Political Correctness solves nothing, and sidesteps the hard work of institutional reform. Language reflects material circumstances – and it is material, economic injustice that must remain our focus. Banning words is high-profile, low-impact virtue-signalling that polarises groups and forbids honest dialogue.
My brother and I were playing a trade-based board-game. I was a novice; he was driving hard bargains. “Hey,” I teased, “Don’t be niggardly.”
He was outraged. “Don’t use that word!”
“What word?” Then I understood his objection: he thought the unflattering adjective ‘niggardly’ derived from the pejorative applied to African Americans.
Was my brother right? No. ‘Niggardly’ derives from the Old Norse ‘hnoggr,’ for ‘stingy.’ But the etymology of one word is peripheral to the question of political correctness.
I tried to discuss with my brother contemporary politics around the n-word. Many African Americans now hail each other by the n-word, as a term of affection. Paul Beatty’s 2015 comic masterpiece The Sellout – which coincidentally my brother had gifted me – uses the n-word liberally, and seldom pejoratively.
I tried in vain. The word ‘niggardly’ had angered my brother; he wasn’t interested in debate.
“Just play, please.”
Every week, another word joins the list of banned, ‘bad’ words. Gendered words like ‘chairman.’ Words that somebody somewhere once used as slurs against women, homosexuals, or ethnic minorities.
Words continually shift in meaning. Words shift in their denotations: their dictionary meanings. In Regency England, ‘amazing’ meant ‘unbelievable.’ If you ‘amazed’ Jane Austen, you were behaving bizarrely.
Words also shift in their connotations: their implications in a particular time and place. Pre-1890s, ‘queer’ simply meant ‘quirky.’ As a word-loving child, I was irritated to find that this delightful word was now used exclusively in the LGBT sense. My irritation didn’t change when I discovered I was queer myself. Useful as ‘queer’ is as shorthand for nonconformity specific to gender/sexuality, I missed its broader meaning.
Only later did I discover the middle part of ‘queer’s word-career. After it ceased to mean ‘quirky,’ and before it was reclaimed as a positive term – ‘queer’ had served as an insult for effeminate gay men.
Let’s return to my brother’s objection. Wasn’t he right to over-cautiously avoid any word that could possibly hurt anyone’s feelings?
People’s feelings matter. When we speak to friends, family, and strangers, of course we should be respectful. But this is up to us as individuals. Teaching manners isn’t the government’s job. It also shouldn’t be civic society’s primary concern.
The Constitution protects freedom of speech. The Constitution does not protect our feelings from getting offended. If someone hits me, I’ll want the law to intervene. If someone insults me, accidentally or deliberately – I’ll be hurt, but I won’t want the law to intervene.
It’s this key distinction between words and actions that political correctness (PC) attacks. This is a dangerous attack. PC criminalises free speech, cripples and straitjackets our vocabulary, polarises us into right and left – and, most importantly, fails to solve the real problem of systemic economic injustice and physical violence facing minorities.
In my teens, I was overweight. Not enough to be unhealthy. But enough to fall outside current beauty norms. One day, my brother innocently asked me: “How come you eat so little, and exercise so much, yet you’re still so fat?”
I was outraged to be called ‘fat.’ I locked myself in the bathroom and wept. I cold-shouldered my brother for six months. I began a downward spiral into anorexia nervosa. It was years before I recovered my health and sanity.
The irony was that I knew my brother hadn’t spoken with hurtful intent. He said ‘fat’ in its strictly descriptive, connotative sense. But I heard ‘fat’ in its denotative sense. ‘Ugly.’ ‘Lazy.’ ‘A loser.’
It’s because we live in a society where businesses earn trillions by creating body-shame, then selling us weight-loss programmes, diets, and fat-reduction surgeries – that my brother’s innocently calling me ‘fat’ upset me. Had we lived in 1850s India – or in Mauritania, where ‘fat’ is still a compliment – I wouldn’t have heard ‘fat’ as an insult. Had my material circumstances been different, the connotations of the word ‘fat’ that I received would have been different too.
We cannot change the connotations of a word without changing the material, economic circumstances of the society generating that language.
But what if my brother had meant to insult me by calling me fat? I still wouldn’t want the law to intervene. I would still want the crucial distinction between words – vs. sticks and stones – to be honoured.
