Political Correctness vs. Free Speech

| Monday, December 12, 2011
I'm getting a little political on the blog today (hohohohohoho).

To start, I'd like to come clean about something. I don't generally like to make a big fuss about this, because frankly it's still kind of surreal to me and it's my sister's thing and I can take no credit and deserve no special attention for it. Still, I am immensely proud of her, and this is something I feel very strongly about and I think should be discussed because to this day it is still so polarizing and misunderstood.

So. I'd like you to introduce you to my sister, Lauren Potter. You may know her better as the character Becky Jackson of GLEE. If you haven't seen this video before, I will warn you that it contains offensive minority slurs used in a teaching manner.

Here is a direct link if the video embed isn't working.

There was a great post on The Book Lantern the other day about the use of the R-word in a popular book series, and that entry inspired me to write one of my own. This issue is very close to my heart for (what I assume are) obvious reasons. However, as illustrated by the comments on this video, the fact that almost half of this video's viewers "disliked" it, and my own experiences when speaking with people who don't want to give up the use of their precious non-PC slang, this is something I still feel needs discussion.

I'll start with something I posted on Twitter yesterday: the difference between free speech and political correctness.

Your Freedom of Speech is a right granted to you by the First Amendment of the US constitution (and does not apply if you are not a US citizen, BTW, unless your country has a similar governmental right). Freedom of Speech protects you from the government swooping in and forcibly silencing you. It protects your right to speak about whatever you choose, wherever and whenever you choose. Within reason. You cannot use Free Speech to inspire crime (inciting rioting), you cannot yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, you cannot use it to harass or incite fights, it does not cover lawless or obscene acts, etc.

Political Correctness is not overseen by the government. It is overseen by the people. It is not a law or a forced act, at least not in the sense that you are made to do it under penalty of imprisonment or forcible silence. Political Correctness is members of the public asking you not to be an asshole by using certain offensive terms. You certainly do not have to do it. But if you insist on doing it, the public then reserves their right to consider you an ignorant butthead. And no, you don't get to claim you're not a jerk for using an offensive term. You've been told it's offensive. It's on you if you decide to continue offending that group of people.

You do not get to decide what is and is not offensive to other people. I know it's hard to adjust speech habits and find new ways of expressing oneself, especially when we feel we're not doing anything wrong. But the argument that because you don't find a term offensive, it means you should get to freely use that term without reprimand? No. No dice. Sorry. The offended group gets the floor.

If you can argue intelligently and concretely why you disagree about the offensiveness of a term, that's fine, but understand that you are still arguing from a place of privilege unless you are a member of the offended group. And even if you are a member of the offended group, your language choices are still open to scrutiny. Them's the breaks.

I understand that in the case of the R-Word, people (including the offending character in the criticized book) like to make the argument that it isn't actually the offended group arguing against the use of the term, but their friends, family, and advocates. Which I disagree with, obviously *points to sister in video making her own argument*. Also, I fail to see why it isn't acceptable for advocates to make the argument on the behalf of those members of the group who cannot make it for themselves for whatever reason.

There's an element of this argument I personally have never understood, and that's the insistence that one should be "allowed" to use an offensive term if they want to, and that the offended people should just shut up and deal. It's extraordinarily childish behavior in my eyes. I understand that when someone is called out, there's often a gut reaction to defend their choices and prove that they've done nothing wrong.

But here's the thing about PC terms: someone just asked you to stop being a jerk and using a term that's personally offensive to them. Why is your response to tell THEM that THEY are being stupid (more offense, goody) and that you have the right to use whatever words you like? Why do you leap immediately to defending your use of a pejorative word rather than considering the offended public's point? Why is it so important to you to cling to a piece of your vocabulary that you could easily replace with a dozen non-offensive synonymns?

Is political correctness restricting? I guess you could argue that. I guess you could argue that everyone everywhere is offended by something and that if you stopped using every word that every single person found bothersome, you couldn't say anything at all. You can argue those things. But you know what? I don't buy it. I actively consider my language and monitor my word choices, and have since I was a pre-teen. It has not limited my ability to express myself in the slightest. I'm certainly not perfect by any stretch. I make mistakes, too. And then I try to correct them.

Yes, you are allowed to use absolutely any language that you like, and no one can ever stop you from doing it. But if you make that choice, you must accept that other people are also allowed to criticize you, call you out, and consider you a jerk if you insist on using terms that bother them. That's the tradeoff. If you're okay with that, than that's the end of this discussion. If you're not okay with that, then we still have an issue.

