Politically Correct Words Suck

(Author’s note on 6/11/2017: Given the current political climate, I felt it important to clarify something on this post. Political Correctness can mean wildly different things to different people. Some think all things nice are PC and all things bad are not PC. Others think being anti-PC gives them an excuse to spout vile ideas. Neither of these are the real definition of what PC actually is.

For the purpose of this article, I’m talking purely about the original definition of what PC is: changing language to political speech which softens the meaning of our words.)

Words shape thought

That’s a line from the video I’m going to link at the bottom of this post. It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about how the way we think is influenced by the words we use ever since I got into teaching language.

For example, in conversational Korean, it’s common to use the possessive pronoun “our” in place of “my,” “his,” “her,” and so on. I wouldn’t say, “This is my bike.” I would say “This is our bike.” After knowing that, isn’t it also curious how Korean culture is very communal. Americans are individualistic, but there’s a great sense of “we” in Korea. And why wouldn’t there be if you grew up calling everything “ours.”

Just think of what else the words we use could train our brains to see.

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

Here’s why this is relevant for you. Americans are obsessed with being politically correct these days. The intention is to be polite, but the effect is that we are making our language weak.

Remember, words shape thought.

I know I’m not the first one to talk about this. Everyone is talking about it. The nation is dividing into teams about politically correct speech. But I recently changed teams and I did so because I’m a writer, reader, and English language teacher. My world is made of words. While I may not be the first to talk about political correctness, I can explain why it’s a problem.

Politically correct speech is formal language. It pushes to change an individual’s way of speaking, flaws and all, into an orthodox vocabulary that makes people comfortable because it pushes the word further away from its actual meaning. The poor become economically disadvantaged. Civilian casualties become collateral damage

Scroll to page three of this link for more examples from the “Bias-Free Language Guide” which the University of New Hampshire published.

(Update: Note that the president of UNH does not condone nor enforce the Bias-Free Language Guide. Still, it does a damn good job of showing the kind of political correct language that’s starting to run out of control.)

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

Formal language isn’t bad. We just have to understand that there’s a time and place for formal language. But there’s also a time and place when it certainly should not be used.

A lot of languages have formal structures built into them. In Spanish, when you talk to a friend you say “tu” but when you talk to an authority you say “usted.” In Korean, when you talk to a friend, you end the verb with “-ayo,” but when you talk to an older person you end the verb with “-imnida.”

English doesn’t have these structures. Instead, we add extra words to make something sound more formal. At a restaurant, you say, “I would like to have a water, please.” But with a friend, you say, “Yo, get me a water.”

You speak formally to authority figures, elders, and strangers. This is the place for formal language. However, the die-hard politically correct crowd is pushing our whole language to become formal by making it vague and wordy.

What about the informal? Where is its place? With friends and family, right? This is what I learned when I studied Spanish and when I learned to teach English. “You speak informally with your loved ones.”

Let’s apply this and see if it checks out. Imagine yourself in this scenario. You’re walking down the street on Saturday afternoon. The sun is out and you’ve got nowhere you gotta be. You’re about to cross paths with a stranger walking in the opposite direction, so you give the passerby a friendly nod. The passerby gives you the finger and a sucker punch. There’s a million things you could say, but for this scenario let’s limit it to two options:

  1. “Pardon me, stranger, but might I inquire into the ulterior intentions which may be behind this action which has just been undertaken by yourself?”
  2. “Hey bozo, what the fuck?”

I bet you’d go with the latter. But wait, isn’t that informal language? Do you love this sucker punching stranger?

You see, we have the wrong idea about formal and informal language. Formal language isn’t a sign of respect, it’s a sign of distance. Informal language isn’t a sign of love, it’s a sign of closeness. Closeness to the actual meaning we want to express. Informal is the real language.

This is a point I make often when I’m teaching English. A lot of intermediate level English speakers want to use big, fancy words and long, complex sentences. It’s impossible to understand. It isn’t wrong, it’s just bland. Vague. Lifeless. I spend a lot of time teaching students to use language that is simple and clear. To use the informal.

They respond, “What if you’re at a job interview? I tell them that every situation has a range of acceptable formality. But whatever the range is, you should strive to speak and write at the lowest number on that range. This is where you find words with power.

I recently tried to make this point with an adult student I’m tutoring here. I showed him this example from the book “On Writing Well,” which is one of two great books in the American writer’s scripture. The author, William Zinsser, gives two examples of language from a memo Franklin Roosevelt sent in WW2. The first is formal and lifeless. The second is informal, simple, and vibrant.

He (Franklin Roosevelt) tried to convert into English his own government’s memos, such as this blackout order of 1942:

Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.

Imagine that you’ve received this is a memo directly from the president. It’s wartime. It requires immediate action; American lives depend on it. But are you even sure of what to do? Don’t mess this up for us all. Are you one hundred percent sure what the memo wants you to do?

Luckily, Zinsser continues to show how Franklin Roosevelt translated this memo:

Tell them,” Roosevelt said, “that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows.

Simple. Clear. Informal. This is good language.

Politicians and lawyers speak in drawn out, formal language. This makes us think that smart people speak  with formal language, which is wrong. People speak formally when they are talking with someone they want to keep at a distance. Any other time a person speaks formally, it’s because they’re trying to cover their ass by obscuring their words so much that you can’t pin any responsibility on them.

Just because you use a polite word, it does not mean you’re thinking polite things. Defend language that is descriptive and clear. These words have personality and power.

The modern age of political correctness does not make our society nicer. It only makes it more formal. It puts distance between our words and reality, blurring our vision of what reality is and muting our voice when we want to talk about it. If people say offensive things, we need to focus on making reality a better place, not swapping in formal words to hide reality under the rug.

