Much like the march of civilization itself, language is constantly in motion. Its trajectory is chaotic, at times frustrating, but tells us a lot about who we are and what we believe in as a society. That is, unless we just give up and whine about “political correctness.”
Political correctness is an umbrella term used by a broad spectrum of people — from well-minded intellectuals who are worried about falling behind the evolution of societal norms, to bigoted and dishonest talking heads who want to make a buck off being outrageous and offensive. Trouble is, the term itself doesn’t carry much meaning at all.
Originally, political correctness referred to state propaganda. Information was deemed “politically correct” if it was approved by the government for public distribution: Literally information that politicians decided was correct. For instance, under Stalin, gloating about a major industrial breakthrough would be deemed politically correct, whereas reports of devastating famine were absolutely not.
Today, the term has strayed outside the lexicon of party apparatchiks and into much broader use — with all meaning rapidly diluting in the process, like an aspirin in a glass of sulfuric acid. All I can say is that it political correctness is generally an accusation thrown around by people who can’t keep up with current debates on social and cultural norms, as a way to complain that said debates needn’t be happening in the first place. Basically the same way I complain about a new social media network I don’t understand, except instead of shutting off new memes, they are shutting off important conversations about discrimination.
Somehow I don’t feel so bad I’m missing out on all the ticking and tocking.
As society evolves, cultural norms change — obviously. Some changes are innocuous, like hearing a Christmas song playing at a Japanese department store in October (I write from experience). Others reflect profound changes in our attitudes and perceptions of one another.
These cultural changes are fluidly reflected in language. Imagine pouring hot water into a cold bath. The temperature of the bath will change over time, and there will come a tipping point where no reasonable person would use the word “cold” to describe that bath.
People who use the term “political correctness” want to hold on to the notion that the bath is cold. They’re used to bath being cold, they’ve always referred to it as cold — keeping that same terminology is simple and doesn’t take any mental energy away from the many things going on in their lives that they deem more important.
On the other side are those who are advocating that the time has come to call the bath “hot.” After all, they think there’s no point in denying the changes that are happening; the bath will keep getting hotter, and the faster those who called it cold come to terms with the new reality, the better for everyone. Our hot-bathers don’t have an equivalent term to “political correctness,” because what the cold-bathers would call politically correct, they would just call appropriate language.
Now, if reality were as simple as that, surely as a society we could reach some sort of agreement. And we already have, many many times. Think of words that were commonly used to describe ethnic minorities just a few generations ago and how much all of society has agreed they had to change — we’ve come a long way.
But the forward arc of history doesn’t end after a few successes. We live in the most interconnected, multicultural and diverse period in human history. To accommodate that big a global melting pot, we’re going to need a lot more baths.
The trouble with the bath metaphor is that words don’t gradually change one at a time, always in one direction. Words change rapidly, in great numbers, and sometimes those changes don’t stick, or are even reversed (sorry PETA, I don’t think “feeding a fed horse” is catching on).
In other words, we have hundreds of baths going at the same time, most getting warmer, a few getting cooler, and we’re supposed to monitor them all in real time. Doing so wouldn’t be hard per se, since we all keep track of heaps of significantly less useful information in our heads at all times. The issue is that this whole idea of tracking the evolution of language clashes with how we conceive of education.
If you’re like most people, you’re likely to go through life by first receiving a general education, then choosing what you really want to do, getting a more specialized education, then getting a job and gradually become better at that — until eventually you can retire and dedicate your remaining time and energy to extreme gardening (or Mad Max-style pillaging and anarchy, depending on how bad climate change gets).
This understanding of knowledge acquisition in line with the way our brains work. We learn more and faster when we’re young, given that we have more brain plasticity and don’t really have any established knowledge about how the world works. We form a robust overall image of the world by our mid-20s, and past our thirties most of the information we have in our minds is stored and connected in a way that’s not going to change very much until the late gardening stages.
We will inevitably add new information as we go along — someday I’m going to have to learn about plants and/or plunder — but we are wired to do so in a way that doesn’t question our fundamental understanding of the world. This stability is important because our opinions and worldview define us as individuals, and questioning that bedrock of knowledge is frightening and destabilizing. We all want to focus on moving forward, which means we can’t spend our days doubting all the things we already know.
This is an important point to keep in mind. Hot-bathers don’t have an equivalent term to political correctness (“politically incorrect” has somehow become a badge of honor), so instead they’ll refer to cold-bathers as “uneducated” or “ignorant.” But cold-bathers aren’t those things — they’ve simply either chosen not to or not been able to keep up with the most recent cultural shifts in society.