So. Yeah. That's my piece on political correctness. I know there is a lot of discussion to be had around this topic, and I'm always happy to discuss any valid, respectful points in an equally respectful way. I'm happy to continue discussion in comments, but I reserve *my* right to ignore and delete nasty comments. And yes, I am the one who gets to decide what's nasty. It usually involves name-calling or denigrating comments about my character.

I realize I'm probably largely preaching to the choir here ;) I'd also like to clarify that in this instance, I am NOT talking about the use of slurs in fiction, other than the example I used here. I only used that example because the author herself has expressed a similar position. Here, I am talking about real people using real language in the real world.

So yes, that means bringing up Huck Finn and arguing that Mark Twain used the N-word is invalid in this particular instance. We're not talking about classic literature. We're talking about people and the language they use in real life. Discuss.


{ Phire } at: December 12, 2011 at 5:59 AM said...

My general view on PC, as someone who's tried really hard to scrub most trigger words from her vocabulary - anytime you're arguing for the right to use a certain word, you're basically arguing for the right to make other people feel shitty.

Sure, you can express yourself however you want. But I find it easier to adjust my speaking than to try and justify why it's okay to make rape jokes in front of rape survivors, or why it's okay to make gay slurs in front of people I know who have been concretely harmed by social oppression against the LGBTQ community. Do you really want to be that person?

(I was explaining to a male friend once about my views on feminism. To be fair to him, he seemed like he was trying hard to understand where I was coming from. But when I explained why rape jokes perpetuated a rape culture, his response was "But none of our friends SERIOUSLY mean it. I mean, if you call out everyone like that, they won't feel comfortable joking in front of you anymore, and no one wants that." I headdesked.)

It's the internet rule of thumb, applied to real life: Don't be an asshole, and you'll probably be okay.

{ Phire } at: December 12, 2011 at 5:59 AM said...

Also, holy cow that's an accomplished family. Good for your sister.

{ Sommer Leigh } at: December 12, 2011 at 6:39 AM said...

First, we are entrenched in a society that understands how to minimize the power of something that makes us uncomfortable by dehumanizing it with language. Language is powerful and it is contagious.

We use language - like slang - indiscriminately often because of how it makes us feel or what it conjures up for us personally. A single slang word might have two very separate emotional meanings for two separate users of the word. My ten year old brother calls another boy on the playground a retard because he heard someone else use it in that context and it sounds powerful, not because he knows what it refers to or its etymology.

All words used to dehumanize another piece of society are tragic. Their origins are the true villains while the people who perpetuate them are part-villain part-victim. That's the contagious, powerful part of language. The random uses of these words generally have benign intentions - a casual synonym for stupid or clueless or girlish or bitchy, depending on the word in question.

Second, these words can lose power over time. We've seen examples of it: the offended group appropriates the word and changes the emotion and meaning connected to it. I remember when the word "Bitch" became a power word for women in the late 90s, spawning magazines and empowering concert tours.

But more often than not the society has to change first, losing interest in a word that leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth, used more and more rarely by people who want to make others feel shitty. It's not going to be an overnight fix, especially when most of the people throwing around certain words don't even consciously understand the word's darker meaning.

Conversations like this one are the only true inoculation against the words, reminding and remembering what they mean to the marginalized population and their advocates. It's very important to call each other out when we misstep, and it's important to be classy and humble when we do get called out. Erasing words from our vocabulary is a long process and one we need to talk out and not get defensive (or aggressive. Calling someone out does not necessarily require an attack, just a dialog.)

Thank you for keeping this conversation alive and bringing your unique, intelligent comments to the table.

{ Perca Cappa } at: December 12, 2011 at 6:44 AM said...

There's a whole lot there I totally agree with. Not in my foulest dreams (and I've had dreams about being a serial killer...) would I ever use pejorative terms like any language. I can think up of a couple of them for a person who'll just blurt them out never stopping to think the effect it might have.


The "polis" in "political correctedness needs specifying. I'm known for a sense of humour that gets nasty sometimes. For instance, I'm big on jokes about immigrants. Thing is, the people I exchange them with are mostly immigrants themselves, and will in turn abuse my nationality, or anything else about me.

In my view that's all okay. As long as there isn't a chance to even be overheard by someone whose response might be different.

So, my comment on your text is fat line under the "offending" others- part. Any term is okay as long as there is no one that might be offended. And if you are a natural talent in being an a-hole, you don't really need offensive terms to offend people. Being inconsiderate is what schmucks are made of, not language in itself.

I do hope people will get this right, not think of this as a defense for pejoratives.

{ Old Kitty } at: December 12, 2011 at 7:21 AM said...

That's your sister?! Awww wow! Your family ROCKS!!

