You don’t kill a disease by addressing its symptoms. Cancer is not treated with painkillers and anti-emetics. If you call someone a rake, you are not saying that the gardening implement is an immoral pleasure seeker. Language and words do not carry any objective meaning. Any meaning a word has is created by the person saying it, and the context in which it is used. Given these realities, it still amazes me that so many people choose to focus on the words people say, while the issues that they claim those words represent continue to fester and plague our society.
Last summer, Marc Maron was fortunate enough to host President Barack Obama on his podcast to have a discussion about racism in society. During his interview, POTUS used the word “nigger.” The resulting media frenzy, predictably enough, focused on Obama’s language rather than discussing the actual issue he pointed out. The actual point the president was making, that racism is not marked by people not saying “nigger” in public, but rather by the very fabric of our institutions that prevents minorities from being treated equally and fairly, was lost in the fray. And that, precisely that, is why I am so opposed to the way millennials approach issues of social justice, through the lens of being inoffensive, rather than the lens of actually solving the problem.
Two days ago, I had a discussion with some folks who were offended by my use of the word “pussy” and claimed that it was perpetuating a sexist stereotype of women as weak. As has been the case with all previous discussions I’ve had on the topic, I did not hear an argument which explains the moral impropriety of my use of the word. Rather, I was faced with the same emotional contentions which I’ve heard before. In this post I’d like to go over some of those and then offer my own background.
Let’s talk about the first point, that language perpetuates the very “ism” that we want to prevent. There is no evidence, at least that I’ve found, to suggest that the presence or absence of slurs in a lexicon promotes or discourages discriminatory behavior. Take the “N-word,” for example. There is no question that the word is most often used in black communities by black people. Yet, it would be quite a stretch to claim that the black people are the most racist against black people. In that context, the word is used to refer to friends, acquaintances, enemies, and everyone in between. Words do not create or perpetuate attitudes of people toward each other. Words are created and used by people for particular, contextualized purposes. If one is going to claim otherwise, then there should be some actual evidence to accompany that claim.
Next, people argue that using the word in a negative fashion associates that characteristic with the people the word is used to describe. For example, calling something gay means you’re saying homosexuality is a negative thing. Well, the word gay also means happy or joyous. Am I also saying happiness is a negative thing? If you’re going to claim that meanings of words are associated, then you must explain why some meanings are excluded from that association. Otherwise, it doesn’t really make sense. Words can be given multiple meanings; that doesn’t mean that all those meanings are linked or associated, nor does it mean the speaker is associating those meanings.
Those arguments aside, I want to discuss the problems that this focus on political correctness causes. It does a great deal of harm, and the Donald Trump campaign is clear evidence of that. When actually bigoted people are forced to watch what they say all the time, it does not eliminate their ideology. Instead, it forces that ideology to retreat to the shadows, where it grows and becomes more angry. When these people don’t say what they think in public, they become harder to find, and their bigotry becomes more difficult to confront, until it reaches a critical mass. That is what you have with the Donald Trump campaign. There is a tremendously large population of the American public which has been marginalized and disenfranchised. Granted, they are mostly fearful and hateful individuals who have very simplistic ideas about the functioning of society. But, they have been ostracized by the political correctness police, and now they have found a voice through a boisterous billionaire. This voice, in turn, translates into actual action like violence and public policy.
The other, and perhaps larger problem, is that the actual issues get swept under the rug. We fill our “I need to be a good person” desires by chastising someone for using the word pussy while the actual issue of sexism is forgotten. We spend all our time talking about Donald Trump’s ridiculous plan to ban all Muslims from the U.S., and we don’t spend any time talking about how to deal with religiously motivated violence in our own borders. The British parliament spends an entire day discussing banning Donald Trump from their territory, while hate crimes are at an all time high, and the world faces a refugee crisis. Sure, I use the words pussy and gay to satirically make certain points about things. But, I also provide a social justice scholarship each year to help students from marginalized groups in society attain an education. The point is that I choose to focus on the actual problem and do what I can to help address it. I don’t spend my time getting on my soapbox on Facebook or in casual conversations being offended by somebody’s use of language, especially if I know that person is not a bigot.
I have discussed this issue with many people who belong to the groups these words seem to be about. I have yet to find a homosexual person who really cares if I refer to something as gay. Instead, they prefer to discuss the real discrimination they face in employment, marriage, and other fundamental social aspects of their lives. I have yet to find a mentally handicapped person who cares if I call something retarded. Instead, they’re more preoccupied with completing an education. I have yet to meet a black person who cares about my use of the word “nigga” to refer to them or any other black person. They seem to care more about police brutality and a lack of due process in the justice system.
In my experience, political correctness is rarely a concern of the members of groups in society facing discrimination. The people I encounter who care so much about what others say are usually in a completely different boat. They are usually white, middle class or wealthy, young adults. They are usually people who have faced little adversity in their lives. While their intentions may be good, their methods are ill founded and misguided. They do more harm than good, creating a more divided society, rather than a more accepting and inclusive one.
This discussion I had two days ago began with us talking about the ethics of medical professionals participating in torture and military interrogations. As soon as I said the word “pussy,” though, the actual morality of torture was never discussed again. It was a living, breathing example of exactly what I have described here in my post.