”Saving Face” or the Grammatical Loopholes of “Polite” Language
Political correctness – either defined as a draconian attempt at thought and speech control, or an egalitarian movement to use language in ways which are inclusive, intersectional, and respectful, depending, of course, on which quarter of the political compass you’re sitting – is highly contentious. Now that I’ve killed my Flesch-Kincaid readability score in the first sentence of my post, I’ll talk about what that means and why. The trend of political correctness is, of course, to eliminate or negate traditionally dismissive, harmful, and “exclusive language” – the latter to be understood in both the contexts of “language which excludes” and “language which is useful to only one group”.
This has, naturally, manifested itself in various ways. For example, most of my generation began their teens using words like “gay” in a derogatory sense, although much of this was tongue-in-cheek. Very few people saying, “That’s so gay” believed “gay” to be any sort of negative quality. The same could not be said of every generation taught to use insults relating to mental health, mental capacity in the traditional sense, and “intelligence”. We’ve all been the target of vitriolic insults to the likes of “idiot”, “moron”, “imbecile”, “retard”, “cretin”, “dumbass”, etc. Yet, for the very large part, “adults” no longer do so.
Most importantly, the trend of using intelligence-based insults is hardly a new one. Most of these words relate to the medical lingo used in the early 20th century to describe persons with developmental disorders and learning disorders. Yet, they were preceded by similar, yet far more elegant words such as “dullard”, “dunce”, or, my personal favorite, ignoramus. (I rather like this word because it suggests contempt at the individual’s decision to ignore knowledge, rather than their lack of capacity to understand it)
People like to insult other people. But words like these are becoming increasingly less common. If a politician were to call another politician an idiot, they would be criticized. And that criticality, that “call out culture”, combined with the desire for personal freedom in the global liberal sense and the desire to be regarded as an upstanding human being, without fear of shame or reprisal, have created pushback.
Newspeak in an Orwellian Dystopia?
Few Americans have missed the opportunity to read George Orwell’s seminal 1984, a novel which is pushed on children, often before they develop the interest levels to understand it, in high school. The story itself, fairly boring and mundane, even a lot sexist, but the use of language? Fascinating. In Orwell’s dystopia, a totalitarian government strips words from the lexicon, rewriting the dictionary, and redefining what people can say in an attempt to control how they think. You cannot rebel if there are no words for malcontent. And that’s the modern liberal critique of political correctness. “Social Justice Warriors”, whoever “they” may be, are creating a draconian policy of speech to control what people can say and therefore what they are able to say and eventually, what they are able to think.
Orwell’s critique of using language to control what people think is not a new one and also not for him. 1984 was published in 1949. Three years earlier, Orwell had written and published an essay, “Politics and the English Language”, in which he criticized the complexity and euphemism in modern political language. The essay cites the euphemism as a means of deception, creating distance between what is being communicated and what is being understood. “The target was eliminated, 12 civilians retired” sounds a lot different than, “The target was bombed, resulting in the death of 12 passersby”.
Lexical Relativity and the errr Lexicon
Both of these relate to the well-known phenomenon of linguistic relativity. This principle suggests that a person’s lexicon, grammar, or language structure affects how they are able to see the world or think. Wild? Yes. But not quite as extreme as a casual think-through might suggest.
One of the most common examples here is usage of lexicon. The most common of these is the Russian distinction between shades of the color blue.
|Goluboy (light blues)|
|Siniy (Dark blues)|
Russia quite simply does not have an overarching word for every shade of blue. Just like English doesn’t have a single word to encompass the “reds family” of red and pink, even though one is just, objectively, a lighter shade of the other.
Of course, this commonly-quoted “color hypothesis” is quite often taken out of context, it’s nowhere near the intense “gotcha” which many linguists make it out to be. And it’s criticized, like every other idea. But it serves a point because it makes you think about how, for example, you classify the color pink and why it’s not just a shade of red. Categorization, or the mental categories in which you stick objects in your mind, have a lot to do with language. And that can impact how you perceive them.
It’s also not at all necessary to use a culture other than my own as an example. You could see the basics of linguistic relativity in action in a simple use of grammar by moving the Agent (object which does the acting) and Patient (subject which is acted on) around in a sentence.
- The key just won’t open the door
- The door refuses to open with this key
- John couldn’t open the door with the key
While most of these sentences personify or give agency to an inanimate object, you can see how a simple usage of framing will change your impression about what happened.
In A, all frustration is aimed at the key. It is at fault. Perhaps it is the wrong key? Perhaps it is faulty or bent? Who knows? But by the time you read B, you learn that it is the door that is at fault. The door is not accepting the key. By simply moving the position of Agency from one inanimate object to the next, I’ve reframed how you picture the situation and where you place the frustration and the blame. In C, I blame John, whoever he may be (sorry John), and perhaps he’s inept or has the wrong key, whatever, but you’re not thinking about the failings of the door anymore, you’re thinking about John’s failure.
