I don’t try to offend, but nor do I go out of my way to be politically correct.
In fact, in many instances I find that attempting to live a daily life of political correctness is a bit like walking on a bed of nails: You’re in a painful predicament no matter what you do, until you hop off that particular surface.
And to me, those who insist we be politically correct at all times may be focusing on just that – surface rather than substance.
Shall we consider a few examples?
Is it politically incorrect to tell a co-worker she’s looking beautiful this morning? What if you say she’s looking “hot” instead? Is it politically incorrect to tell that same colleague that her skirt is too tight, too short, and she ought to save it for her slutty nights out on the town with her girlfriends?
Slight variations in wording change everything, don’t they? (Okay. That third variation wasn’t so slight.) Still, would political correctness (and fear of a sexual harassment suit) banish all of them from the office? Two out of three, just the last, or does it depend on the context?
If one woman says any of these to another woman and jokingly, does political correctness fly out the window? And if a man were to say any of them – then what?
Has political correctness gone too far? Would that determination be entirely subjective and case-specific? Is political correctness too focused on the words we use (or don’t), as opposed to the acts and principles of respect that guide us in our beliefs and behaviors?
Care for more (Franco) fodder pulled from recent news?
French Government Bans Mademoiselle
I was reading Huffington Post this morning – two separate articles referencing the French government’s (most recent) insistence on no longer making marital status distinctions on forms. The first is a report of the French banning the use of Mademoiselle. The second is an article looking at American usage of Miss, Mrs., and Ms.
In both cases, obviously, this impacts women, as men are called Monsieur in French (like “Mr.” in English), whereas women are designated Madame or Mademoiselle (Madame, Mrs. or Miss in English).
But in France, it’s a little more complex than that. The Madame / Mademoiselle distinction has been more about age and respect than marital status. (If you read French, you can check the details, dates and history.)
In an attempt to be more politically correct, the French are striving to eradicate Mademoiselle from usage as well as forms, and dish up a single term to indicate sex, which is Madame for females.
In case you’re wondering, in the Middle Ages, there was a corresponding masculine term for young boys – demoiseau – which eventually fell out of usage. It will be interesting to see how many generations it takes for Mademoiselle (“Miss”) to disappear from everyday parlance, if indeed it ever does.
Definition of Political Correctness
I wanted a definition of political correctness, but decided to put one together in my own words first, curious to see if I could do so. For one thing, I lived through the period of time before we were all “politically incorrect” and rallied (in my youthful idealism) around some of the changes that transformed us into equal opportunity non-offenders.
I’m also a wordsmith, and political correctness – like it or not – remains more about words than actions, which is precisely part of the problem I have with it.
Yes, language matters. We shape our self-image with the terms we use in our heads – our admonishments, our self-praise, or echoed labels from troubled childhoods or the epithets we hear in disrespectful circles. But words are one thing, and actions speak louder than words, right?
I won’t pretend that certain terms don’t offend me. There are relatively few, and among them – never – something as (seemingly) innocuous as being called Miss rather than well, whatever. And I certainly wasn’t bothered by being called Mademoiselle when I lived in France, or even “Young Lady” by someone 30 or 40 years my elder, here in the States.
But I cannot abide racial slurs, religious slurs, ethnic slurs, and believe it or not – one or two sexually explicit nouns and adjectives that might surprise you – when used in name-calling, or intended to describe a woman’s sexual activity in a derisive fashion.
I find I’m more often offended when a stranger (typically a man) refers to me as “Dear,” “Hun” or “Honey” – one of many theoretical terms of endearment that intentionally or unintentionally demean adult women.
In my opinion.
Getting back to political correctness, I would define it as:
Use of terminology which is neutral and non-offensive in the politically sensitive contexts of public speech, educational institutions, the workplace, the media. This terminology would seek to avoid any sexual stereotyping or offense pertaining to gender or sexual preference, as well as any racial, ethnic, or religious stereotyping or offense – intended or otherwise – communicated through language.
