|Felice Gaer, Chairperson? Chairman? Chair woman? at human rights event|
In the American lifestyle, language plays a big part influencing how we relate to one another. Different groups have special concerns and want others to recognize them in discourse. These days we refer to Indians as Native Americans to describe a group of indigenous people. We use the term African Americans to define a special group of color we at one time referred to as black and before that as Negro. Language changes, and speakers and writers have to conform. We do this so we are not considered biased, prejudiced or ill-informed. How do we know what to say and when in a climate that is obsessed with making sure that language be precise at all times? Has political correctness gone too far?
William McGowan believes that political correctness has negatively impacted news reporting. In his book called "Coloring the New" he maintains that the news is inhibited by having to make sure that language is always precise. This is particularly true in those areas where there is controversy such as race, immigration, gay marriage, abortion and other topics where people struggle to define terms so not to antagonize a particular group.
Lampooning the President has always been part of political cartooning. These days, however, cartoonists have had to be careful about how they depict the new President. That's because Barack Obama is African American, and some individuals believe that a cartoon that exaggerates certain features or shows Obama in some perceived negative light is automatically a reflection of bias or prejudice. Writers and artists are inhibited by factors that involve group sentiment about certain issues. This makes it difficult to fairly comment because of the overriding concern for those feelings that have become part of reporting the news or describing contemporary events, even in daily conversation or comedy.
This political correctness in social discourse can at times be personally amusing. Some years ago when I referred to female friends as "girlfriends" a male friend declared I was no longer a girl and that my friends weren't either; we were "women" instead. A part of me thought I had lost something when the term "woman" was considered to be politically correct for those of a certain age. "Girlfriend" had been a term used automatically without worry about age or social status. But girl implies a level of immaturity or sexual subrogation that weren't part of my thinking nor those of anyone else I knew at the time. Still my language changed to correspond with the new social climate. That's an example of how we have had to adjust ourselves to get along in social groups as political correctness continues.
A book about language once defined how what we say affects our behavior. This book called Language in Thought and Action" is still considered a classic. It was the foundation for political correctness in language, but may not have been the intent of the author, S.I. Hayakawa. He discussed issues about racial and social bias reflected in speech, but the language continues to change as groups define and redefine themselves. That makes it difficult for the ordinary person to keep up with what to say and how to say it both socially and in print.
This issue of going too far in the news was brought out during the controversy over Don Imus who used the term "nappy-headed hoes" to describe a college team of African American female basketball players. How much is too much and when does it cross the line in speech became the issue that eventually cost Imus his television job at the time several years ago.
These days gay marriage is a major social debate as several states have passed laws allowing gay marriage. It means that political correctness will likely have to correspond with these changes in the law, since marriage used to be defined as a formal relationship between a man and a woman. Merriam-Webster's new dictionary marriage now defines marriage as, "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage."
Language in everyday discourse, politics and the press has become so complex that William McGowan believes there needs to be a balance where language issues should be reasonable, allowing freedom of expression balanced by responsibility. That responsibility comes from ethics.
Often it's a matter of common sense, one would think; and individuals and groups need to be willing to be less antagonistic towards those making an effort to do the right thing. Because as language changes it will always take some time for behavior to change and for people to know what to say that is right in certain circumstances. Experts say sometimes political correctness has meant too much of a good thing, that in surplus makes it difficult to communicate so that perhaps we need to go back to the simply courtesy of allowing others the benefit of a doubt and being flexible in how we respond to what is said.