If you put me in an MRI machine, and scan my brain while hitting me, vs. while insulting me – you would see similar patterns of brain activation. The brain doesn’t fully distinguish between physical vs. psychic pain.
Like anyone who’s been un/intentionally insulted, I understand the power of words. Humans are symbolic creatures. Words, stories, and myths often matter more to us than physical actions. Had my brother accidentally broken my leg, I might’ve been less upset than when he accidentally insulted me. And that would’ve been stupid. And that stupidity of mine would’ve been produced in interaction with a society where being fat is considered catastrophic – because, materially, it often is. (Thanks to, among other factors, higher healthcare costs, workplace discrimination, and other financial consequences.)
But neither similar patterns of brain activity in response to physical vs. psychic pain, nor the reality of the pain that words can inflict – erases the moral distinction between words and actions. This distinction is key to liberalism. PC wants to erase this distinction.
Being called ‘dark’ hurts in an India where a multi-billion-dollar industry of shame, aspiration, and consumerism exploits existing caste, economic, and ethnic inequalities. Being called ‘queer’ hurts in a society where LGBT individuals face high rates of physical and sexual assault, economic discrimination, social stigma, religious shame, and conversion therapy. Words hurt in the context of a society where being marginalised has costs to an individual’s physical and financial wellbeing. Redressing those underlying injustices should be our focus.
As long as vulnerable groups face systemic injustice, the implications of belonging to these groups will remain dire. As long as women remain second-class citizens, female-related words (body-parts, female animals, feminine traits) will be used as epithets. Only when women’s systemic, material disadvantages disappear – when women are equal, not just in law but in fact – will female-related words lose their power as insults. Remove systemic oppression and social stigma – and the words ‘fat,’ ‘dark,’ ‘queer,’ and ‘pussy’ would lose their pejorative, connotative power to hurt. They would deflate into their merely denotative meanings.
Improving lives requires reforming the material, legal, social circumstances that marginalise certain communities – and therefore make words describing those communities hurtful.
Reform is hard. Banning words, ostracising people who use ‘bad’ words – that’s easy. Language is creative. If we banned the word ‘fat,’ people would find 100 new, colourful insults for fat people – as long as being fat (or queer / African American / dark-skinned) continued to carry negative material consequences.
Language reflects social reality. The connotative history of the word ‘fat’ reflects the history of social attitudes towards weight: which have shifted enormously over the millennia. If we want to improve fat people’s lives, we must ensure that everyone can access healthcare and socioeconomic opportunities regardless of weight. Banning the word ‘fat’ will achieve nothing. Ditto ‘faggot,’ ‘nigger,’ etc.
Words derive their power from context. That’s what makes words different from actions. Being hit hurts regardless of whether we’re in India or Mauritania. But being called ‘fat’ hurts only in a society where gyms and magazines and billboards promote the notion that fat=bad – only in a society where governments refuse to regulate industry to protect the vulnerable.
Banning the n-word did not improve African Americans’ lives. It simply brushed under the carpet African Americans’ long-running, ongoing oppression.
PC doesn’t just fail to solve the underlying problem of systemic injustice. Behind PC’s loud, empty gestures, the underlying problem gets erased from public view. Banning words is like treating a smallpox patient’s sores because they offend our sensibilities – while letting the deadly disease fester. We cannot allow PC’s empty, self-congratulatory victories to distract us from the real battle: systemic reform.
Language can shape, but primarily it reflects, our material circumstances. And it is material, economic injustice that must remain our focus. Banning words is high-profile, low-impact virtue-signalling that polarises groups and forbids the honest dialogue crucial to problem-solving.
My brother’s calling me ‘fat’ decades ago was the beginning of my struggle with beauty norms. It’s a struggle I have overcome. It’s a struggle that continues for millions of men and women globally. It’s a struggle that demands – not banning the word ‘fat’ (or ‘heifer’ or ‘sea mammal’ etc.) – but systemic reform of government, legal, and healthcare institutions to protect fat people’s (and gay people’s, and African Americans’) physical and material wellbeing.
Words once hurtful are being reclaimed. African Americans have reclaimed the n-word. The body-positive community has reclaimed ‘fat.’ Gay comics like Stephen Fry have reclaimed ‘faggot’ and ‘queer.’
Back at the board-game, my brother’s next trade offer was generous.
“That’s mighty white of you,” I said, appreciatively. He looked at me, wondering whether to laugh or cry.