Saturday, November 17, 2007

Can We be Too Politically Correct?

Nobody’s ever accused me of being too politically correct. When it comes to labeling people, I tend to be conservative. I think the political correctness craze is a fad that has overstayed its time.

First of all, with respect to gender differences, I realize that our society’s language has always been male-centric. In modern society, it is accepted that neither gender is superior over the other. But in the past, it has been a man’s world, so the use of male-centric terminology has prevailed.

The term mankind has always been understood to include women, too, as has the shorter version, man. Neil Armstrong used it when he first stepped on the moon in 1969 and nobody thought he was referring only to the male of the species. Humankind might be more politically correct, but females should not be offended by the term mankind, simply because of its historic use.

In historic English usage, it has always been correct to use the pronoun his when referring to mixed-gender situations. For example, in the past in a classroom of boys and girls, if the teacher said, “Ok, will everyone take out his textbook,” it was proper usage. Today, most authors prefer the more cumbersome, “will everyone take out his or her textbook.” But that is still preferable to the grammatically incorrect, “will everyone take out their textbook.”

From the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s to the political correctness fanaticism of the 1990s, many gender-centric words have been changed. “Chairman” has been replaced by “chairperson;” “workmen” has been replaced by “workers,” and “waitress” has been replaced by “server.” There are also no more stewardesses, only flight attendants.

Ethnonyms are words used to refer to a specific race or ethnicity. Due to fads and the political correctness movement, terms that used to be just fine with everyone are now considered defamatory. The term Oriental historically referred to someone from eastern Asia. It was not meant to be, nor was it taken to be offensive. Today, we best use the term Asian for fear of offending someone from that region.

Prior to the 1960s nobody who didn’t mean to offend would use the term black in reference to someone of African heritage. The correct term was Negro or colored person. Negro refers to someone of the Negroid race. But both those terms are now considered offensive. In the 1960s black became the new Negro.

Today, although black is not considered derogatory, African-American is the preferred ethnonym. And while it’s perfectly ok to say “a person of color,” it is derogatory to use the term “colored person,” the NAACP notwithstanding.

Two similar phrases, one is derogatory; the other is not. What’s the difference?

“Well, I’m not sure. We’re just going to have to assume there is one.” That’s a quote from one of the characters in Richard Greenberg’s play “Take Me Out,” who was responding to the same question.

I don’t mind most of the changes in usage; they are all rather innocuous, and if it makes people feel better about themselves, that’s fine. One ethnic term that hasn’t changed completely is the single one that I feel should have been changed a century ago. An Indian is really a person from India, not a Native American. And for sports teams to use an Indian, a Brave, or a Chief as a mascot should be severely frowned on.

I draw the line, however, at the ridiculous notions of some of the feminists of the 1970s when they attacked words such as hymn, menu, and history for being sexist.

And I had to laugh at the feeble attempt at being politically incorrect by some Republicans several years ago when they suggested renaming french fries to freedom fries. The term “french” with a small “f,” refers to cutting a food in narrow strips, not to the country of France.

1 comment:

rmoulang said...

I always thought "-man" was latin for "hand"?
Great blog,
Ralph (London, UK)