Personally, I do not much care for the prospect of changing the way I refer to things or people when word comes down from the home office of Political Correctness that it’s time for a vocabulary change. I once tried to fall in line, rejecting the generic use of “men,” “man,” and mankind.” I tried my best to find gender-neutral equivalents.
The easiest trick was using “one” instead of “he” when I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind. (“One will find that one nearly always agrees with Price.”) And it’s not too hard to use plurals instead of singulars that are going to entail a singular pronoun later on. (“Readers will find that they love this column.” Instead of “The reader will find that he loves this column.”) I didn’t mind alternating “she” with “he” when I did use a generalizing singular. (“The reader will find that she loves this column.”)
But after a while I decided I’d had enough. The lords of PC made such a big deal out of it, especially in the academic and publishing circles in which I move, that I figured I’d buck the party line and go back to the more classical sounding “the reader… he” and “man-made” usages. When PC fascists try to enforce Newspeak, I have to react. It becomes my duty to defy them. I won’t say their passwords. It reminds me of a favorite Jesus saying from Sufi sources. Satan appears to Jesus and proposes, “Say, ‘God is one.’” Jesus answers, “It is a true saying, but I will not say it at your behest.” Exactly. Thanks, Jesus. Don’t let the bastards get you (or me) down!
I find other officially approved jargon to be merely mystifying, self-contradictory, and hypocritical. Get this: you can’t call anyone “colored people” (not that I want to; I never have), but you should call them “people of color.” What’s the hell’s the difference? And if you don’t play that game, you are accused of racism. More Newspeak.
But I find it creepy to use pigmentation as a category description at all. I admit, that does smack of racism to me, because it still implies that the color of the skin matters. We know better than to refer to anyone as “darkies” (God forbid!), but I admit, calling folks “blacks” appears equally racist to me. (I’m not saying you’re a racist if you say that; it just hasn’t hit you yet.)
So I welcome the neologism “African Americans.” It revives the short-lived 60s designation “Afro-Americans,” which is just as good. It is properly descriptive. We are used to denominating various other ethnic groups according to their pre-American heritage, and when we do, we speak of “Irish Americans,” “Italian Americans,” etc. That’s fair and not at all contrived. So “African Americans” does not strike me as in the least forced or ideological. A few more syllables, but who cares?
Has it ever occurred to you that racism is implicit whenever you call President Obama “the first black president”? Of course he is actually biracial. If you flip the coin and decide to label him “black,” this seems to me to hark back to the bad old days of classifying mixed-race individuals (as “octoroons,” etc.) according to how much “black blood” they are “polluted” with. If any African blood makes one “black,” it implies African heritage is a taint. But it ain’t. I am not trying to tell anyone what to say or not to say. But this example seems to me to show what a futile exercise it is to try to “purify” language. After a while, you’ve got to make the best of it and use the tools you have, even if they’re nicked or dull.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I resist and resent the meaning of words getting ideologically redefined. I guess I’d have to call myself an “anti-sexist.” I’m not entitled to the tag “feminist” because apparently you don’t qualify if you’re not pro-abortion or a member of the Democratic Party. Some would even say politically conservative women do not qualify as true women because they do not hold the party-line on “women’s issues.” The same people will say Bill Clinton was “the first black president” because he was liberal, while Dr. Ben Carson is not really “black” because he is a Republican. (Again, “black” is not my preferred usage, but I am commenting here on current, familiar usage.) I have trouble identifying as an atheist because I am not a liberal, and it is generally accepted that “critical thinkers” can only be liberals. Condescending, propagandist nonsense, I say. Boy, stereotypes just ain’t what they used to be!
How about new terms aimed at eliminating sexism? I’ve always hated neologisms like “chairperson” and “spokesperson,” at least when you’re speaking of a particular individual whose gender you know. Why not call her the “chairwoman”? Why not refer to him as your “spokesman”? You wouldn’t have called Frank Sinatra the Chairperson of the Board. He’d have slugged you. But I do kind of like the egalitarian term “Spokeshole,” don’t you?
But calling the police “police officers” instead of “policemen” makes good sense to me. For one thing, it is already an established usage, just an older one. So you don’t have to feel like you just graduated, properly chastened, from a Communist self-criticism camp. And for another, “police officer” has a nice ring of appropriate dignity. The fact that it is gender-inclusive is icing on the cake.
I also like “fire fighters” better than “firemen.” (I think “fire fighter” is British.) Anyway, I remember how, as a little kid, I heard someone refer to “firemen” and thought they meant arsonists! So I appreciate the extra clarity.
I’m not as used to this one yet, but I wouldn’t mind letting go of the familiar “mail man” in favor of the British “letter carrier.” Again, it sounds classier!
By contrast, I remember once hearing a Politically Correct speaker referring to the college janitor as the “gardener.” I cringed. The speaker felt he was showing respect to the guy who does the clean-up and repairs by using a euphemism to cover the “shame” of what he really did. As if the guy were a member of the lowly Hindu Shudra caste, rendered ritually unclean by his menial labor. Hey! What’s wrong with being a janitor? Nothing I can think of. It’s hard, honest, needful work. The speaker was committing the not uncommon Liberal sin of showing contempt for the very people they pretend to favor.
Another one that riles me is “Native Americans.” I was born in America. That makes me a native American. The American Indians were born here, too, and they are equally native with me. Like mine, their ancestors traveled here from another continent. Mine came from Europe, theirs from Asia, across the Bering Strait. If you want to get more authentic than that, you’re talking about buffaloes.
Yes, but these folks are not from India, so why call them “Indians”? Good question. Columbus mistakenly thought he had reached India when he had gotten only as far as the Western Hemisphere. But they are Asian in origin. I say, that’s close enough, especially since anything you called the whole bunch of them would be incorrect anyway. They exist in many and varied tribal identities.
It would be best if eventually we called non-Europeans by labels as specific as “Italian Americans” and “German Americans,” namely “Ute Americans,” “Ashanti Americans,” “Japanese Americans,” “Apache Americans,” etc. That’s what I’m waiting for.