Language frames your perception of an object and therefore how you think about it and how you are able to think about it. You can reframe it, you can put it in different ways, but your categorization of it is highly likely to be framed by how it is presented to you.
While most well-known under the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, linguistic relativity has been a part of philosophy for the history of western philosophy. The idea that language influences thought and vice versa was quoted by Plato. And, while there’s a “strong” version of linguistic relativity known as “linguistic determinism”, in which language fully shapes your ability to think (think Newspeak) most of us are very ready to agree that a strong version is complete hogwash. Removing a word from the lexicon does not change someone’s ability to think those thoughts, to frame ideas in other ways, and to simply reinvent new words and phrases (e.g., mouth breather (Stranger Things, 2016) instead of looney (Stand by Me, 1986)).
All balderdash aside, linguistic relativity has a lot of influence. E.g., as this post on Twitter points out:
(Post reads: As I’ve been removing ableist slurs  from my vocabulary, I’ve been realizing how much more difficult it’s become for me to demean people. And then I’m like [,”] oh [,] that’s the point [“]. ) (newsflash: it’s not, but it’s a nice thought) (No, really. The point of removing ableist slurs is to end the depiction and therefore categorization of a lack of able-bodied-ness as something which is demeaning. Full stop. (three times). Everything else is just a happy coincidence.)
Removing words from your lexicon can force you to actively review why you use them and how. E.g., most of us don’t actually find anything wrong with persons of “lower intelligence“. I put this is italics because I struggle to actually believe in traditional measures of intelligence. Many people who couldn’t pass a 5th grade reading test are perfectly wonderful human beings whom you’d like to spend time with, whom you could cook dinner with, enjoy life with. But, if there’s nothing wrong with being an “Idiot”, what do you mean then? You likely want to express disdain of the other person for X reason. Should you be doing that? Do you want to be doing that? If you do that, in what context?
So, you can reframe your insult from one which is valueless to one which is constructive, which better communicates your intended meaning, or which simply refrains from using the act of demeaning another human being as an objective. Removing words forces you to reframe how you engage with the world, not by making it impossible, but by asking you to think. “Like Lily Like Wilson” is a great example here.
Of course, not all “political correctness” has this amount of lexical value. For example, the reframing of “policeman” to “police officer”, “fireman” to “Firefighters”, or Justin Trudeau’s gaffe, “People-kind” hold intrinsically less value. Why?
First, the word “man” encompasses “humankind”. The root of the word stems from a word meaning “mankind” and that was the function of “man, formerly mann” in English for most of the history of the language (which, admittedly, isn’t long on the scale of things). In fact, there’s little to no evidence that traditional terms like “fireman” have anything to do with gender but rather with “personhood”. On a purely lexical basis, “man = a single instance of mankind”, and imposing gender upon it is secondary. We’ve had catalogued female firefighters since the early 1800s (as long as there have been recorded firefighting teams). Although, the “neuter” usage of “his/him” began to lose popularity as early as 1677 (Bunyan: Author’s Apology), it remained in English textbooks until the 1960s. And, the second reason is that people aren’t stupid. When you learn “firefighter”, you learn to categorize it with knowledge you pick up. A person learning “fireman” is well able to understand that this term includes men and women by using lexical categorization. This process means that you associate a word with bits of knowledge. “Puts out fires”, “rides in a firetruck”, “probably uses big hoses”, and for very specific audiences, “uses big red generators”. This lexical categorization is unlikely to change because you swap “man” out for “fighter”. What does change is any perceived slight which might be heard by a small demographic of people. So, there may be a positive effect, but it’s not as large or as interesting as most people might think, and lexically, it’s not necessarily “de-gendering” a word, although, as that is the case in popular parlance, it is likely a good shift.
What? Am I anti-SJW? Well, no. But take a word like “Nurse”, which is heavily lexically categorized with “female”, despite having no instances of “man” or “woman” in the term, and despite 12% of nurses being men.
This sort of political correctness can serve some value, but a large part of it is virtue signaling. That’s not necessarily good or bad, context is necessary, but it does mean that it has less impact than you might think.
Now, I could draw a conclusion for you, but it’s both more interesting and more worthwhile to draw your own. Mine is, of course, that the crowd attempting to use Orwellian constructs to diminish the value of a socio-political movement probably need to consider the actual relevance of how and why this might be. Reframing, recontextualizing, and considering the impact of language to those around you is not a phenomenon with which anyone should be unfamiliar, it’s a basic tenant of communication – is extending that tenant to a global and/or cultural phenomenon draconian? Or an extension, a flexibility, of a skill which we already have?