The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. – George Orwell, 1984
Language has power. The way we describe things is the way we think about them. Change the name and you can change the thing.
Political Correctness tells you what you are allowed to call things, how you can talk about them and, especially, what you can’t say. PC always rears its head in discourse about race, gender, social class, or anything that can produce discriminatory attitudes. One of its functions is to enforce the view that it is morally wrong to judge any characteristic of a person or a group inferior or superior to others in any way. So to avoid saying that a person is ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’, the locution ‘differently-abled’ was invented. And any word whose initial definition was neutral that has collected negative connotations over time – like ‘Negro’, ‘homosexual’, or ‘Oriental’ – becomes taboo. Words describing defects have also become forbidden, like ‘retarded’.
This sounds absurd, and it is. Consider: why do Kenyan distance runners do so well? Probably because, statistically speaking, there are genetic factors (low BMI, high lung capacity, long legs, etc.) as well as cultural factors that contribute to their performance. This doesn’t mean that any particular Kenyan will be a good runner, but it does explain why they are overrepresented among marathon winners.
The statement above violates PC ideology, although it might seem unexceptional, because it suggests that some groups are in some sense more competent than others. If you doubt this, consider the reaction to Herrnstein and Murray’s book “The Bell Curve”, which made essentially the same point. When I once mentioned something Murray had written to a PC person, the response was that it was discredited because he “is a racist.”
PC thinking is also responsible for the insistence that armies should expend resources to make it possible for women to be combat soldiers. There are certainly individual women who are suited to be combat soldiers, but statistically this is a small percentage of the population. Yet PC demands that accommodations be made for this fraction. Objections to this belief are automatically invalidated because of ‘sexism’.
It is also not permissible under PC to criticize a culture or religious group, although it is still acceptable to criticize a group defined by politics or ideology. Thus anti-Jewish remarks (“Moshe Jewed me down”) are not allowed, but anti-Zionist ones (“Zionist land thieves”) are OK. PC language supports multiculturalism and favors expression of ethnic and cultural diversity in a society. If you criticize these things, you are probably doing so in non-PC language. That’s the point.
One of the great examples of PC success was the success of the abortion-rights lobby in becoming the ‘pro-choice’ one. Who can object to free choice? It shifts the debate from being about the fetus – whether or not it is a person that has rights – to being about the woman, and her rights. It enables the ‘pro-choice’ person to say “a woman has a right to control her own body” without the circularity of that argument – the anti-abortion person would say that there is another body involved – becoming evident. This is precisely what Orwell had in mind.
PC, since it is a limitation on speech, is in conflict with the idea of free speech. It is enforced only informally – there are no laws yet that forbid the use of certain words or the expression of certain ideas, although possibly the Obama Administration’s guidelines that forbid officials to refer to “Islamic terrorism” come close – but compare the results of walking around using the “F-word” to those from using the “N-word” if you think that PC violations are not punished severely.
PC is often justified by a desire to avoid insult or offense. So the “N-word” is forbidden because it encapsulates the user’s hatred and contempt for its object. Lately, however, the concept of avoiding insult or offense has been expanded. For example, we have “microaggressions:”
Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Sue describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. Microaggressions, according to Sue, are different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm. Sue describes microaggressions as including statements that repeat or affirm stereotypes about the minority group or subtly demean it, that position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same, that minimize the existence of discrimination against the minority group, seek to deny the perpetrator’s own bias, or minimize real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture.
The classic example is Joe Biden saying that Barack Obama is “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Oops. But things like “you don’t look Jewish” or “what cute hair you have” (said by a white to a black person) are also considered microaggressions.
There are two problems posed by this form of PC. One is that it is extremely difficult to avoid transgressing the rules, since what counts as a microaggression depends on the hearer. You are required to carefully evaluate what you are about to say in connection with the race, sexual preference, life experience, degree of sensitivity, etc. (assuming that you know these things) of the person you are talking to.
The other issue is that it is defined in terms of the “dominant culture,” which suggests that the limitation on speech acts primarily on members of this culture, and not the various minorities. It’s uncomfortably like the pernicious view that only the more powerful group in a given society can be culpable. For example, it’s argued by this logic that there can be no black racism, or that Palestinians can’t be terrorists.
The concept of microaggressions is an effective enforcement mechanism for PC ideology. It is not necessary for the ‘victim’ of a microaggression to prove that the offending statement is false, or even that it ought to be considered offensive. All that is needed to justify shutting the speaker up is that the listener be offended, something which is subjective and irrefutable.
Another new form of PC is the ‘trigger warning’. Based on the idea that some individuals are especially sensitive to certain forms of expression – examples are a former soldier with PTSD or a woman who has been a victim of rape – the trigger warning is presented so that the person can prepare or absent herself from the experience. Trigger warnings would be applied to books, films, lectures, etc. I imagine a label on a book like a list of ingredients on a box of cereal, listing all of the possible ‘triggers’ inside.
Not only is the requirement onerous, it is impossible to know what will be a trigger for every possible person. For example, we have a friend who is deathly afraid of cats, and whenever she visits we have to lock our cats in a room that she won’t need to enter. There are others like her. Should movies with cats in them carry a trigger warning? Here’s a serious list of possible triggers. A Dostoyevsky novel might contain 90% of these! Hemingway need not apply. And the list doesn’t include cats and dogs.
It’s just about protecting people, say the proponents. But the very choice of the things that will count as triggers (one list includes colonialism, racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, etc.) is an ideological statement.
A related concept is that of a ‘safe space’ – a place where a person can avoid triggering stimuli. One definition: “an area or forum where either a marginalized group are not supposed to face standard mainstream stereotypes and marginalization, or in which a shared political or social viewpoint is required to participate in the space.” In other words, a place where certain kinds of speech are not tolerated. Here’s an example of a “safe space” on Facebook where Zionism, eating meat and many other things are forbidden.
The ideal of free speech, especially in the US, is powerful and hard to attack directly. But the oft-quoted exception to unfettered speech is shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. If your speech will directly injure someone, it can be prohibited. Microaggressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces (some campuses have “safe space officers”) are all ways of bypassing the ideal of free speech and enforcing ideological conformity in the name of safety.
PC is all about making rules about things that cannot be said, and punishing transgressions. But it is not ideologically neutral. It supports universalist, cultural relativist, and multiculturalist ideologies, and insists that a subjective sense of ‘injury’ can be the arbiter of legitimate discourse, rather than ideals of truth or logic. It provides a way to bypass the ideal of free speech and to shut down speech that is uncomfortable.