Many of the blogs I’ve written have discussed one aspect or another of communication. I wanted to share observations and impressions about word choice, the shaping and phrasing of sentences to be more sensitive and persuasive, and at the same time, make readers aware of subtle methods of control and influence.
In a recent conversation, ‘politically correct language’ came up, and I thought I would give that subject some attention, to dissuade you from ever using it.
Politically Correct Language (PCL) is one of the most offensive and deceptive forms of address in the English language. It is intended to convey awareness, sensitivity, an acknowledgement of individuality and difference. Originally it was meant to avoid ‘labelling’, but the PCL terms became labels in their own right. It is very ‘political’ in the sense that you rephrase the way you express yourself to suit your audience. It is a license to air your prejudices in polite terms, and it is interesting to note that PCL phrases are coined and used by people to whom the phrases do not apply.
The message PCL actually sends is one of ignorance, fear, and exclusion. PCL is very sterile and unfeeling. In some instances, there’s an undertone of snobbery. For example, I know many people who are ‘minorities’—Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc. None of them ever refer to themselves as ‘people of colour’. That’s left to the Caucasian PCL-ers, who, in the US, are the majority. They succeed in creating an ‘us-and-them’ dynamic, which is where trouble begins. An interesting note: PCL-ers don’t recognize they are people of colour as well—pink!
Somewhere in our primal past, we recognized difference as a matter of survival—‘this one is not from my group and may be an enemy’. It came from a fear of losing one’s life. To-day this distinction seems to stem from a fear of losing one’s identity as an individual or a member of a particular class, and keeping that identity pure.
In some instances, pointing out differences seems rational. Men have oppressed and dominated women in many fields of endeavour for centuries (and sometimes still do). Why wouldn’t a woman want special recognition because she is doing a job typically held by a male (and may be doing it better)? The most important thing, though, is not the gender of the individual, but can s/he do the job? (There are some jobs for which a woman is doubtlessly unqualified—male stripper, for example.)
These distinctions (male/female, black/white, able/disabled, etc) confuse and conceal the actual matters. Many years ago, a blind man sang a solo at a choral concert in Chicago. He sang off-key and his voice cracked, but he received a lengthy standing ovation. If he had not been blind, he would have been booed off the stage. Because he was blind, the audience showered him with accolades. With that ‘standard’ in place, all my readers should adore me and praise me for my excellence and genius, because I have multiple physical disabilities. (Let me add, if you do, you’re a mug.)
Having been disabled all my adult life, and having worked in the field of disability most of my adult life, I’ve encountered numerous social workers trained to modern standards, both as a professional and as a client. These social workers are taught to be professional in their behaviour, and it carries over into, and contaminates, their communication. It desensitizes them to their clients. As I mentioned, PCL is sterile—there’s no feeling behind it, no genuine commitment, no honesty. Whenever I heard PCL being used, I knew my client was in trouble. The social workers who did the best job, and who related best to their clients, took a no-nonsense approach and did not bother with fluffy language.
I have no problem identifying myself as a ‘disabled person’. There are advocates in the disability community who say I should refer to myself as a ‘person with a disability’ because my way puts the disability before the person. It is a matter of personal choice which you use.
There are expressions that are considered pejorative in to-day’s disabled society. ‘Cripple’ is an ugly word, connoting something sick, broken and useless. ‘Handicap’ originated in Elizabethan times when the disabled collected alms ‘cap-in-hand’—we were drones and drains on polite society. ‘Deaf-mute’ and ‘deaf and dumb’ are expressions almost always inaccurate—I used to work with deaf people, none of whom were mute, nor stupid, but all of whom were offended at being referred to as ‘deaf mute’. ‘Halt’, ‘lame,’ and ‘maimed’ aren’t frequently used these days, but they are equally unwelcome.
I am not, nor have I heard any other disabled people call themselves, physically challenged, differently abled, other-abled, having special needs, and Lord strike me dead if anyone ever uses the expression handi-capable around me. We don’t need the cute terminology PCL-ers have created for us. It’s demeaning. My biggest ‘physical challenge’ is getting my grocery cart up a flight of iron stairs. I walk with a cane, I have lots of joint pain, and my sense of balance is poor. The same is true for many people my age. (I’ve been nine years old so many times over, I’ve lost count.)
PCL is silly. I was examined by a neurologist and I mentioned I have a history of Stiff Man’s Syndrome. I was immediately corrected—it is now (officially) Stiff Person Syndrome. I asked her, since the original title to this very rare condition was Moersch Woltman Syndrome, would she prefer to refer to it as Moersch Woltperson Syndrome? She didn’t see the humour.
Although I’ve referred a great deal to disability, these objections apply to PCL as used regarding race, gender, sexual preference, and many other areas of ‘sensitivity’. PCL is based on the false assumption that PUUs (People Unlike Us) require special treatment, and even a special vocabulary. There are enough real disparities between us already. There are enough genuine wounds that need healing and sensitive handling. These realities make any degree of unity difficult. Artifices such as PCL fan the flames, and sometimes make matters considerably worse.
The differences are already clear enough. Why not say what you mean, and embrace the similarities?