09 June 2011

Political correctness

According to a handout I've seen used in some English classes in Russia, a man can be arrested in the USA for holding the door open for a woman, and white people can be arrested for attempting to enter a blacks-only establishment.

Sometimes these kinds of stories are part of the "Americans have no common sense" genre of humor. But the specific target of these two stories was "political correctness," or "politkorrektnost'," which has supposedly reached absurd lengths in the USA.

Sometimes I wonder why some people here, including some of my students, are so ready to believe these stories. It's not that some such incidents could never have happened somewhere. After all, among all the urban-legend lawsuits cited in favor of tort "reform," surely somewhere an absurd case did happen. But you don't need to condemn civil justice or political correctness; sometimes the explanation is just stupidity.

Two factors seem to increase the likelihood that my students and their families might believe in the absurdity of political correctness USA-style, particularly in connection with race. The first is the longstanding tendency to compensate for Cold-War propaganda of the past, when Soviet mass media regularly informed its audiences of instances of American injustice and racism. (Sadly, of course, these reports were not without foundation!) To the more jaundiced members of the audience, however, all reports from TASS and Pravda were taken with a grain of salt. If the Soviet media said it, it probably wasn't true. Perhaps American minority groups were not doing as badly as the Soviet press claimed.

Secondly, the English-language instructional material I see and hear is overwhelmingly white. Images and voices of English-speaking people who aren't white are available to my students primarily from imported television shows and films, usually dubbed with Russian voices. I don't even want to talk about music videos, in which black people are typically shown festooned with jewelry and reliably delivering all the other gestures and cliches of that genre. (So are white people, but audiences usually make subconscious allowances for the behaviors of their own race or group.) In the face of these inputs, I have ninety minutes a week with most of my classes in which to present a more accurate representation of the diversity of English-speakers.

Am I right in observing that the terms "politically correct" and "politically incorrect" are now almost always used ironically or critically? Maybe the most accepted positive variant is "inclusive language," but that term seems to refer mostly to gender inclusivity. Is there a straightforward, positive umbrella term for all efforts to use language in ways that don't objectify and demean groups and categories of people? What seems to be happening now is that those who support political correctness continue to use the term half-humorously and half-apologetically, often in quotation marks, willing to endure the double irony for the sake of easy reference. Example: this "sample paper" for English students.

The best reframing I ever heard for "political correctness" came in the context of a controversy over gender-inclusive language and hymns at First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana. This must have been twenty or more years ago. As we were slogging through some difficult discussions, Mary Garman of Earlham College gave a guest sermon one Sunday morning. She suggested that the language we use is not just a matter of comfort within the community; it's also a matter of hospitality. When we "widen" our language to include more people, we're welcoming those who might have felt invisible in the old language--and that's an outcome that's worth some discomfort. That's a dimension of evangelism, not a political "win" for a faction of the church.

Translator and Moscow Times columnist Michele Berdy wrote a helpful guide for Russian teachers and students of English, "Bias-Free and Inclusive English." (PDF file.)

"What is something you feel you can’t say in church or around other Christians?" Michael Hyatt (Thomas Nelson Publishers) interviews Anne Jackson, part one, part two.

"The Search for the Historical Adam"--a survey of current conversations and controversies around Genesis and science. "...Michael Cromartie, the evangelicalism expert at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, sees high stakes, calling the new thinking an 'urgent' and 'potentially paradigm-shifting' development with 'huge theological implications.... How this gets settled is extremely important.... 'It seems urgent that the best people stop trading emails and get together for a real meeting in the same room,' Cromartie said. He wants leading evangelical thinkers in science and Scripture to jointly work out an accord, because otherwise this problem 'could produce a huge split right through the heart of conservative, orthodox, historic Christianity.'"

Seth Godin: "Three years ago this week, I posted this checklist, in the naive hope that it would eliminate (or perhaps merely reduce) the ridiculous CC-to-all emails about the carpool, the fake-charity forwards, the ALL CAPS yelling and the stupid PR spam."

Dave Katzman describes "Pinetop Perkins's Last Session."

"Over 28% of GRAMMY Award categories eliminated for 2012."

The Space Shuttle photographed with the International Space Station. And here's video.

Lightnin' Hopkins: "And if you ever have the blues, remember what I tell you. You'll always hear this in your heart."


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Johan, I liked this essay!

You ask, “Am I right in observing that the terms ‘politically correct’ and ‘politically incorrect’ are now almost always used ironically or critically?”

As it happens, we had a discussion about political correctness recently on my Facebook page, in the course of which one friend asked me what I personally thought the term meant. I began my answer by quoting Wikipedia: “Political correctness ... is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and doing so to an excessive extent.”

I then said that, while I was basically in agreement with that definition, I would modify it in two ways.

First, I’d remove that laundry list of specific issues (“occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts”), because the concerns that political correctness focus on tend to change over time. The list was much shorter in the 1970s than it is today. And it was not only shorter but different in flavor — less liberal, more patriotic — back when the term was first introduced, in the 18th century. Our definition should be flexible enough to recognize the existence of political correctness even when it takes different forms among different groups. (And that might be a good point to raise with your Russian students: can they identify some form of it in their own society?)

