Political Correctness and Inefficienct Communication

The Purge went too far. After decades of efforts to protect individuals from discrimination based on the color of their skin, their ethic roots, their gender, their religious beliefs, their sexual orientation, their body form, their impaired body function, their impaired mind function, and other distinctions, the Great Political Correctness Purge went too far.

The Western philosophical tenet on the worth of the individual can be traced back hundreds, even thousands of years. In an American context, individual freedom is most frequently associated with Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson did not invent the idea; Jefferson borrowed heavily from European Enlightenment philosophers like Rousseau and the Greek giants-Aristotle and Plato. It is unlikely that any of those deep thinkers would ascribed to modern political correctness. In the name of protecting individuals from prejudice or insult, the Great Political Correctness Purge left the English language less precise, less efficient and more sterile.

Ever since our species started living in groups, outside groups have been stereotyped. Individuals were labeled positively or negatively (prejudice) based on their group identity. Automatic valuations were made on tribal membership, race, ethnicity, age, gender, wealth, bloodline, education, religion, intelligence, physical impairment, mental health and even the color and fullness of body and head hair. Initially, the stereotypes were essential for survival. Over time some of these valuations were neutralized by cross-cultural experiences and the slow expansion of civil rights. Inter-marriage dissolved some stereotypes. Expansion of the right to vote reduced prejudice toward groups with whom political power had to be shared. Others stereotypes fell at the point of a gun or a pen-a violent revolution, a civil war or religious reformation.

However, in the latter years of the 20th Century, the successful campaign against prejudices in the U.S. became an end in itself. A combination of missionary zeal and egomania eventually propelled the movement beyond reasonableness. Political Correctness (PC) police patrolled every hamlet in the country to protect vulnerable people from words that would wound: Nigger, Coloured, Handicapped, Retarded, Fat, Skinny and many more. The PC police gave “raised eyebrow tickets” to anyone who used male pronouns in gender neutral or mixed gender contexts. The ‘raised eyebrow tickets,” and often, more severe verbal spankings lead to (1) ridiculous slash pronouns: he/she, him/her/ himself/herself; (2) ridiculous double referencing: he or she, him or her, himself or herself and (3) ridiculous parentheses: he(she), him(her) or himself(herself). Professional descriptors were neutered of sexism. Waiters and waitresses became wait people. Fishermen, regardless of gender, became anglers. The mailman, regardless of gender,became the mail deliverer. Firemen, regardless of gender, became fire fighters.

While some of the changes were warranted or benign, others made the English language more obscure, less efficient and less personal. For example, “secretary”, which had and continued to be associated with positions of high power in the cabinets of Presidents and Governors, was considered a demeaning title for women who served a variety of functions for a boss-usually a man. So secretaries were renamed program assistants and protected from their male bosses under sexual harassment policies that made it risky for bosses to hug them, talk to them about their personal lives, introduce them as their secretary or address them as such. However, the innocuous new title “program assistant” conveys little information since it could refer to a receptionist, a typist, a file clerk, or an executive assistant with broad discretionary decision-making authority.

Hurricanes had historically been named with simple female names. After an attack by the PC police, the US Weather Service named 50% with male names-lost prestige for the women who never had a hurricane named after them as a result.

Employers were constrained in the type of questions that could be asked in an application or interviews. While designed to protect the applicant from discrimination, some of the prohibited questions were relevant in predicting the likely success of the applicant in the job.

Some bleating hearts tried to defend the rights of an individual from discrimination by condemning all stereotypes. While it is morally wrong to judge an individual by the group to which that individual belongs, stereotyping is an essential skill in navigating the world-near and far. Everyone has to stereotype the groups around them, understand their relationships to the group and act accordingly. For example, it is wrong to hold an automatic negative opinion of a young Black, wheel-chair bound, woman who joins your engineering firm. That is prejudice and a violation of basic human rights. The defense of the individual against guilt by association is a basic tenet of human rights.

However, condemning the holding of all stereotypes is PC nonsense. Willingness to hold and act on an accurate stereotype of a group of young Black men in the back streets of Detroit at midnight on Saturday might save you your wallet or your life. Understanding the stereotypic ethical standards of mortgage lenders might save your home. Understanding the stereotypic tactics of used car sales persons (PC correct) might keep a lemon out of your garage.

In addition to patrolling for group stereotyping, the PC police developed a list of politically incorrect descriptive words: “handicapped” was expunged and replaced by “challenged.” Of course, everybody was challenged in some way: hearing challenged, mobility challenged, learning challenged, socially challenged, sexually challenged, hair rejuvenation challenged, mechanically challenged, etc. Many people faced multiple challanges.

The application of other were narrowed. The words “girl” or “boy” could not be applied to anyone over 12 years old because it implied immaturity, lower class or, most derogatory, a “Negro” servant.

Some words were hallowed and their use PC restricted. Since “adopted” was used for children, the more fanatical PC police gave “raised eyebrow tickets” and, sometimes even public verbal spankings, when those children were degraded if the word “adopted” was applied more broadly, e.g. Adopt-a-pet or Adopy-a-Highway.

Politically correct words were substituted to soften or disguise negative connotations and protect the piety of the user from any accusation of being judgmental or prejudiced. These politically correct words were often more obscure than the common words they were meant to replace. They made the language less efficient. For example, what exactly is the limitation of a mechanically-challenged individual: can’t drive a car, can’t change a flat tire, can’t change the oil, can’t give the car a tune-up, can’t rebuild the engine, or can’t figure out how to replace the battery in his or her (PC correct) cell phone?

My natural hair rejuvenator broke when I was 20. I never tried to fix it. I never perceived my baldness as a “challenge”. Baldness actually freed up a lot of time I would have had to use to clean and comb my hair. However, the politically correct way to refer to my baldness, so as not to offend me, would be to say: “Lowell’s hair is thinning”; or “Lowell has a receding hair line”; or “Lowell is hair-challenged.” I’m glad that my friends don’t have such an extreme concern for political correctness. When they describe my hair, they are free to be bold and simple: “Lowell is balding” or “Lowell is almost bald.” Of course, an explicit description would change with age and hair cover. In college I had “long hair with a receding hairline.” As an Assistant Professor I was “prematurely balding.” As an Associate Professor I was “getting bald.” As a full professor, I was “almost bald with a trim gray beard.” As a Professor Emeritus, I am “mostly bald with an overgrown gray beard.” The PC police do not like such crisp, whole-truth descriptions. They would prefer something softer, something more vague, and apply it across all stages of the maturing of my baldness from age 20 to age 67. They would sacrifice a lot of information just to protect my fragile ego.

We all have a moral obligation and an individual self-interest in ridding ourselves of outdated and inaccurate stereotypes. And it is imperative to update old and grow new stereotypes based on personal observations and learning from credible secondary sources. The Great Political Correctness Purge got rid of demeaning racist and sexist stereotypes and terminology but it went too far. It damaged the language and impaired communication. It resulted in less communication, less information in that communication and less efficiency in transmitting the information in that communication.

Fortunately the momentum behind the Great Political Correctness Purge seems to have dissipated and the PC police have lost much of their fervor. We owe them a debt of graditude and good riddance.