Meanings: “Politically Correct”

June 10, 2011

Johan Maurer, a friend (and a Friend, a Quaker) who now lives in Russia, wonders on his blog about “politically correct.” He asks,

Am I right in observing that the terms “politically correct” and “politically incorrect” are now almost always used ironically or critically? Maybe the most accepted positive variant is “inclusive language,” but that term seems to refer mostly to gender inclusivity. Is there a straightforward, positive umbrella term for all efforts to use language in ways that don’t objectify and demean groups and categories of people? What seems to be happening now is that those who support political correctness continue to use the term half-humorously and half-apologetically, often in quotation marks, willing to endure the double irony for the sake of easy reference. Example: this “sample paper” for English students.

He recollects an insight from Earlham Religion Professor Mary Garman:

The best reframing I ever heard for “political correctness” came in the context of a controversy over gender-inclusive language and hymns at First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana. This must have been twenty or more years ago. As we were slogging through some difficult discussions, Mary Garman of Earlham College gave a guest sermon one Sunday morning. She suggested that the language we use is not just a matter of comfort within the community; it’s also a matter of hospitality. When we “widen” our language to include more people, we’re welcoming those who might have felt invisible in the old language–and that’s an outcome that’s worth some discomfort.

Johan is right, I think, to note that some words and phrases become so loaded that they cannot be used without irony.  And he is thus also right to note that it becomes difficult in such situations, to say something straightforwardly.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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