A Rumination on “Political Correctness”

I should probably note that there’ll be some language in this post some readers will find markedly inappropriate.*

In classes I have taught, in my work for the substance abuse clinic, and elsewhere, the idea of “political correctness” has come up more than once–usually used as a term of derogation for those who worry about not offending others. For instance, not long ago at the clinic, a client made a mocking comment about my assuming the presented gender when I was retrieving information, a smirk plastered across the face when saying “How dare you presume my gender” in a drippingly unctuous tone. When I replied “You’re right, and I apologize; which gender would you prefer?” in my practiced professional tone, looking the client dead in the eye, the client stammered out a half-hearted justification of “making fun of those, you know, political correctness people.” But it is not always the case that I am able to make such a response, given the constraints of what I do and where.

In my classroom, however, I am able to do a bit more to work against the expression of such views, if not the holding of them (although I know that language influences perception, so that changes to language do work to change minds, at least in some small way or another). Most of what I teach is writing, after all, and so explicitly and specifically concerned with choosing words carefully and arranging them precisely and considering topic and purpose and audience and desired effects and unintentional consequences–and I note, repeatedly, that every character on every page–and, indeed, every page–is a choice made and so carries meaning, whether it is wanted or not. My students, then, expect that I will or may well comment on every utterance–and they should, since it is at least part of my job to do so. (Even aside from grading, I am supposed to coach them along.)

I do not much censor myself in my classroom; I use the language that comes to mind when it comes to mind, for the most part, and that does sometimes run to what many might think obscene. Some of it is done as part of my work to reassure students that their own usage does not indicate that they are unintelligent–something about which I’ve expressed concern before (here and here, among others). Leaving aside at least one interesting study, if an English professor with a doctorate in the subject will drop a “fuck” in class, or point out that “shit” has been in English longer than “beautiful” (per the OED and Bosworth and Toller), then they can’t be too stupid for using such language, themselves. So it might be thought that I am not in favor of so-called PC culture, in which hyperattention to language and overwariness of the possibility of offense results in creeping euphemisms that appear to weaken rhetorical force through circumlocution and meandering neologism.

The thing is, though, that I follow the idea (not my own, although I do not recall its provenance) that most of what gets decried as “PC” is “people asking to be called by their right name,” and getting people’s names right is a simple matter of politeness and attention. (Yes, I know there are people who use PCness as a means of abusing others–just as there are people who use any and every human construct as a means of abusing others. There are words for such people. “Jerk” is a good one. So is “asshat.” So are others.) And I have found a means of addressing the issue that seems to resonate with students–at least, they are more careful about making complaints about “being PC” after I present it to them.

There are some background ideas involved in it. One is voiced prominently by a University of Toronto professor I’ll not name because I do not want to be perceived as endorsing such an idea–namely, that your choice of preferred address does not in any way compel me to alter my usage, that how you prefer to be addressed and referred to does not oblige me to do so. Another is that whatever words are used “are just words,” and that people “need to grow thicker skins and not be so easily offended.” And it was with those ideas in mind that, in a class I taught a while back, when a student (older amid a bunch of more traditional students) started to get onto the proverbial soapbox about PC culture being censorship, I hopped up onto my own; as its planks squeaked under my weight, I asked what I thought was a simple question:

“And if I decided to call all of my students ‘Shithead,’ would that be okay? After all, it’s just a word, right? So I could be all, ‘Hey, Shithead, did you remember to turn in your assignment?’ and that’d be okay?”*

(Or words to that effect. It’s been a while.)

As might be expected, the class went silent, including the student who had been about to rail against PC culture. After an awkwardly quiet moment, I took the opportunity to lay out my position, explaining that of course it’d be a problem for me to decide that all of my students’ names might as well be Shithead or Asshat or something equally insulting–not necessarily because of the word itself, but because the students’ names are theirs to determine, just as the “PC” labels that are often decried are the names of the people concerned to determine. It seemed to make sense to the students; at the very least, they did not try to argue to me that getting names of people and populations right was an infringement on their free expression (although I am sure some still thought it, and others cared not either way, but simply wanted to get through the class as they could).

I’ve taught since that class, obviously, and while it has not been the case that each section I’ve taught has had the PC issue come up, it has been one that has gotten addressed fairly often–more times than not. Each time, I use the model I stumbled onto in a bit of in-class pique, and, each time, the students seem to take the point–or fake it well enough that I can let it slide. So there is that much, at least, that I’m able to do.

*The language is, more or less, what I use and have used, and the language was calculated to shock–with the idea that the shock would help drive the lesson home. Then again, my teaching has been much reduced since I first went on this tack, so there may be something to various students’ condemnations of me.

However you feel about “being PC,” I hope you’ll feel like sending a bit of help my way.

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