Friday, September 26, 2008
Understand me. I don’t like ruffling people’s feathers. I don’t like being confrontational. I also don’t like being silly. As much as language reflects the most profound thoughts and greatest of achievements in society, it can also reflect the hypersensitivity and silliness of that society. So it is at times with what people refer to as “political correctness.” But when does the language go too far with being “pc,” politically correct?
Let’s start off with the term American. Over the years, I’ve had many students from Latin America object in class to my calling myself an American. They would immediately pipe up and say, “We are Americans, too!” I could always anticipate that response, and then I’d give out a big sigh and proceed to explain why we call ourselves Americans in the US. It’s not to exclude all the other peoples of the Americas; it’s because the official name of the country has been the United States of America since the time of independence from Great Britain. Back then the US was the only country that contained a group of united states; ergo the official name. Now people from the United States of Mexico are called Mexicans, people from the United States of Brazil are called Brazilians, and people from the United States of Colombia are called Colombians. So if people in the United States of America aren’t called Americans, what should they be called? Besides, that’s what people in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world call us. Heck! Even the Canadians call us Americans. I rest my case.
What about the term Native American? I think this is another case of political correctness gone too far. I, too, am a native American having been born and raised in the US. If the “pc” people insist on using it, why is it that there are indigenous people in the US who still use the word Indian to describe themselves? They don’t seem to have a problem with that term. I love when “pc-ers” tell others what they should or shouldn’t be called. Talk about presumptuous! I like the term indigenous people or the Canadian term First Nations people. Both terms are neutral and appear quite accurate, don’t you think? But ultimately it’s up to the indigenous people to decide what they should be called.
Remember when you started seeing humankind replacing mankind? That was considered “pc” because that new use wouldn’t exclude women. Well, if those who try their best to be “pc” have changed mankind to humankind, what are they going to do with a word like anthropology? After all, anthropos means “man” in Greek, and anthropology means “the study of man.” So should they insist we rename that science anthropinology, which means “the study of humans”? Food for thought, if you ask me.
Now what about the terms used for black Americans? The following terms, which were considered acceptable in their day, were Negro, black, Afro-American, and now African-American, although black is still used. Why was there a need for those changes? None of this would bother me if it weren’t for the fact that I’m still called white, not European-American. Why was it necessary for the “pc-ers” to make the leap from black to African-American? If there’s nothing wrong with being called white, why do they consider it wrong to be called black? I remember the famous slogan “Black is beautiful.” And it is. So why did that change? It mystifies me, but it clearly shows the continuing racial disquiet in this English-speaking society.
We’ve been deluged with “pc” terms for people with physical and mental disabilities. Here are a few you can find on a Web page of the Life Span Institute that’s entitled Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities. I’ve added some thoughts of mine in italics:
“Reflecting input from more than 100 disability organizations, the preferred terms for referring to disabilities are listed and defined below. So in teaching and speaking English, should we just toss out all the standard adjectives we’ve used for centuries perhaps to describe people and things? How do we determine what ELL’s should learn? I’d like to hear your opinions on this subject, so please join in the conversation.
“Autism is a mental disorder originating in infancy that is characterized by absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity, especially when accompanied by marked withdrawal from reality, inability to interact socially, repetitive behavior, and language dysfunction. Do not say autistic. Say person with autism.” Huh? Isn’t autistic simply the adjective for autism? Is there anything pejorative in saying He’s autistic?
“Brain injury describes a condition where there is long-term or temporary disruption in brain function resulting from injury to the brain. Difficulties with cognitive, physical, emotional, and/or social functioning may occur. Do not say brain damaged. Say person with a brain injury, woman who has sustained brain injury, or boy with an acquired brain injury.” Does anyone find it offensive to say brain damaged? In this case, doesn’t that mean the same thing as injured? I don’t see the difference.
“Small/short stature describes people under 4’10” tall. Do not refer to these individuals as dwarfs or midgets, which implies a less than full adult status in society. Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology. Say persons of small (or short) stature. Some groups prefer the term “little people.” Okay, I’m a person of short stature, being only 5’6” tall. For a man, that’s short. And ironically, I find the term “little people” demeaning, since I can’t help but compare it to little boy or little girl, which deals with age and level of maturity rather than height. So can’t that imply “a less than full adult status in society”? I’m perplexed!
In addition, I saw a documentary in January 2008 on the Discovery Health Channel called Dwarf: Standing Tall. Neither the producers nor the little people featured in the documentary had any problem using the term dwarf. They also used people of short stature and little people, but the term dwarf was used more often than the other two. So what does that say about instructions given at the Life Span Institute’s Web page?
My point is that English, because of the times we live in and the people wh
o want to do the right thing, has become a testing ground for changes in attitude that good people want to bring about in society, but I think this quest may go too far at times. I remember when it became a standard joke to add challenged to a variety of adverbs in order to sound politically correct:
So in teaching and speaking English, should we just toss out all the standard adjectives we’ve used for centuries perhaps to describe people and things? How do we determine what ELL’s should learn? I’d like to hear your opinions on this subject, so please join in the conversation.