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Why Do We Hate Politically Correct Language?

Political correctness isn't all bad...

Karen Stollznow
Source: Karen Stollznow

Political correctness and politically correct language have a bad reputation. On the other hand, they can also be seen as good.

So what’s going on here?

The phrase “politically correct” arose in the early 1970s, in the wake of the civil rights movement, to refer to language that aims to avoid offending or disadvantaging various groups of people. By the late 1980s the abbreviation “PC” was being used.

In those earlier days, the creation of politically correct words was particularly common in the language used to talk about disability. New words such as “special” were intended to convey a more positive image than predecessors like “handicapped” and “mental retardation." Other PC words including “diffability” and “handicapable” were well-meaning and intended to protect people with disabilities. However, these euphemisms were not automatically inoffensive. In fact, many were actually offensive to the people they were intended to represent. To these stakeholders, PC words were patronizing and condescending. They suggested that disability is (or should be) uncomfortable to others. This ran the risk of further stigmatizing people with disabilities.

With the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, there was more focus on the plight of people with disabilities. This environment also led to the creation of “physically challenged” and “mentally challenged.” “Challenged” was intended as a positive alternative to “disabled,” but was construed as yet another clumsy attempt at euphemism. It was argued that disabilities are impairments, not “challenges” that may be overcome. Challenged is now considered derogatory. The word was parodied mercilessly, leading to the invention of humorous and ironic labels, including follicularly challenged (“bald”), vertically challenged (“short”), and calorically challenged (“overweight”).

One of the problems of politically correct language seems to be that it is usually created by outsiders, not by the people to whom the language refers.

In the 1990s, conservatives co-opted “politically correct,” using the phrase with scorn. It became a pejorative, criticizing this kind of language as manipulative and a distortion of reality. It was, and still is, decried as censorship, a threat to free speech, and proof that you “can’t say anything anymore." PC language, and the people who use it, are portrayed as weak, hypersensitive, and cowardly. They are branded as overly emotional and easily offended. Political correctness is a politicized insult wielded by the right against the left, joining snowflake, social justice warrior, libtard and a slew of other anti-liberal slang.

Conversely, being “politically incorrect” is worn as a badge of honor. It is often praised as being upfront and honest. A politically incorrect person is someone who speaks his mind and tells it like it is. Some have reveled in being politically incorrect. Donald Trump has mocked people with disabilities, uttered sexist comments about women, and characterized Mexican people as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.

Both right and left don’t seem to like “political correctness.” The phrase seems to imply that something is excessive, fanatical, and absurd, and that courtesy has been taken too far. It’s not a term that anyone tends to use in a positive way and it can be used to demonize good things, such as social justice. For these reasons, the term is often avoided. By any other name, political correctness can be good. Language that is politically correct may not be described as such, but instead referred to as inclusive and polite. Language that is politically incorrect may instead be described as offensive or hurtful.

Whether political correctness is good or bad depends on its context and usage. The phrase, “That’s not PC” can criticize language or behavior that is insulting or exclusive. We’re saying a word or phrase is no longer acceptable because of its history and usage. Not being PC can be perceived as ignorance, intolerance, or just plain rudeness. It is putting your foot in your mouth.

Political correctness often represents good intentions. It is much maligned, but at its core, being politically correct is about being respectful and sensitive to others.