Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Odd Legacy of Political Correctness

Ann Coulter was roundly condemned for using a slur in making a baseless accusation about John Edwards' sexual orientation, John McCain was forced to apologize for referring to the deaths of US servicemen and women as "wasted" – an odd trend has appeared in our contemporary political discourse wherein we care more about word choice than we do about the actual content of statements made. Does anyone, for a second, think that Ann Coulter's comment would have gotten any media attention outside of Fox News if instead of the f-word, she had merely accused Edwards of being "gay"? When John McCain wiggled out of his "wasted" remark, his comments in no way changed the point he was originally making. If the purpose of words is to express ideas and the ideas themselves are not problematic, why in the world are the words, the mere verbal symbols used to express those ideas, more controversial?

What we see here is a leftover effect of the political correctness movement of the 1980s and 90s. The idea began with philosophers examining political discourse who made the seemingly trivial discovery that words both denote objects and have a more emotion-laden connotation. The old joke, "Who was that lady I saw you with last night?" "That was no lady. That was my wife" is funny because the word "lady" both denotes an adult female and comes with the connotation that she is upper class status or has proper manners. The same holds with the terms we use to refer to groups of people. These words not only refer to those of a given racial background, gender, or sexual orientation, but also convey something about how that group is thought of. Since the power to give the names that stick come with political power, it was held, by unraveling the words we use for things, in their terms "deconstructing" the terminology, we will learn about the power structure and the history of oppression that led us to the current state of affairs.

This notion that words are pregnant with remnants of social power led to the thought that if we replaced the old tainted terms with new value neutral or affirming terms that attitudes would be changed, that social justice would be easier to achieve. And this led to a new power structure that demanded the use of these new appellations – people were no longer handicapped, they were challenged; it had to be made clear that the membership of minority groups were Americans whether they are African, Asian or Native American. This led to formal speech codes on some college campuses, but a widespread concern through the culture for using the appropriate idiom, names that would seem to change randomly and would leave the speaker eternally worried that an innocent statement would suddenly be rendered sexist, racist, or homophobic by inadvertently using the wrong designation.

This move, designed to strip away old biases weighing down innocuous thoughts, turned into exactly the opposite. Now, unfortunately, we worried less about what we said and more about how we said it. The contribution that John McCain – and Barack Obama who was flagged for the same linguistic "gaffe" earlier – was lost to us because we were sidetracked into this silly conversation about terminology. The pressing question about what to actually do about the war in Iraq was lost over this semantic silliness about how we talk about the war in Iraq.

Ann Coulter has made a living being blatantly offensive. Her work is filled with ad hominem attacks, many clearly on the wrong side of the line. Yet, it is not her calls to bomb the New York Times, her contention that "the conventions of civilized behavior, personal hygiene and grooming" do not apply to Muslims, or her claim that her biggest moral dilemma was figuring out whether it would be advantageous to her career to assassinate Bill Clinton, that finally seems to have put her over the edge. How peculiar that we are willing to tolerate this sort of uncivil non-contribution to our political discourse as long as it does not include the word "faggot."

In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty says that a word means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less...The question is which is to be master – that's all." By ruling out the deeply meaningful contributions of Senators Obama and McCain and allowing the rest of Ms. Coulter's rants, sadly it seems as if we are no longer masters of our own political deliberations, the words control us.