Daily Prompt: Is political correctness a useful concept, or does it stifle honest discussion?
Definition of politically correct:
1. Of, relating to, or supporting broad social, political, and educational change, especially to redress historical injustices in matters such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.
2. Being or perceived as being overly concerned with such change, often to the exclusion of other matters.
I first heard the terms “political correctness” and “politically correct” when I emigrated, some twenty years ago. I use the terms myself, mostly in the first sense of the definition given above.
Words like “nigger”, “fatso”, “cunt” and “faggot” are hurtful, hateful and destructive words and not using them as such would, in itself, already be a major social change. I definitely agree with that, and we’re nowhere near there yet.
In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence tried to singlehandedly change the words “cunt”, “cock” and “fuck” into pleasant terms, the idea being that sex and love and the human body were not dirty, shameful things, but rather beautiful, essential aspects of life, and so the words associated with them shouldn’t be taboo. Instead of avoiding the words for body parts and sex that had negative connotations, he tried to make them positive. Of course he failed, though I admire the attempt and the guts–it was 1928 and the book was banned in Britain until 1960, thirty years after his death.
So “cunt”, originally a swear word–or slang if you will–for “vagina” is now used to refer to the bearers of this body part. It suggests that women are no more than their reproductive organs, and that’s offensive. Among certain sections of society–poor, painfully undereducated white males with a chip on either their right or their left shoulder–the word “cunt” is apparently used to refer to any female or just as an obscenity to sling around just for the fun of it. And any man who these guys don’t agree with is a “cocksucker”. You just have to read some of the comments to my open letter to Mark Kessler to see that I’m not exaggerating. And I’m not even allowing the worst of them.
D.H. Lawrence tried to change sexual swear words into positives and in some way, I suppose the same is being done with the word “nigger”. “You’re my nigger” pretty much means “You’re my brother” or “You’re my pal”. But only when said by one black person to another. I try my hardest to understand it, I really do. I understand if the the philosophy behind it (if there even is a philosophy behind it) is to disconnect the word from the hated slave owners and racist whites of the past and to turn it into something positive.
If that is the philosophy behind it, I also understand why white people don’t get to use the word. After all, “You’re my nigger” said by a white person to a black person would immediately connect it back to slavery, intimidation and racism. But dear African Americans, I just don’t think it works. Listening to such talk from the outside as a white person, hearing you using “nigger” at one another, I cringe. Every time it’s a slap in the face. I find it debasing and painful, like obese people referring to themselves as “a beached whale”, just to beat others to it. It’s self-abuse. Maybe to African Americans my opinion on the matter is of no value, exactly because you have taken ownership of the word. It’s no longer a word that white people can use, so maybe it’s also no longer a word that white people can have an opinion about.
But I will have my opinion about it. Just as I will use the word in contexts like these. Referring to the word “nigger” as “the N word” seems completely ridiculous to me. Since everybody knows what word is meant by “the N word, why not just say it? “That racist bastard just called him a nigger!” Doesn’t that communicate much more strongly how terrible it is of that racist bastard than when you say, “That racist bastard just called him the N word!”?
You can’t discuss the extremely negative effects and associations connected to words when you aren’t allowed to mention them at all. For this reason I also don’t understand the banning of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s banned in many libraries across America because the word “nigger” is used. The thing is: Mark Twain uses dismissive irony: he tricks racist readers into thinking he is one of them, only to turn around and show how wrong and stupid their attitude is. Melville does the same in Moby Dick when the narrator first encounters Queequeg, although he never uses the word “nigger”.
Simply banning all books with the word “nigger” in them deprives people, and especially young people when the books are banned in school libraries, of stories that illustrate exactly how vicious racism was during slavery and after, and the associations that the word has, and that racism and white supremacist attitudes should be fought with tooth and nail. Those stories demonstrate how much words matter and why we should never use the word “nigger”.
Incidentally, the stories also show that there were people at the time who fought against prevailing attitudes, and how powerful books could be. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick are just a few books that made a great impression on the reading public. To ban any of them would be to erase a part of history. And we all know George Santayana’s quote: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it”.
Now, of course one can be rabidly racist without ever using specific derogatory words. Some would say that, in order to have an honest discussion, we must be able to “come out and say that blacks commit more crimes than whites” and stuff like that. That is disingenuous, because they just want to be free to incite racial hatred and to instill unfounded prejudices more explicitly. If you need convincing how ridiculous racial generalizations are, listen to this.
I guess what I’m saying is that what is politically correct and what isn’t cannot be determined in general. The subject matter and the intent have to be taken into account. Especially when discussing history, and putting words into a historical perspective, it’s a handicap if one has to avoid words at all cost that are rightly considered derogatory. So far I have used the word “nigger” thirteen times in this post, and yet I obviously (I hope) have not once used it with the intent to be racist. If you cringed thirteen times, good. Because I’ve been using the word in the context of racism and hurtful language.
Having said all that, when it comes to the present, it would seem pretty simple to decide that certain words should not be used to refer to anyone, such as “nigger”, “cunt”, etc. And that anyone who does is an asshole.
And I have to say that, when I came to America, I did become more aware of derogatory or verbally abusive language and how it shaped my mind. Not that I was totally clueless on the subject before, but there was certainly still room for improvement. It didn’t happen all at once. Gradually, over the years, in combination with other life insights like realizing that I had been verbally abused as a child, I saw that, for example, I had not shown solidarity with women in general when I used to exclaim “Kut!” in the Netherlands. (“Kut” means “cunt” and in this instance it’s a swear word like “Shit!” or “Fuck!” ) And that’s just one example.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling that one has to be careful with what one says to others. It makes one more sensitive, it makes one think about language from others’ point of view, and that alone will bring about social change. There will always be those who make it their life’s mission to be the biggest bastards they can possibly be. People like that will never evolve, but as long as they’re on the margin and the rest does grow, there’s progress.