This is why most hot-bathers tend to be students or people from social minority backgrounds, whereas cold-bathers tend to be either less educated or more privileged. Those at the forefront of our most pressing cultural shifts have the greatest interest in making sure language is keeping up with culture. And rightfully so: Their rights, position and perception within society are at stake.
So why can’t we just adapt as a society and go with whatever words those concerned communities are telling us to use? There is a very strong argument that we should: If members of a minority community are telling me a term I’m using is offensive to them, I should stop using it. Doing so would cost me nothing; they’ll often even give me a new word or expression to use instead!
Except it does cost me something. It forces me to listen and reopen a drawer in my brain that I thought wouldn’t need to be opened again.
Being put in a position where we have to question what we otherwise took for granted really sucks.
Let’s take the example of comedy. Jokes we used to laugh at, told by people we respect and who had no ill-intent, are now questionable because of how much society has changed. I firmly agree with John Cleese saying (I’m paraphrasing) that any joke is fine as long as it’s funny — but humor is anchored in a cultural context, a time and place, and doesn’t make sense outside of that context.
The most edgy comedy surfs the tide of cultural relevance — that fine line between hot and cold — so by definition such comedy can never be universally funny. In fact, just how funny a joke is will depend on how many people are on the same side of the line as you, which can be tough to assess when the water never stops flowing.
That’s why a joke that works with friends (a safe space for cold-bathers) may get a mixed reception at a comedy club (a broad audience) and will invite protests on a college campus (a breeding ground for hot-bathers). And that’s how society is supposed to work, different people express different opinions differently, it’s the beauty of freedom of expression!
Except somehow it seems to be leaving everyone dissatisfied in one way or another. So how do we solve this issue? Is there a remedy to reconcile hot-bathers and cold-bathers? Can we just say the bath is warm and call it a day? Sadly, it’s not that simple.
Let’s be honest, nobody really wanted to listen to a 19-year-old university student, high on just how wonderfully complex society really is, “educate” us about topics we learned about years ago. Our ego gets in the way of us accepting life lessons from people who have barely lived.
That annoyance can easily turn to animosity when that youngster is using over-the-top inflammatory rhetoric to make their point. It’s easy before life gets in the way to become hyper-woke about a very specific topic that most people just don’t really think about.
In such situations, it’s important to remember that shutting down all conversation is not the solution. We’ve seen such polarization on both sides: cold-bathers pulling their political correctness card to cynically avoid engaging in debate, and hot-bathers using loud protests to shut down dialogue.
Communication is how we learn, as long as we’re open and aware of the importance of perpetual learning.
I don’t think we should silence the voices pleading for cultural change. Young people who want to see language adapt to their values; minorities demanding the respect they deserve — they are the powerless in our society. If their voices seem at times violent or disrespectful, it’s often because they have no other way of being heard.
In my experience, those advocating for societal change aren’t just bunch of cake-makers protesting against the word “pâtissier” because it sounds offensively French. They usually have a rational argument that deserves attention, and by focusing on how they express themselves rather than what they say, we’re weaseling our way out of an important conversation.
If there is one thing that hot-bathers can do, it’s to stop using terms like “ignorant” and “uneducated” to refer to cold-bathers. Those cold-bathers are just slow to recognizing cultural shifts, and using that kind of loaded language is far less effective then just showing them the hot water faucet.
As for those who complain about how “politically correct” our society has become, I invite you to recognize that the problem isn’t misplaced hypersensitivity, but rather your own misunderstanding about what it means to know stuff.
In our hyper-connected knowledge economy, we can no longer afford to think of education as this one phase early in life that ends as soon as we get a job. Knowledge isn’t binary — just because we learned something doesn’t mean that we know it and it will never change — especially when it comes to a topic as complicated as human society. The smart people of today are those who are constantly learning, constantly listening, constantly absorbing information and doing maintenance on the educational foundation they received growing up.
Sadly, unless we rethink the role of education in our lives, I doubt we’ll see much change in the political correctness debate. There will always be those claiming all bathtubs are cold because that’s what they learned growing up. Worse yet, those people will always be able to point to one specific bathtub that never quite heated up and say “see, this one is still cold, the whole concept of warming is ridiculous” (at least you tried, PETA).
I wish there could be a reckoning — that we would teach people about the nature of knowledge and the importance of education in school, alongside grammar and arithmetic. But I doubt that will happen any time soon.
So for now, if you want to limit yourself to comfortable circle of friends and scream about how mean and unfair college campuses have become, knock yourself out. I’ll be busy trying to keep tabs on a bunch of bathtubs.