As we saw, formal language confuses a message about simply covering the windows. This is the language we’re using to end racism, poverty, hunger, global conflicts, and so on? Impossible.

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

Before the angry hordes of the internet come storming at my gate, let me be clear. I’m promoting directness. But I’m not promoting insensitivity. Our obsession with politeness started with good intentions, but then got infected with cowards who want to be shielded from the result of their own beliefs.

Where do we draw the line between what’s direct and what’s offensive? Here’s the rule. The best phrase is the most descriptive and accurate. This is how we keep our language honest.

For example, the word “fat” is just descriptive. There’s a reason it’s the word we use among ourselves, away from the public. You know you do. The word is accurate. “Obese” is a medical condition and “over-weight” doesn’t necessarily mean fat. Fat is just fat. There’s only one possible thing it could be and there’s only one possible word to describe it. That’s a good word.

However, a friend recently asked me why “Eskimo” is considered offensive. That’s because it’s not accurate. “Eskimo,” like so many names we use today for Native tribes, is the word their enemy tribes called them. “Inuit” is the word the people call themselves. “Inuit” is more accurate, and therefore is the better word.

Does that mean if the manager of my local pizza shop says the word “Eskimo” in a conversation, we should protest until he resigns? Hell no. He has the right to be ignorant about some things. It does not make him racist against Inuit people just because he used a word. But even if he did hate Inuit people, I don’t need my pizza guy to agree with everything I believe. I need him to make good pizza.

These obsessive social justice warriors flying their banners of aggressive political correctness are moving us towards a society where people are scared to express opinions which step outside of the popular mood.

For decades, science fiction has warned us about the dangers of government removing our free speech through censorship. But they missed it. These days, we censor ourselves.

(Illustration credit: Edric Kent)

I had an activity I did with advanced English classes to drive this point home. I’d have them write famous quotes on one side of the board. Then we’d use the other side to suck the life out of the quotes by using the reverse of all the good language rules we’d learned.

For example, one class took “I have a dream,” and changed it to “A subliminally unconscious experience has been participated in during the night by me.” One moves the audience to dream with you. The other moves the audience to sleep.

Listen: words shape thought, so use them well.

Moments in Korea

#1

I got the biggest nod of approval there’s ever been yesterday.

First, you have to understand that Koreans haven’t adjusted to having foreigners in their country yet. Older Korean guys in particular lose their mind if I just say “hello” in Korean or if I show that I can actually use chopsticks.

I’ve lived here for three years, by the way.

Here’s what happened. I was late for work, so I ran out to the taxi stand. There’s never enough taxis in the morning, so I had to wait in line behind a young guy and a painfully old couple. Or I thought the old couple was in line. They were standing a bit off from where the line usually is and they weren’t watching the road.

The young guy caught a taxi and the old couple didn’t budge, so I scooted ahead. I tried to remember how to ask in Korean if they were waiting in line. I figured out how to throw a sentence together just as I caught a taxi for myself.

“Taxi gada shipayo?” I asked. After I said this, a Korean man in his early 40s was staring at me as he walked by on the sidewalk. I didn’t pay attention to him. You get used to people looking at you over here.

“Ne (yes).” They said, and waddled into the taxi I had stopped.

After they got into the taxi, I looked up and the early 40s man was still staring at me even though he was way past me now. I finally met his eyes. It felt like he was waiting for me to look at him. He clearly wanted to make sure I saw him as he gave the sternest nod of approval a man has ever given. He made the same face the president makes when he awards a Medal of Honor.

 

#2

I’m on the subway in Seoul, going back home after tutoring a student. It’s the middle of the day and there’s no seats available, so I read my book standing up. It took months to perfect this skill on the subway, and I proudly flaunt it any chance I get.

I stand in front of a man sleeping on the corner seat. He’s out cold. I’m happy he’s sleeping because otherwise it looks like I’m staring at the seated person in front of me when I read.

Three stops later, a mother gets on my train. She has two little kids orbiting her, a boy and a girl.  She’s carrying a third on her back. The kids are loud and excited. I suddenly realize that you almost never see kids on the subway here. I have no idea if that’s true back home as well. I’m from Los Angeles.

The mother tries to tries to shush her children, but it’s impossible to keep them completely calm. That’s something universal. Kids are just kids in every culture.

Inevitably, the mother tires out before the kids do. She gets them down to an embarrassing but acceptable noise level and concedes defeat. The passengers in the subway don’t complain. They saw she put up a good fight. We’re all in this together now.

The mother looks up at the subway map while holding onto the louder of the two kids–the boy, of course.  I’m looking down at my book, but out of the corner of my eye I see the little girl walk up to the sleeping man in front of me. She’s just inches from his face. As if in slow motion, I see her begin to reach her hand up to touch his face. My book is down now and I’m locked into this. It’s so rare that you get to see something unexpected happen in Korea. I could simply shush her away from the man, but I have absolutely no idea what’s about to happen when she wakes him up and I’m ecstatic.

Her hand reaches his face and startles him awake. As soon as he’s arrived back in the waking life, he realizes the little girl woke him up and smiles at her. He, a stranger, then reaches out his hand and touches the girls face as he says something to her. A male stranger on a subway reached out and touched someone else’s child, and no one thought twice about it.

“This is some culture,” I think, as I watch with eyes wide open. “This is an interaction I would never see in the US.”

He says something to her I don’t understand, then stands up and offers his seat to the mother and children.

He’s now standing next to me and I keep watching him. He’s looking around, still dazed and confused. Koreans are incredibly strong at the game of “I didn’t see nothing,” so the only eyes he meets are mine. Without saying anything, we share a brief chuckle over the incident, then I get back to reading my book.