Let’s Talk about Correctness (Political)—Theologically
The term “political correctness” has been around a long time. I think I first heard it used about language in the early 1980s. Generally speaking, “political correctness” is the idea and practice of using language in ways that promote equality and liberation from oppression. I will offer here, initially, just one example. A student refers to all humans beings, collectively, as “man” as in “Man is created in God’s image and likeness.” Today it is generally taken for granted that the student has committed a faux pas; he or she has spoken in a politically incorrect manner because “man” excludes women in such a sentence. Of course, the student did not intend to exclude women, but proponents of politically correct language generally do not take intention into account when examining language. The incorrectness lies in the effect of the words, not the user’s intention. The effect of using “man” for “humankind” or just “people” is to oppress women because, at least in English, “man” refers primarily to males. Thus, in order to include females equally with males the student should have said “Humans are created in God’s image and likeness.”
Some proponents of politically correct (or just correct) speech will go further and argue that even the word “God” is incorrect because, traditionally, God is spoken of as male rather than female. Language about “God” excludes women, so “God/ess” is preferred (Rosemary Ruether).
Obviously, to anyone who has worked in an academic setting in the United States, this whole issue of politically correct and politically incorrect language has run amok. Sides have been taken; lines have been drawn in the sand. One side stubbornly resists adjusting language just because the movers and shakers of, say, the Social Work profession say so. Another side rushes to find new forms of politically correct and politically incorrect speech and stay “ahead” of everyone else. For example, one professor recently told his class not to talk about “helping” the poor because that implies being over them and hierarchy is bad. “Coming along side them” is the new politically correct language. Numerous other examples could be given.
Not very long ago I was in an academic meeting and uttered the term “multicultural.” I was quickly informed that the correct phrase for the same phenomenon is now “cultural engagement.” I did not have the opportunity, but I wanted to ask “Who says?” I know for a fact that twenty-five years ago “multicultural” was the politically correct way of referring to the correct practice of bringing diverse cultures together in equality—in the curriculum, in pedagogy, etc. I still wonder who it is that has the power to determine what counts as politically correct and politically incorrect speech. I don’t know, but whoever they are, they have a great deal of authority and power in academic settings. Talk about hierarchy.
Rarely would proponents of politically correct speech (including in writing) call what they are advocating “political correctness.” They prefer to say that it is simply sensitivity in language, or possibly liberating language. They rightly say that our words use us as much as we use words. In other words, some words and phases do take on positive or negative socio-political-economic power—to harm or to help (or should I say “come alongside?”).
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Like any good thing, political correctness can be abused. But as the old saying goes, abuse does not justify disuse but calls for proper use. Here are some principles I will dare to suggest for guiding this proper use of correct language about people.
First, sensitivity to others’ feelings is not only nice; it is also Christian. Christians are called to love people and love calls for sensitivity to others’ feelings. And sensitivity to others’ feelings sometimes calls for using language in ways we are not used to and perhaps do not fully understand.
Second, language does have power and Christians should recognize that and use the power of language with care, guided by love and sensitivity to others. It is simply not true that “Sticks and stones…but words can never hurt.” Words can hurt. If a person or group of people say that our words hurt them, then we should listen and learn and be willing to adjust our words so as not to hurt them.
Third, oppression really does exist; some people are disadvantaged by social structure and sometimes by language. If our language really does exclude, disadvantage, oppress any person or group of people, we should be willing to change our language.
Fourth, on the other hand, however, we can resist demands to change our words insofar as we are convinced, after careful thought and even study, that the demands are unreasonable and are nothing more than attempts on others’ parts to manipulate and control us. This, however, should only happen after empathetically putting ourselves in others’ “shoes” and asking ourselves how we would feel if that word or those words were used about us.
For example, if a poor person to whom I am giving aid objected to my saying I “helped” them, I would acquiesce just out of kindness—while silently questioning the objection. However, if a social worker told me not to speak about “helping” the poor I would ignore him or her and be inwardly bemused if not amused.
My principle is that language is powerful—especially in the mouths (or writings) of powerful people and should be used sensitively. However, the flip side of that principle is that some people are using rules about language only to exercise power over others.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).