Yay for PC! I don't care if it annoys certain people but for far too long language has been twisted and defiled and treated very casually by ignoramouses solely to degrade and humiliate others. PC makes people think of the terms they bandy about willy-nilly! So there! hah! :-)

Take care

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: December 12, 2011 at 7:42 AM said...

Wonderful responses so far. Thank you for your candor, all.

Sommer - Yes, exactly. And I very much believe that the vast majority of people who use demeaning words don't realize they might be offensive because they've never had reason to examine the language they're using or it's never been brought to their attention before, and that's okay. It happens. The issue comes in AFTER they've been made aware of the power and offensiveness of the word and they make the conscious decision to use it anyway.

Perca Cappa - This is an area I struggle with, if only because there's no way to TRULY know if you're somewhere where "no one" will be offended. People often laugh and go along with the crowd, even if they're feeling uncomfortable. I know I often nervously laughed at jokes about violence against women as a teen because I didn't want to be viewed as a "humorless feminist" or whatever. So that's a tough position.

On the other hand, sometimes it helps alleviate people's stress and frustrations to poke fun at their own situation, and that includes jokes about their own group. So it's definitely gray area.

{ Yael } at: December 12, 2011 at 7:53 AM said...

My opinion on this is a little controversial. Language does evolve, so I can see how people might use an offensive word in a way that THEY don't consider it offensive. However, what pisses me off is when they criticize OTHERS for getting offended.

One of my friends once made a cutting joke in front of two girls whom he had just met, and then got upset when one of them responded "Please don't joke about that. I used to cut myself, and I find that offensive." Obviously, he had no right to get upset. To a lot of people, things like cutting and mental retardation are an everyday struggle, and it's not fair for everyone else to trivialize that.

{ vic caswell (aspiring-x) } at: December 12, 2011 at 7:55 AM said...

wow. first of all- i love your sister on GLEE, what a talent (and charm galore!) !

second- amen!

i do sometimes find it difficult to keep up to date on what is offensive and what is the current politically correct term.

like, i'm part cherokee, and when i was in grade school to high school it was preferred to refer to people as native american as opposed to indian, but now they are using the term indian again...
i just get can't seem to keep up!
and i really want to be respectful of everyone, but couldn't they like publish a "this is a respectful term" newsletter or something?

but i agree with what you say. there are some words that are ALWAYS wrong. there are just others that flip around and those are the ones that confuse me! how do you keep up to date on that kinds of stuff?

and my kids!
when i was a kid, i seriously didn't realize all the differences in people- or i didn't recognize them as anything to draw a line between... except for boys, i guess, i did think boys were yucky.
and i've tried to raise my sons the same way. not to see lines between people. we live in a rural, backwards place though, and they've heard some of the words in that video in their elementary school playground.
we've talked about the words, and we've talked about the meaning behind them, and the importance not to say them. but when they ask what they can say, it's hard to tell them anything.

because people should be proud of their beliefs and ancestry and well who they are in general. and so identifying yourself with those things, being able to say "i'm part cherokee." is a good thing, and we can luck out by having an innocuous alternative term to use. but how about their friend that is black, or is it african american, we know what it ISN'T, but figuring out what the most respectful term to use is confusing!

sorry, i'm on very little sleep! but how do you keep politically correct? confused kansan needs to know! :)

{ Melanie Fowler } at: December 12, 2011 at 8:01 AM said...

I don't think people fully understand the power of words. They can hurt, lift up, degrade, or inspire.

It's important to tell those who 'don't know' that it's not acceptable.

{ Perca Cappa } at: December 12, 2011 at 8:04 AM said...

Yes, humour is indeed a difficult sport. That's why I either keep it mellow or don't joke at all when in company I don't closely know. A nervous laugh is easily spotted. Should that happen, I'd surely be the one to owe an apology, instead of saying "oh, I'm sorry you were offended."

But still, you can't define "political correctednes" without defining the "polis" as a reference point.

{ Sean Wills } at: December 12, 2011 at 8:36 AM said...

This is an area I struggle with, if only because there's no way to TRULY know if you're somewhere where "no one" will be offended. People often laugh and go along with the crowd, even if they're feeling uncomfortable.

This is something that bothers me as well. I've 'gone along' with homophobic jokes in the past, mostly because revealing offence would...well, potentially reveal a bit more than just offence. If you make jokes around people who you 'know are okay' with it, just keep in mind they might actually NOT be okay with it.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: December 12, 2011 at 8:51 AM said...

Vic - I definitely don't mean for people to get all twisted up and question every word that comes out of their mouths! I honestly think that as long as you're mindful of your language, you're already on the right path. If people bring it to your attention, you know. And you can always ask. There's a definite difference between terminology a group prefers to use when referring to themselves (which varies even within the group itself) and words that are historically linked with degradation and belittling a group.

