Rethinking the Relationship Between The Words We Use, The Actions We Take, and the Thoughts We Think
Part 1. The Words We Use
I spend a lot of my waking life in my head. I like to think. And I give a lot of thought to the words that I speak, and the ways I act, so that both are with intention. I think words matter, and word choice matters; not just to reflect my thoughts to the world, but also because they have an impact on other people. So if my intention is to do no harm, but also to attempt to undo existing harm, then it requires that my words be chosen with care. I have a hypothesis that I am not fully prepared to back with proper analysis, but that I would like to explore. It seems to me that often our unconscious thoughts are reflected in our word choices, that most of the time, our dialogue does not require much intentional thought. We are able to say what we think and feel with relative ease. And sometimes, maybe oftentimes, we speak without having to think first. Sometimes that, colloquially, bites us in the ass. On the flip side, I propose that making a conscious decision to use or not use specific words, or types of words, has the power and ability to rewire our subconscious brain and the ways that we think when we are not stopping to actively think.
It is not within my current capacity to prove this theory via traditional scientific or academic research. Instead I seek to make an argument for why I believe this hypothesis is valuable, and worth some time to explore. I seek to do this by examining the role of three binaries of our sociopolitical culture: a language binary, politically correct versus anti-oppressive; an action binary, charity versus mutual aid; and a political/philosophical binary, civil rights versus human rights. Each element of these three binaries is rooted in specific thoughts and beliefs, which, I will argue, are intersectional with one another. Ultimately, this paper will seek to assert that through a commitment to anti-oppression in thought and speech, the concept of mutual aid will be strengthened, and a human rights framework will be seen as necessary for ending gender, sex, race, ability, and class-based oppressions.
Politically Correct vs. Anti-Oppressive
The strange thing about Political Correctness is that it seems to have lots of opponents and no supporters. No one ever describes themselves as PC, and yet somehow the movement thrives. It achieves an especially luxuriant growth on campuses, where young people for centuries have defined themselves in opposition to their elders, who are by definition reactionary. Nothing creates quite such a warm inner glow as accusing others of being morally reprehensible. In my undergraduate days, our opponents were Fascist Baby-Eaters. Today we live in less exuberant times, and the evil ones are simply racist, sexist, ageist, weightist, etc. (Ebert, 1994)
The concept of political correctness is almost always met at minimum with snickers and eye rolls. Originating in Stalinist Russia as a tool of an authoritarian state (Poole, 1998), the term politically correct, PC for short, has come to represent the over-sensitivity of the liberal left.
Political correctness,” Drucker (1998) observes, “is a purely totalitarian concept” (p. 380). Stalinists first made use of the term in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They used intimidation, character assassination, and denial of freedom of thought and speech to suppress all but the “party line.” Current use of the term is different. Political groups use political correctness to denigrate people who have a progressive orthodoxy on issues involving race, gender, sexual orientation, and the rights of marginalized people. (Poole, 1998, p. 163)
With this understanding, it should be surprising that PC has become acceptable as an insult. The backlash against progressive orthodoxy should warn of nothing less than the rise of the fascist right in the United States that demonizes a rotating door of oppressed minority groups—whether it be the Muslim community, trans* folks, or immigrants—in order to further political and economic agendas that are destroying the environment and decimating the working poor.
Bernstein, in 1990, sought to dismantle the notion of political correctness, specifically the use on college campuses, which, in his assessment, was utilized to stymie dialogue and debate, to narrow the focus of acceptable topics to those that are seen as not offensive. He argues, “there is a large body of belief in academia and elsewhere that a cluster of opinions about race, ecology, feminism, culture and foreign policy defines a kind of “correct” attitude toward the problems of the world, a sort of unofficial ideology of the university (Bernstein, 1990, p. para. 3). There are (at least) two ways to read that sentence: (1) that Bernstein’s analysis is correct and that there is a problem in this belief of academia; (2) that Bernstein is correct, but his analysis is misguided, and there is in fact a “correct” attitude toward the problems of the world. It is possible that one’s take on political correctness can be determined by the way they read this Bernstein quote:
Central to p.c.-ness, which has roots in 1960’s radicalism, is the view that Western society has for centuries been dominated by what is often called “the white male power structure” or “patriarchal hegemony.” A related belief is that everybody but white heterosexual males has suffered some form of repression and been denied a cultural voice or been prevented from celebrating what is commonly called “otherness.” (Bernstein, 1990, p. para. 5)
If you read that and think that there exists, even somewhat, a “white male power structure” and/or “patriarchal hegemony,” regardless of your personal experience or demographic, than perhaps you see that there is some value in political correctness, despite the framework having become ineffectual. It seems that the backlash to political correctness is rooted in a belief that feminist thought, or multicultural, or pro-black discourse, has made certain topics off-limits, taboo, or offensive. These arguments are often framed as PC folks being overly sensitive. Certain jokes have become off limits. But what is being said here is exactly to Bernstein’s point. The traditional patriarchal hegemony is being challenged. And power does not like to be challenged.