Second, I said, I’d remove that final clause about “doing so to an excessive extent”. The fact that it’s a part of the Wikipedia definition would seem to suggest that the answer to your original question is a yes. But there is this to consider: We all think it’s excessive when it’s someone else’s form of political correctness, but we never think it excessive when it’s our own. I would say we need to be able to recognize and discuss the phenomenon without deciding in advance whether a given example is right or wrong, good or bad. So I’d drop the value judgment and use the term objectively.

That leaves, “Political correctness is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense.”

How does that work for you?

Incidentally, I do like politkorrektnost!

RantWoman said...

Thanks for a really interesting post.

For me, "inclusive language" has much mor positive associations than political correctness but I am not sure it does all you want from the generalized term you are asking about.

I agree with Marshall, I think it would be very interesting to hear how your students do or don't relate to either political correctness / politkorrektnost' or inclusive language in their own country.

Do students of their generation even see inclusiveness / broader representation as a value?

In the US values about inclusiveness often play out in organizations' "diversity statements." Would looking at selected samples of these provide both language study value and more space to discuss these themes. These almost always are on an organization's website.

Is there anything at all like organizational diversity statements these days in Russian organizations?

Pat Pope said...

"I don't even want to talk about music videos, in which black people are typically shown festooned with jewelry and reliably delivering all the other gestures and cliches of that genre."

As an African-American, this explains some of the reception and skeptical looks I get from some immigrants to the US. It's as if they've been told not to trust blacks or that we're all one way. It's something to be looked down in your own country by people not from the country. That tells me that media, and old prejudices that get repeated and handed down are their source of information.

agulizia said...


I had never thought of inclusive language in the church as a form of hospitality. Courtesy, certainly, but not hospitality...framing it that way makes it seem more necessary. However, I thing that it is possible to exclude, as well as include, by using politically correct language. For example, I was at a hymn sing in a liberal meeting. We were taking turns choosing hymns, and I chose my favorite hymn, "This is my Father's World." When we got to the third verse (see below), using a green-covered Quaker hymnal whose name I have forgotten, it had been completely rewritten, evidently to conform to the sensibilities of liberal Friends. Perhaps it was impolitic to say that God rules the world- after all, some Friends are atheists or pagans and don't believe that. Maybe calling God "Lord" was too hierarchical. Maybe calling God "King" was sexist. All I know is that, by the time we finished the verse, I knew I was never coming back to a hymn sing there because the "inclusive" hymnal they used had largely erased the God that I have experienced first-hand.

Verse 3
This is my Father's world
And let me ne'er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet
This is my Father's world
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is king, let the heavens ring
God reigns; let the earth be glad!

Johan Maurer said...

I like the way Marshall has modified the Wikipedia definition. I'd still like to find an alternate positive term. Maybe what irritates me about the term is its innate cynicism--that's how the word "political" comes across to me. It implies that a politically correct formulation doesn't reflect a heartfelt value, but is instead angled to pander to the audience's sensibilities. Cynics who charge us with political correctness are implying that we have stated things to gain the approval of progressive opinion-leaders--or perhaps of oppressed people whose heroes we secretly yearn to be. Maybe I'd rather be "spiritually responsive" than politically correct. Spiritual responsiveness should lead to political integrity.

I really do look forward to another chance to talk over these themes with students, but I'll have to wait until the fall. One thing that gave me pause this year was a student who explained her apparent lack of engagement in our classes on the Freedom Riders by saying "We're just not interested in American history." I tried to point out that we're not trying to create Americans in our classes, we're trying to talk about being human--in good English, of course.

Pat's comment reminded me of all the times I've heard Russians ask about places in the U.S. that might have come up in a discussion or text--"Aren't there lots of Negroes there?" It's hard to untangle all the thoughts that jolt through my mind when I hear this question, First, I'm never sure whether it is a completely neutral question or whether there's a value judgment about such places--and an assumption that I'd share this judgment. Sometimes my worst fears are quickly confirmed; there's a sort of naive racism I've seen both here and among immigrants in the USA that cheerfully repeats racist memes ("they multiply like rabbits") that might make an American bigot blush.

I have not seen diversity statements in Russian organizational self-descriptions. Employers here are free to specify sex and age in situations where to me they seem irrelevant. Private ads offering or seeking apartments often specify "Russian"--using the word "russkie" meaning ethnically Russian, not "rossiiskie" meaning Russian citizens. For more resources in this general area, see this site.

Agulizia's comment reminded me of our discussions at First Friends in Richmond, and also at Earlham School of Religion. We've also had similar conversations at Reedwood Friends Church. For many at all three places, the main concern was to use inclusive language when referring to people, while encouraging people to refer to God with language that truly reflected their own experience. At First Friends when I was there, we were still using another denomination's hymnal--without rewritten lyrics--and participants were simply encouraged to substitute pronouns and metaphors as they needed to. Some of us could sing most traditional hymns with relative ease but simply couldn't get through such lines as "Strong men and maidens meek..." or a triple bypass such as "O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother." Those who can sing "Thou my great Father" might not be able to sing "I Thy true son" once they have left the linguistic Garden of Eden that others still feel comfortable in. The best thing about the discussion at First Friends was that we really did love each other enough to confess our misgivings openly, wherever we were on these questions. Mary Garman's concept of hospitality didn't solve things instantly, but was another way for us to understand how we could continue to be in fellowship despite large differences in opinion.

Karen Street said...

I often find the areas in which I am most likely to generalize about someone else's beliefs and behaviors to be the most fertile for examining my own.