A few years ago, I saw a comment to the effect that the term “politically correct” had come to be too vague, and to encompass so many different things that it’s unclear what someone is actually talking about when they use the term. I had thought the term had fallen out of favor, but I still come across it from time to time. I would say that the term often refers to two related but quite different ideas. One is politeness, and the idea that we should use words that cause the least offense possible. The other is actual censorship, which I suppose can be seen as forced politeness. It should come as no surprise that I’m opposed to censorship, and find the fact that it’s still commonly proposed by the Sarah Palins of the world to be very frightening. That said, however, I also think people are prone to apply the word “censorship” incorrectly. For instance, the much ballyhooed edition of Huckleberry Finn that leaves out the word “nigger” isn’t censorship per se, as publishing this version doesn’t do away with earlier ones with the racial slurs intact. I do think it could be a problem if schools try to teach that the new edition is the book as Mark Twain originally wrote it, but that’s a potential problem, not one I think has actually come up as of yet. Anyway, I think confusing the two different ideas involved in political correctness can lead to some absurd conclusions. While I know Christmas is over and you probably don’t want to think about it again for another several months, I’d say the War on Christmas devised by the right-wing media is a good example. With some rare exceptions (which Bill O’Reilly somehow always manages to find; I think he has a Jingle Bell Alarm or something, or else he’s just making stuff up), I don’t think anyone is FORCING people to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” They’re just advising people that not everyone celebrates Christmas, and something more inclusive could be the polite way to go. But by lumping this under the umbrella of political correctness, O’Reilly and his ilk can make it seem like everyone not constantly using the word “Christmas” is part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to do away with the baby Jesus, and you’re somehow fighting the power by using the more exclusive greeting.
The other problem with the term “politically correct” is…well, what the hell does it have to do with politics? I suppose the traditional meaning was that it was the kind of language politicians would use in order to avoid causing offense to their constituents, but how many politicians do you see these days making an effort to avoid causing offense? Some do, sure, but hardly a day goes by without there being news of some major language gaffe made by a politician. So why still hang out to the “political” part when it’s not particularly relevant? I think it has to do with the term primarily being used as a perjorative these days (as opposed to its historical usage as cautionary self-satire by the left wing), and since politics are generally considered to be a bad thing, this keeps the idea sounding ugly.
I am not, mind you, saying that there isn’t still a good amount of material to debate in the political correctness arena. For instance, are terms like “people of color” and “little people,” which are favored by those not wanting to cause offense, actually MORE offensive? I think you could make a case for that, but as someone who isn’t a member of either group, my opinion probably isn’t that valuable in this situation. I’ve also heard that some Native Americans prefer to be called Indians, despite the fact that the PC term is the technically accurate one. But if the issue is misplaced politeness, then why not just take this issue on its own, without throwing “politically correct” into the mix?