Ferrett Steinmetz keeps being told that you can never be perfect enough for “the PC police”. If he were trying to be perfect, that might matter.
People who don’t practice political correctness – or, as I like to call it, “treating other people with respect” – seem to think that you’re choosing your words carefully as a form of inoculation. As if you use the correct terminology once, and then nobody ever bothers you again!
I say this because when I step on the wrong words and offend folks – which I do, as does anyone who writes for large audiences – someone invariably crows, “See? This is the way this political correctness works! They’ll turn on you! They will all turn on you!”
As if the only reason I’d chosen my words carefully was out of fear.
But no. When people complain, I welcome the feedback. If I have offended you, I want to know. I’d rather you bother me a bit so I can analyze why something might be hurtful, because I’d rather not step on your feelings out of ignorance.
Those comments aren’t a mob, whirling self-righteously to devour me in anger – they’re people expecting an explanation as to why I’ve said something so hurtful to them.
Keep in mind: just because someone registers a complaint doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to act upon that. I have a friend who hates it when I say, “I’m going to bitch about this for a while,” because to her, the word “bitch” is so synonymous with “angry, silly female” that she feels the word in any usage is an insult to her sex.
I thought about that and ultimately decided I didn’t think “bitch,” when used in the sense of “complaining for not much of a good reason,” was actually an assault on women in general. (I’m not a fan of the “She’s a bitch” usage, as I find that’s usually slang for “She dares to express an unapologetic opinion,” but the “Oh, here’s Ferrett bitching about the new Spider-Man movie again” feels fine to me.)
That’s what political correctness is to me: choosing, quite carefully and proactively, to offend. I know my friend doesn’t like it. Yet her distaste doesn’t mean I slavishly follow her impulses. It means I’ve considered her argument, asked, “Am I slandering women by using this term?” and answered, “…no. No, I don’t think I am. I think she’s taking offense over something that she shouldn’t.”
She cringes whenever I use it. And if she chooses not to read me because she thinks my language is too vulgar, I support her right to remove herself from my presence, same as I have no problems with people who go, “You swear too much on your private blog, Ferrett, I don’t like reading that filth.”
People can choose not to read me for a variety of reasons. I support all of ‘em.
And that bitch thing? It’s an ongoing conversation, not a one-time decision. If enough people start telling me they’re personally hurt by the language, I’ll stop using it. I used to use the term “retarded” to refer to stupid things – on the East Coast when I grew up, it was a generic slur. But enough people contacted me to say, “Hey, that hurts my feelings” that I’ve quietly expunged it from my writings.
And I’ll never get it perfect. In some cases, I literally can’t. When dealing with transgender people, I get flack no matter what terminology I use. Some people have very specific terms they’d like me to use, each person very convinced that they speak for all transgender people, and feel personally slighted when I use the terminology they consider to be wrong (or, as they put it, “uneducated”).
Over the last year or two I’ve had more people expressing a preference for “transgender,” so I now use that. But literally, the second time I used that term, I got yet another private email saying, “Um, actually, we prefer transgender*ed*…”
But regardless, too many of these yahoos who cry, “See? They’ll turn on you!” seem to think that a) people are only politically correct in an attempt to be seen as lovable, and b) language should be this stable thing, where what was inoffensive ten years ago should always remain inoffensive.
But no. The landscape changes, and thank God! People of all sorts feel empowered enough to register complaints they didn’t feel comfortable speaking out before! That’s a wonderful sign that it’s not the language that’s evolving, but the people!
I’m politically correct because I don’t want to offend inadvertently. I’m speaking loudly about controversial topics, and when I land a blow I want it to be because I meant to hit that person (or at least couldn’t avoid it).
Injuring someone because you spoke sloppily is like throwing elbows on a crowded subway – bad manners and ignorance combined.
If all I ever got was silence, I’d suspect I wasn’t talking about particularly important topics. I’m going to bruise people’s feelings. I’m going to tell them that some things they believe aren’t just wrong, but maybe actively toxic. To expect no pushback, no counter-concerns about my own beliefs? That’d be crazy.
The PC responses aren’t a group of hungry piranha, scenting blood in the water – it’s a feedback loop, where you can either apologize for the injury, or argue that they’ve misunderstood you, or tell them they’re stupid for feeling that way. Most go the “You’re stupid” route and, not surprisingly, get flooded with angry people.
But I’ve screwed up with some really dumb words in public, and yet I still have an astounding amount of good will out there. There’s always a thin scum of bitter jerks who refuse to forgive any transgression, of course…. but mostly, I’ve found a prompt “I’m sorry!” and doing your best to speak better will get you forgiveness. Because most realize that words are hard, and it’s impossible to always get it right.
And yet for all of this, someone will misinterpret everything I’ve just written as “I want to live in a world where nobody ever offends anybody and we all float happily down Cotton Candy Lane!” No. I want a world where we’re driving madly down a dirt road, the wheels rattling and the seatbelts on to keep our asses in the seat, taking dangerous chances with what we do. But in that world, I want not to smack the pedestrians on the back of the head with our side-view mirrors as we rush by, I want not to splash them with puddles.
I want to ensure that if I run over some poor schmuck, it’s because I pointed this fricking Jeep right at them.
That’s what PC is for me. Words are a weapon, and we fire them. So let’s ensure we choose our targets so we hit only who we damn well meant to.
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