Perca Cappa - I agree, and I'm glad you bring up the "sorry you were offended" point, which is a total non-apology.

Sean - Yeah, I've been there. Sometimes it's a situation where we have to judge "Is it worth it to reveal my discomfort here, and could revealing it have a negative impact or give away more than I want to to this group of people?" Unfortunately, it's not always clear.

{ Seabrooke } at: December 12, 2011 at 9:07 AM said...

Like Vic, I get really nervous about PC-ness and I have no idea what to say anymore. I call myself white and don't think of it as a slur... but will people get upset if I call them black? Or should I only be using that mouthful (and confusing, given that I'm Canadian, and what about those who live on other continents?) "African-American"? Do I refer to them as "Native Americans" or "First Nations"? Are they "mentally disabled" or is it "mentally handicapped" now? It gets to the point that I just try to avoid talking about many of these minority groups at all so I don't have to worry about offending someone.

I haven't seen this with most minority groups, but it also really annoys me that it's pretty clear that "nigger" is a hurtful slur and yet you'll hear certain black rappers throwing the term around in their songs. Like they're holding society to a double standard here - it's okay for /you/ to use the word, but it's not okay for us to? (Not that I want to or ever would; but I really hate double standards. If we've established that you find it hurtful, then please refrain from using it also.)

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: December 12, 2011 at 9:19 AM said...

Seabrooke - There's a lot of generational disconnect among black people and the use of the N-word as a term of endearment or "taken back" word. The older generations often argue that the newer generations don't fully grasp the historic connotation of the word, as they had to live with it as a common slur during their lives. The issue of "taking back" a word is a huge and messy argument. Women have tried to do it with various sexist slurs, minorities with certain minority slurs. But does it work? Can we change the meaning and power of a word by adopting it and using it in a "positive" way? I don't know. I see both sides of the issue.

I honestly, honestly have not come across many people who will get offended or confront a person for not using the "right" politically correct term. At most, I've had a First Nations friend say, "Actually, I prefer the term First Nation, but don't worry about it." Most people understand that you're trying to be sensitive and as long as you're not using an obviously offensive word, they don't mind. There are of course the fringe groups who are very adamant and confrontational about using specific terms, but they're few and far between.

{ prerna pickett } at: December 12, 2011 at 9:26 AM said...

I love your sister on Glee! She's awesome. And I don't understand it when people justify being an a-hole for the sake of being of being an a-hole. There's no way I want my kids growing up using words that are offensive to any group of people, it's just common courtesy to be respectful, whether you agree with them or not. Being kind is an outdated concept nowadays, and that's just plain sad. I know what it feels like when someone uses a term that they consider 'harmless' and inadvertantly insult me. I've walked in the mall with my family and had people whisper things like 'watch out for the arabs'. First off, I'm not an arab, I'm an Indian, get your head out of your a$$. Educate yourself on things before you open your mouth and make a fool of yourself. And honestly, when I do hear people using terms that are not PC, I think they're illiterate morons who didn't get a proper education. Yeah, when you use those words, you sound stupid.

{ Margo Lerwill } at: December 12, 2011 at 10:11 AM said...

I wanted to quote everything you said that I REALLY REALLY agreed with, Steph, but it was getting to be the whole post. So let me just say two things.

2) Saying "no offense" after knowingly saying something offensive does not magically erase the offensiveness, nor does it mean the speaker gets to get upset with the people he/she offended.

{ Emy Shin } at: December 12, 2011 at 10:19 AM said...

Your sister is so wonderful and accomplished!

Thank you for this post. It's one that everybody needs to read. I know I'm not perfect, and I sometimes say things that are offensive, things that need to be called on. However, I strive to change, to mind my words in the future.

I love the distinction you've drawn between "Freedom of Speech" and "Political Correctness." The "Freedom of Speech" card is one that's most often raised when confronted with PC-ness -- and quite frankly, if you need to defend your right to use certain word, you need to think long and hard about whether you need to use that word at another person's expense.

{ Seabrooke } at: December 12, 2011 at 1:02 PM said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Steph. Your point about generational disconnect is well-made, and doesn't just apply to PC-ness; things like thoughts on war (our grandparents lived through the World Wars, our parents through the post-war recovery, but for us it's just some event that gets taught in school and for which we get a day off in November) tend to suffer from the same problems.

I appreciate your additional comments regarding the intention versus the choice of words, too. I guess I can hope that as long as I'm clearly trying to be considerate of the person or group, unintended offenses will be let go or politely corrected.

