Simineri: Language and Power

by Nicole Simineri | 5/10/15 7:03pm

In her May 6 column “Incorrectly Politically Correct,” Ziqin Yuan ’18 articulated what she sees as the adverse effects of political correctness, including sheltering individuals from reality and preventing important discourse for fear of repercussion. While these are important concerns, they divert attention from what political correctness really means. Yuan also dismisses how language can — and does — perpetuate stereotypes and create opportunities for critics to disregard reclaimed language and reorient it once again as a tool of oppression.

As Yuan mentions, political correctness refers to being considerate of people’s personal backgrounds — including their ethnicities, religions, sexualities and genders — and speaking in a manner that respects personal identifications. Ideally, all people should aim for such a level of awareness and respect in all interactions. In a country like the United States, where countless groups have historically been marginalized and oppressed, such respect is critical — especially because oppression is not a thing of the past, but rather a palpable part of minority groups’ every day experiences. The evidence of this is everywhere, from the riots in Baltimore to the multiple demonstrations that have taken place on campus.

Political correctness, however, is also about being open to having your language critiqued and corrected to reflect the needs of those around you. Everyone has made problematic statements in their life, which is a result of the society in which we live and not necessarily a reflection of one’s character. What counts, however, is how people choose to respond to being informed of the negativity within their statements — and political correctness underscores this critical point. By attacking political correctness and associating it with the stifling of intellectual conversations, it becomes all too easy to forget this simple and necessary component of political correctness.

Yuan also voices her concern that people will “hide behind” political correctness “to shut down critiques of personal character.” Yet, some critiques are, in fact, discriminatory. A 2014 study conducted by Fortune Magazine, for example, found that women are significantly more likely than their male counterparts to be given negative feedback in performance reviews — when women lead, they are described as “bossy, abrasive, strident and aggressive,” and they are called “emotional and irrational” when they object. A similar study in Business Insider revealed the same disturbing trend. I have personally experienced this bias. A 2014 study by the Columbia University Business School found a similar gender bias in employment, with employers often “choosing the less qualified male over a superiorly qualified female.” These are not “critiques of personal character” — these are sexist assessments based on internalized misogyny and gendered assumptions.

Racial bias and heteronormativity are likewise glaring problems when it comes to the perception of language. In a 2003 study by the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, job applicants with “African-American-sounding names” were 50 percent less likely to get called for an initial interview than their “white-sounding” counterparts with identical credentials. The LGBTQA+ community also faces heavy discrimination in the workplace. It was only as recently as June 2014 that President Obama passed Executive Order 11246, making it illegal to harass or fire employees of the federal government based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Of course, as we have seen throughout history, being granted legal equality on paper does not necessarily translate into reality — if this were the case, there would be no post-civil rights movement and women would have long been receiving equal pay for equal work.

Attacks on political correctness also create a disturbing space where the gains that minority groups have made can quickly be overturned. The n-word was used historically by white individuals to oppress African Americans and to maintain a racist status quo. The African-American community has since reclaimed the word, reserving it as their own and reorienting it to give a sense of empowerment. The LGBTQA+ community has similarly reclaimed the word “queer,” transforming what had once been a degrading and dehumanizing insult into a word that reflects pride in one’s personal identity. I likewise hope that women will one day reclaim the many derogatory terms that have been used against us. When individuals outside of these groups use reclaimedterms because they do not care about being “politically correct,” they disempower marginalized communities.

These are not just words — they reflect significant gains for historically oppressed communities. Attacking political correctness downplays the importance of language in perpetuating oppressive structures and discriminatory ideas. Of course, avoiding important discussions about such issues also perpetuates bigotry. If people remember that political correctness is not just about respect, however, but also about being open to learning, then political correctness does not stifle but, rather, facilitates necessary discussions.

Language is power, and political correctness is about reorienting language away from traditional power hierarchies and toward social awareness and respect. By changing language, we can change minds — and by changing minds, we can change lives.