Viewpoint by Marcelo Colussi*
GUATEMALA CITY (IDN) – Although it is not very clear – or not at all clear – what the “correct” in “politically corrrect” consists of, there is a general consensus that we must practice “correctness”, that we must be “politically correct”.
Pushed by this trend, then, we cannot say “blacks” but “people of colour” and we always have to make explicit reference to gender, among myriad others. Following the same line, we should not say “disabled” but “people with different abilities”, “homosexual” and never “poof” and “third age” instead of “elderly “ – never think of saying “old”.
In the same way, it is politically correct to talk about “indigenous peoples” instead of “Indians”, or of “sex workers” rather than “prostitutes” – of course “whores” is sacrilegious. You have never heard anyone insulting someone as “son of a sex worker!” but that would be the correct thing to do. The word “maid” must be replaced by “domestic collaborator”, and “ex-drunk” by “recovered alcoholic”. “Transsexual” has to be used in place of the offensive “transvestite”.
The intention that underlies this practice is without doubt praiseworthy; therein lies the attempt to highlight situations of exclusion, discrimination, flagrant injustice, and giving them visibility – at least in the field of language – is already a first step in the fight for their eradication. According to this logic, using politically correct language would be one way to begin fighting for change. Now, do things really change because of a change in the way they are called?
This thus leads us to question what “political correctness” is. Is it a polite way of saying things? Is it a good, socially accepted way of presenting the facts, with diplomacy, with tact? Is it an attitude of equanimity, of equidistance from everyone? Is it a real attempt to transform injustice?
Well, it can be a first step to shedding light on certain problems, raising them for discussion, but we have to be careful not to fall into a pure cosmetic exercise, in short, a situation where change is more functional for the status quo than real.
Incidentally, politically correct language has its roots in left-wing positions, but conservative discourse can also adopt it for cosmetic purposes. In addition to language, it is fundamentally important to change attitudes towards the phenomena in question, and the real relations of power that frame them which, in many cases, are transposed into public policies.
Does the fact of saying “indigenous peoples” effectively change the social relations that marginalise the “little Indians”, the “no-good Indians” or the historically excluded? Is the social situation of women who practise prostitution improved by being called “sex workers”? How and in what way is it improved? Does changing “fatherland” into “motherland” or “fraternity” into “sorority” equate the situation of women and men and achieve real gender equality, or can it lead us into questionable quagmires?
The aim of this invasion of political correctness in our lives is to begin remedying an ancestral situation, but it also brings with it the risk of creating a new Manichaeism – unjust and absurd like all others – where what is correct (difficult to define, as always, and of course from my point of view) is in accordance with good, and the politically incorrect (a position held, of course, by others) represents bad. “Hell is other people” said Jean-Paul Sartre sarcastically.
Like all formalities, political correctness also faces the danger of ending up being an empty and potentially dangerous gesture. Dangerous, insofar as it can help give the feeling that the essence of a problem has changed, while what has actually changed is only its name.
For example, the situation of women worldwide continues to be phenomenally different from that of men, although we insistently place the mark of gender on words; this change in language can, of course, imply a change in attitude, but it can also serve only to put a sheen on reality.
Political declarations, the pompous presentations of the United Nations or what the diplomat of a major power may express are always “politically correct”, but that does not mean that they are true. It is difficult for politics – the art of governing, of leading, of moving in the polis – to be correct: the exercise of power is enactment of a difference of power, of asymmetric forces.
How, then, to claim being correct in something that almost by definition does not go hand in hand, or even avoids the idea of being correct? Is being politically correct not being offensive? Diplomatic discourse is for sure. Is this what we are looking for?
It is worth bearing in mind that much, if not all, of what today is claimed as “politically correct” discourse is curiously driven by the great factors of power that dominate the world. The entire field of NGOs and their donor agencies, as well as international lending agencies (IMF, World Bank, IDB), are committed to maintaining this discourse of presumed correctness, financing efforts that are made in this direction. Curious, right?
If we pretend not to discriminate, rather than insist, for example, on the gender of the words we use, we should start by seeing and creating awareness about why discrimination exists, what power relationship is at play and, in any case, what actions must be taken to put an end to that imbalance.
The use, or if you prefer abuse, of “politically correct” language, reminds us of Napoleon’s words: “There is only one step from the sublime to the ridiculous “.
* Born in Argentina, Marcelo Colussi studied psychology and philosophy and now lives in Guatemala, where he is a university professor and social researcher. He is a member of Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: la Quinta (The Fifth). This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Spanish under the title Lo Politicamente Correcto in Utopia Rossa. Translated by Phil Harris. Views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily of IDN-INPS. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 March 2018]
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