Also, I didn't mention this in my first comment, but your sister is an amazing spokeswoman for people with Down Syndrome and their family members. I think too often we assume conditions such as this mean a person can't contribute to society or have a meaningful life, but except in severe cases, this usually isn't true. Neighbours of ours where I grew up had a daughter with Down Syndrome who became an amazing gymnast and has won several gold medals in the Special Olympics (among other events). I think in seeing individuals like this active in society it really makes you rethink what it means to be "disabled". Congratulations to your sister for her success; it's wonderful that she has a family who have supported her so.

{ Tasha Seegmiller } at: December 12, 2011 at 1:44 PM said...

One of the problems with some of these words is that people used to use them as the appropriate word and just don't understand that the meaning has changed. With those (usually older) people, once something has been explained they usually try to change their ways.

However, this is one of the biggest things I have to work through in my classes with teens, but not with the words that most people would think - most of them tend to deal with immigrants. And everything that is dumb is still gay.

Good post.

{ Elissa Sussman } at: December 12, 2011 at 2:25 PM said...

I especially agree with your point about people reacting to their own use of offensive statements. I've noticed this weird trend (perhaps I should stop watching Fox News) of people getting all up in arms because they're being call bigots for saying homophobic things. There's this sense of "I can say whatever I want, but you can't respond to what I say because I have freedom of speech." But it goes both ways, folks. You have the right to say homophobic things, I have a right to say you're a bigot.

I think the "anti-political correctness" movement comes out our (unfortunate) short-sighted memory. People like to harken back to those times before things were called out for being un-PC, thinking of them as simpler times, when we didn't have to deal with gay people or POC or people who were different then the white straight middle class "norm".

But if you've been a part of that "norm" your entire life, its really hard to understand how privilege actually works. There was this fantastic article that outlines privilege in terms of male privilege, but I think it could be tweaked to apply to privilege in general.

I think the key is to be aware that words have weight and meaning and freedom of speech works both ways. You have to be prepared to defend what you say and therefore we should all put a great deal of thought into the words we use.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: December 12, 2011 at 3:45 PM said...

Elissa, that is possibly one of the greatest explanations of privilege I've ever read. Thank you for sharing it.

Perna - Ugh. I dated an Indian guy for a while, and he had similar stories. People asking him where his turban was and whatnot. HELLO WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, INSENSITIVE PERSON.

Margo - Ah, the "no offense" folks. See, when *I* say no offense, it's usually a pretty good indicator that I'm about to say something really snarky.

Seabrooke - Thank you! We're all super proud of her.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: December 12, 2011 at 3:45 PM said...

And of course thank you to everyone for this awesome discussion! I love awesome discussions!

{ We Heart YA } at: December 12, 2011 at 6:26 PM said...

Ditto 100% what Emy Shin said.

Lol @ your response to Margo. So true, so true.

{ Jessica Love } at: December 12, 2011 at 6:30 PM said...

What a great post, Steph. As a teacher, this is a conversation I try to have with my students. I am amazed at the pushback I get from kids who not only see nothing wrong with the words they are using but also are so unwilling to give up this offensive language, even when I tell them that it WILL hurt people. I like to hope that as they have more experiences in life they will grow and be more respectful, but who knows. All I can do is just keep a conversation going about it and try to open their eyes.

BTW, I love your sister on Glee. :-)

{ Whirlochre } at: December 12, 2011 at 11:44 PM said...

I'm firmly of the view that nothing should be outlawed. The moment we start outlawing words and phrases is when the trouble starts.

That said, certain words come with centuries of provocative baggage, and a considerable armed police presence must accompany them whenever they're given an outing. So that's the C-word, the N-word, and, here in the UK, the M-word. Ricky Gervais recently tried to reclaim the word 'mong', and in my opinion, did not surround himself with the necessary SWAT team. As a result, his 'mong' comedy routine is offensive.

{ Mrs. Silverstein } at: December 15, 2011 at 7:52 AM said...

This is a great post. As an English teacher, I have a good opening for starting conversations about language with my kids. It all depends on the context--sometimes I just need to shut something down, like, yesterday, and then I just swoop in and let them know that the word they're using is "unacceptable" or "hate speech" and it has to stop. But the times I like better are the times I get to actually have a conversation about the word and where it came from, and the effect it might have. I know that kids are sometimes faking their interest, but in other cases, I've heard those kids subsequently correcting and educating their peers. I like these TV spots because they're calm and straightforward--sometimes the problem is genuine ignorance.

Also, I'm a big fan of your sister--she's really funny! Hope to see more of her on the show soon!

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