16 March 2010

Politically Correct Language

Everyone can point to occasions when under the guise of "political correctness" weird stuff has happened. It's still worth respecting the concept.

I remember studying sociology years ago and trying to come to grips with the gender bias of language--and the way academics were attempting to highlight and tackle it. Herstory for History (which I find clever). But more clumsy was the contraction s/he. Or all the times we went plural, they/them. In the end a lot of authors resolved the issue (to their own and editors' satisfaction, at any rate) by switching genders. "He" for a while, then an equally anonymous "She".

But the important point was that authors and readers considered the gender, racial, class and other biases embedded in language. We became aware of prejudices and preconceptions. We learned that language conveyed more than the information we wanted to communicate. Word choice carried and revealed assumptions of how the world/society worked.

As a writer (and here I'm including blogging) political correctness is a useful tool. Through it you can see your work with different eyes, even challenge some of the assumptions embedded in its language--does your market share them? Are you revealed as the person you want to be?

Having said all that, I don't obsess about political correctness. I suspect there are many times when my casual rambling transgresses what someone else would perceive as the line in the sand. For those times, I apologise.

See, the important point of political correctness for me is that it's a tool that blunts the cutting edge of language.

When we read, we put things into the words the author wrote. Sometimes we read things the author never intended. We can be hurt by words. Words are clumsy. Communication is fraught with risk.

By respecting political correctness, by using its language, I blunt the capacity for my words to hurt. Politically correct language is a tool I'm grateful for.

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