Having primarily grown up in the era of PC backlash, it is difficult to know what language, discourse, dialogue, etc., might have looked like had political correctness been considered a genuine framework that regards people’s identities and feelings with respect. My analysis of political correctness––as it currently functions in our culture––is that it is a surface-level evaluation of people and their choice of words. That it is essentially a linguistic exercise: Either something is PC, or it is offensive. There is no analysis within political correctness that seeks to understand, disrupt, and rectify root causes of inequity. As a result, it has outlived any potential usefulness that it once may have carried.
But more than an earnest expression of belief, “politically correct” has become a sarcastic jibe used by those, conservatives and classical liberals alike, to describe what they see as a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a radical program or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia.
“It’s a manifestation of what some are calling liberal fascism,” said Roger Kimball, the author of “Tenured Radicals,” a critique of what he calls the politicization of the humanities. “Under the name of pluralism and freedom of speech, it is an attempt to enforce a narrow and ideologically motivated view of both the curriculum and what it means to be an educated person, a responsible citizen.” (Bernstein, 1990, pp. para. 9-10)
While Bernstein was writing for the rejection of political correctness, my assertion is that we need to push further, not retreat back or accept pre-PC cultural norms as acceptable. The answer to this problem requires an understanding of anti-oppression.
Anti-oppression can be defined and understood by the work of Anti-Oppression Network:
Oppression is the use of power to disempower, marginalize, silence or otherwise subordinate one social group or category, often in order to further empower and/or privilege the oppressor. Social oppression may not require formally established organizational support to achieve its desired effect; it may be applied on a more informal, yet more focused, individual basis.
The Anti-Oppression network seeks to recognize the oppressions that exist in our society, and attempts to mitigate its affects and eventually equalize the power imbalance in our communities. (The Anti-Oppression Network, 2011)
Whereas “politically correct” acts primarily as a noun, something either is or is not PC, anti-oppression can and must be enacted, embodied, lived. Anti-oppression requires an understanding of historical and social power dynamics, of privilege and oppression, which impacts the words we use. This affects the way we interact with the world, the way we see ourselves, see and relate to others, and how we situate ourselves within history and society. Anti-oppression must exist as a confluence of thought and action (including words). An understanding of power and privilege, and a commitment to anti-oppression requires a desire to address problems at their root, not merely on the surface. The goal is not merely to not cause offense, but to alter conditions through an understanding of and appreciation for the reality of systemic oppression, and a belief that every person deserves to live a life of dignity, with their identity respected and their needs met equitably.
To further understand anti-oppression, we must first continue to unpack oppression.
…[O]ppression means not simply its traditional connotation of “the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group” (p. 175) but also its “new left…designat[ion of] the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power intends to keep them down, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society” (pp. 175-176)…Oppression refers to structural phenomena that immobilize or reduce a group…To be in a [social] group is to share with others a way of life that defines a person’s identity and by which other people identify him or her” (pp. 176-177). (Vinson, 2001, p. 54)
And further, Vinson explains:
[Young’s (1992) “faces” or “disparate” categories of oppression] are, namely, “exploitation,” “marginalization,” “powerlessness,” “cultural imperialism,” and “violence.” My contention is that an understanding of these conditions can contribute to a broad project of interpretation, critique, and reconstruction in terms of creating a citizenship education more conducive to the circumstances of social justice, freedom, equality, and multicultural diversity (both in terms of school and society). (Vinson, 2001, p. 54)
The catch of anti-oppression is that, to some degree, one has to care that inequity exists, or has to at least believe that there is some value in balancing inequity, either to oneself, or to society as a whole. Anti-oppression requires recognition of the ways in which violence, power, and cultural imperialism have been normalized throughout our lives.
Bernstein, R. (1990, October 20). Ideas & Trends; The rising hegemony of the politically correct. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/1990/10/28/weekinreview/ideas-trends-the-rising-hegemony-of-the-politically-correct.html
Ebert, R. (1994, April 29). PCU. Retrieved October 5, 2016, from Roger Ebert: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/pcu-1994
Poole, D. L. (1998, August). Politically correct or culturally competent? Health & Social Work, 23 (3), pp. 163-166.
The Anti-Oppression Network. (2011, December). What Is Anti-Oppression? Retrieved January 26, 2017, from The Anti-Oppression Network: https://theantioppressionnetwork.wordpress.com/what-is-anti-oppression/
Vinson, K. D. (2001). Oppression, anti-oppression, and citizenship education. In E. W. Ross (Ed.), The social studies curriculum: Purposes, problems, and possbilities (Revised Edition ed., pp. 57-84). Albany: State University of New York Press.
Edited by Alejandro Varela, Alexandria Ward, and Carrie Morrisroe