Thursday, May 7, 2009

Complications around "PC"

A few months ago I did a community education training where I was asked if “the PC thing to do” was to use gender neutral pronouns for anyone whose gender or sex identity the individual didn’t know.* My answer was complex and long-winded mainly because the student and I were placing different value judgments on the term “politically correct”. The student was using it as synonymous with “respectful” while I associate it with the often dismissive ideas of “tolerance” – actions or language changes due to a cultural trend to do so, not because of actual knowledge or understanding of the pain surrounding certain terms or actions.

For many people, being politically correct means respecting the self-identifying terms and differences that various people use and have. To that end, I agree with the idea that being PC is being respectful. The difficulty I have with the term occurs when we (educators, co-workers, bosses, diversity trainers, etc.) enforce different terms without giving them background or meaning. Perhaps the most poignant example of this would be the term “nigger”. As I wrote about this time last year, the majority of white people in the US know that the term is offensive but the complete history of it – labeling a group of people with out their input and using that label as a means to write difference onto their bodies and humanity, the pervasive history of lynching, Jim Crow laws, institutional racism and segregation – isn’t understood. Nor is it understood how the effects of all those events still affect our lives (all peoples) today. So while most white folks know not to use it, we don’t know why other terms are more correct. For instance, we don’t understand that “Black” and “African American” are two different terms.

Politically Correct should never have meant a sanction on language usage or a bourgeois imposition of what is ""good". This makes political incorrectness look fun, exciting, and American - as in "it is American to speak the truth even if no one wants to hear it"...but here most anti-PC folks are confusing personal opinion or personal truth with fact, or general truth. I just re-read Nick Hornby's Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt, a compilation of his literary essays for the very hipster magazine The Believer, and surprisingly to me found that Hornby included some insights into this. On page 101 he decries an unnamed author's book. A different reviewer said the book was "deliciously politically incorrect" and Hornby writes that perhaps that reviewer is referring to some (and I paraphrase) Golden Age of commentary when we were all more free, a Golden Age he goes on to say that never existed as there’s an extreme difference between “freedom of speech” and prejudiced language. Hornby goes on to describe that this "delightfully politically-incorrect" book includes the narrator saying that women should (trigger alert) learn to lie still and enjoy rape. That’s not something we should be celebrating. We shouldn’t censor such language, but neither should we embrace it as a return to the way things ought to be. My first understanding of "Politically correct" was that we were trying to state "be aware that language carries power and that your speech has real world consequences".

Last year I was asked “Do white people know about Black History Month?” and my response was “I think we know that it exists, I don’t think we know why it exists”. Therefore, BHM gets dismissed as symbolic as opposed to important (and there are arguments for that!) and white folk using phrases like “nigger” is seen as “edgy” as opposed to really fucking racist and ignorant. Which is much like the tension I feel around PC terminology – it seems to make little difference what language we use if we don’t know why we’re using it. Except of course, it does. To be free of hearing words that burn your skin when you walk down your school hallways or sit at the office lunch table or take public transit…to not constantly feel afraid that words that cause a physical reaction in you might advance to physical attacks – to be free of that even if the person no longer using those terms doesn’t understand. Well, that actually is nice.

Take the phrase "fire men". Now, saying "fire fighters" doesn't magically make more non-male fire fighters appear, nor does it make the entrance exams or the general workspace an affirming place for women and gender non-conforming folk. But, it does plant the idea into the mind of a young girl or gender non-conforming child that they too can be fire fighters. It also means that when we do see a female fire fighter we don't overwhelm her with her difference (she probably is already aware). It also shows that you as an individual are aware that men are not the only sex able to put out fires, if nothing else, it shows your awareness. So, when despite the facts before you choose to continue to say "fire men" it doesn’t necessarily say "I don't care about women and gender non-conforming folks" just sounds like that's what you're saying.

Being labeled politically-correct is often a defense mechanism that pushes aside the real conversations about the power of language and blames an individual for changing language not because they care about the issues but because they don’t want to offend someone who might hurt their political or occupational standing. It has changed to imply that the individual who makes a language request doesn’t actually have knowledge behind the request. It has become a word game as opposed to a combination of survival technique and the power of self-identifying.

*My answer about the gender neutral pronouns was two-fold. Using gender neutral pronouns is a choice like any other pronoun choice. Therefore, labeling me for instance as “zhe” is incorrect as I use “he” as my pronoun. It doesn’t offend me as I do identify as genderqueer, and in many ways I might be complimented by that acknowledgment of my gender identity. But to label, for instance, Laverne Cox, as “zhe” would be insulting as she is clearly going for female pronouns. In the video Trans Basics for the Gender Identity Project Laverne talks about being incorrectly labeled, and as she holds up her manicured nails by her long hair and feminine clothing she says “I think it’s pretty clear what I’m going for here”. True, someone who looks exactly like Laverne might indeed use gender neutral pronouns – and we can never tell off of our perceived gender expression what a person’s pronouns are. But using gender neutral for someone you know to be transgender or gender non-conforming can be read as insulting. However, gender neutral pronouns shows a base knowledge of the mutability of gender which might que the person to realize that you were being polite, not intentionally rude. Therefore, it is always best to ask first


Tasia said...

You're such a f*ckin' genius! Love reading what your write (even if this is the first thing of yours i've read in years). It's good to hear an intelligent voice expressing things that i might express if i took the time to figure out how i felt about them--or to communicate why i feel the way i do, anyway. Thank you.

Ceci said...

What you wrote is really how I feel sometimes about PC. I come from a place where everyone is obsessed with being "PC," but they do it to actually fit in with what they're "supposed" to say, not because they understand the meaning behind the words. (Almost like they're following a fashion, not caring about the feelings of the people they are labeling.)

Plus, with something like the question you were asked, I think the best thing to do is assess what the individual would feel most comfortable with you using. You can't just decide "well this is the PC thing to do, so they should be okay with me using gender neutral pronouns."

Melissa said...

It can't really work, I suppose like this.