Language and Politics

Greetings, writers and readers –

It’s often difficult to concentrate on a writing session when the news beckons: What happened today? What are the implications? How will each new development affect us and the people and institutions we care about?

As a writer, I think my unease (leading to dismay) began with last year’s re-appearance of public comments criticizing the term “politically correct.”

Political correctness has a long, complicated history ranging from the need to hew to an authoritarian party line—an overt usage—to the manipulation of conceptual metaphors, for example, “free speech.” Political correctness has been satirized for a variety of audiences. It has been weaponized by both the political right and left.

Nowadays, it seems to serve as a distraction from the real issues of civil rights, women’s rights, poverty, and disenfranchisement.

To neutralize its renewed political context, a more comfortable, more useful term for me would have been “culturally correct.” To paraphrase or use a meme: Language R Us. The words we choose reveal how we think, and in turn, the language we hear inevitably shapes our thinking and our feelings. This is not a new idea; in fact, the study of relationships among language, behavior, and thought has been going on for two centuries.

We’ve been concerned with cultural correctness since the 1970s. Why? Try these out:

“Oh, you’ve found a new doctor? How do you like him?”

“I hear you have a new kid in your class, an African-American. Is he going to try out for basketball?”

“Merry Christmas, everybody!”

If we care about surviving the un-civil war that’s raging around us and among us, we can pitch in and volunteer. If we can’t run for office or march in rallies, we can do what we do best: write and read. When we do either, we owe it to our readers and authors to understand the deep meanings of the words we’re hurling at one another. And then to respond with clarity and the truth of our human hearts.

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