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 itâ€™s time for a vocabulary change. I once tried to fall in line, rejecting the generic use of â€œmen,â€ â€œman,â€ and mankind.â€ I tried my best to find gender-neutral equivalents.
The easiest trick was using â€œoneâ€ instead of â€œheâ€ when I didnâ€™t have anyone in particular in mind. (â€œOne will find that one nearly always agrees with Price.â€) And itâ€™s not too hard to use plurals instead of singulars that are going to entail a singular pronoun later on. (â€œReaders will find that they love this column.â€ Instead of â€œThe reader will find that he loves this column.â€) I didnâ€™t mind alternating â€œsheâ€ with â€œheâ€ when I did use a generalizing singular. (â€œThe reader will find that she loves this column.â€)
But after a while I decided Iâ€™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 Iâ€™d buck the party line and go back to the more classical sounding â€œthe readerâ€¦ heâ€ and â€œman-madeâ€ usages. When PC fascists try to enforce Newspeak, I have to react. It becomes my duty to defy them. I wonâ€™t say their passwords. It reminds me of a favorite Jesus saying from Sufi sources. Satan appears to Jesus and proposes, â€œSay, â€˜God is one.â€™â€ Jesus answers, â€œIt is a true saying, but I will not say it at your behest.â€ Â Exactly. Thanks, Jesus. Donâ€™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 canâ€™t call anyone â€œcolored peopleâ€ (not that I want to; I never have), but you should call them â€œpeople of color.â€ Whatâ€™s the hellâ€™s the difference? And if you donâ€™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 â€œdarkiesâ€ (God forbid!), but I admit, calling folks â€œblacksâ€ appears equally racist to me. (Iâ€™m not saying youâ€™re a racist if you say that; it just hasnâ€™t hit you yet.)
So I welcome the neologism â€œAfrican Americans.â€ It revives the short-lived 60s designation â€œAfro-Americans,â€ 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 â€œIrish Americans,â€ â€œItalian Americans,â€ etc. Thatâ€™s fair and not at all contrived. So â€œAfrican Americansâ€ 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 â€œthe first black presidentâ€? Of course he is actually biracial. If you flip the coin and decide to label him â€œblack,â€ this seems to me to hark back to the bad old days of classifying mixed-race individuals (as â€œoctoroons,â€ etc.) according to how much â€œblack bloodâ€ they are â€œpollutedâ€ with. If any African blood makes one â€œblack,â€ it implies African heritage is a taint. But it ainâ€™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 â€œpurifyâ€ language. After a while, youâ€™ve got to make the best of it and use the tools you have, even if theyâ€™re nicked or dull.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I resist and resent the meaning of words getting ideologically redefined. I guess Iâ€™d have to call myself an â€œanti-sexist.â€ Iâ€™m not entitled to the tag â€œfeministâ€ because apparently you donâ€™t qualify if youâ€™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 â€œwomenâ€™s issues.â€ The same people will say Bill Clinton was â€œthe first black presidentâ€ because he was liberal, while Dr. Ben Carson is not really â€œblackâ€ because he is a Republican. (Again, â€œblackâ€ 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 â€œcritical thinkersâ€ can only be liberals. Condescending, propagandist nonsense, I say. Boy, stereotypes just ainâ€™t what they used to be!
How about new terms aimed at eliminating sexism? Iâ€™ve always hated neologisms like â€œchairpersonâ€ and â€œspokesperson,â€ at least when youâ€™re speaking of a particular individual whose gender you know. Why not call her the â€œchairwomanâ€? Why not refer to him as your â€œspokesmanâ€? You wouldnâ€™t have called Frank Sinatra the Chairperson of the Board. Heâ€™d have slugged you. But I do kind of like the egalitarian term â€œSpokeshole,â€ donâ€™t you?
But calling the police â€œpolice officersâ€ instead of â€œpolicemenâ€ makes good sense to me. For one thing, it is already an established usage, just an older one. So you donâ€™t have to feel like you just graduated, properly chastened, from a Communist self-criticism camp. And for another, â€œpolice officerâ€ has a nice ring of appropriate dignity. The fact that it is gender-inclusive is icing on the cake.
I also like â€œfire fightersâ€ better than â€œfiremen.â€ (I think â€œfire fighterâ€ is British.) Anyway, I remember how, as a little kid, I heard someone refer to â€œfiremenâ€ and thought they meant arsonists! So I appreciate the extra clarity.
Iâ€™m not as used to this one yet, but I wouldnâ€™t mind letting go of the familiar â€œmail manâ€ in favor of the British â€œletter carrier.â€ Again, it sounds classier!
By contrast, I remember once hearing a Politically Correct speaker referring to the college janitor as the â€œgardener.â€ 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 â€œshameâ€ 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! Whatâ€™s wrong with being a janitor? Nothing I can think of. Itâ€™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 â€œNative Americans.â€ 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, youâ€™re talking about buffaloes.
Yes, but these folks are not from India, so why call them â€œIndiansâ€? 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, thatâ€™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 â€œItalian Americansâ€ and â€œGerman Americans,â€ namely â€œUte Americans,â€ â€œAshanti Americans,â€ â€œJapanese Americans,â€ â€œApache Americans,â€ etc. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m waiting for.