledgement of other belief systems, and it begins to unravel the deeply embedded Christian-centricity of Americana. Finally, “Native Americans,” too is a more accurate descriptor of the group, given that they are indigenous to the Americas and not to India as was erroneously assumed. Furthermore, the group’s former identification as “red” was obviously problematic, so a departure from that identification has been long overdue. 

In the suggestion and adoption of PC language, it is important to remember that language should be accurate. Critics will argue that terms like “Happy Holidays” are actually imprecise when the speaker is actually trying to say “Merry Christmas.” But really, these terms are more accurate to the attitudes we hold in modern society. Saying “Merry Christmas” to a Jewish person actually, in its own way, is inaccurate. Calling a non-binary person a fireman (or firewoman) is inaccurate. The question at the root of the accuracy issue is one of how we define accuracy. In the past, accuracy in terms of identity have been determined by the beholder, those observing the individual — in most cases, the majority. Neurotypical, able-bodied people created the term “disabled.” Europeans/whites called Native Americans “red Indians.” Gender-conforming people created gendered language. But is accuracy truly defined by the beholder when it comes to identity? PC language shifts the role of definition onto the self, the unit being identified. It allows the language to reflect what individuals identify with and as, instead of outsiders. In this way, it becomes more accurate to these various identities. 

Opponents of PC language have described it as censorship. This strong opposition has sparked insight to the link between language and culture with respect to the rights that people feel they have to define another’s existence. This is such a deeply-held and misunderstood idea of what it means to have free speech in the United States, and the sociopolitical climate surrounding the language highlights a deep divide in the political schema in our day. 

On a college campus, the language we use to engage in dialogues across topics matters, and we must investigate more deeply the underpinnings of our word selection, for they provide the very framework for the discussions to take place. 

Alexa Schlaerth is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame pursuing degrees in Chinese and philosophy. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys shopping at Erewhon Market, drinking kombucha and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached at [email protected] over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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