That’s my definition, and I promise – I did not peek!
What do I find elsewhere as a definition of politically correct? Something more succinct and in a way, more revealing:
demonstrating progressive ideals, esp by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgmental, esp concerning race and gender… often involves changing or avoiding language that might offend anyone, especially with respect to gender, race, or ethnic background…
“That might offend anyone… ” Yikes! That’s a tall (impossible?) order! But note, political correctness is about use of language intended to support a broad set of “progressive ideals.”
Content is King. Wait. Make That Queen!
Some believe it is the message content that matters most – the substance rather than the delivery or tone. It may be true in online venues, but in good communication that content incorporates tone, smartly delivers on deft diction, and nonetheless considers context.
It’s undeniable that the same words will offend one person and not another, as each recipient brings his or her own experience to interpreting the message. Likewise, the circumstances in which we use or receive a communication are enormously important.
What makes the statements above concerning a woman’s appearance potentially offensive?
Who says it, where it’s said, how it’s said.
And note – in today’s world, we have signs of our (lingering?) male dominated society everywhere. Context is king (not queen) in a language and land where older men are still trying to exercise power over the bodies of young women. We have only to look at the flood of attempts to enact legislation to that end.
Miss, Mrs., Ms., Ma’am… So?
One of the comments left on the second article I reference essentially says the following, and I’m paraphrasing:
Who cares if we’re called Miss or Ma’am or Ms.? Don’t we have more important things to worry about as women, like 77 cents on the dollar when it comes to pay as compared to men, like reproductive rights being challenged at every turn?
As I’ve gotten older, I couldn’t care less if someone calls me Miss or Ma’am; I always signed or ticked off the check box marked “Ms.” even after marriage, though I always secretly wished I had a Ph.D. so I could sign “Dr.” and mess with the system!
I do care when forms unnecessarily ask marital status and go so far as to include single / married / widowed / divorced. These marital status distinctions seem archaic and irrelevant, though it’s worth noting that the one exception – possibly – is the physician’s office where men and women both check these little boxes.
I return to my premise that perceptions of others as well as self-image are shaped by the words we use. Would we tolerate racial slurs any longer? Religious? Sexual preference?
What about age? And to me, the issue of Mademoiselle / Madame is more one of age than of marital status, whereas the American usage of Miss / Mrs. is explicitly about marital status.
Sexual Harassment, Politeness, Intention
In one of my former corporate jobs, I was the only woman working with a team of great guys. I was in my early thirties as were they; I was single, they were married. Our jokes were sexual in nature, our language colorful, our camaraderie very real, and our productivity high. We worked together for years and loved it.
During that time, sexual harassment rules (and required classes) made their appearance on the scene. We hated it. We understood the reasons – the idea was to ensure respectful language and behavior in the office – but suddenly we couldn’t joke in the way we always had, and fun seeped out of our interactions – not entirely, but noticeably. Playfulness (intention) was bludgeoned by enforced political correctness.
One could argue that the debate over Miss, Ma’am, Mrs., Ms. and so on is hardly politically inflammatory, especially as these terms are frequently used without any intention to offend. But there are no such diminutive or marital status distinctions for men. Subconsciously, are we encouraging women to feel lesser, smaller, secondary? Or do we rely on each person to specify what they want to be called?
A young woman in a new workplace is not going to feel comfortable bucking the norm – whatever that norm is. For that matter, I suspect a young man who is also inexperienced wouldn’t either. So do we continue to insist on all sorts of terminology dos and don’ts to protect our potential sensibilities? Do we view rules of political correctness as society coming of age, and beginning to do the work of equal respect for all people?
But what about the underlying discriminatory belief systems and behavioral issues? Do we stick to the surface and assume we’re done? Do we roll up our sleeves and talk reproductive rights for women, pay equity for women, jobs for women – and options for women over 50 at that?
Am I being too direct? Should I pose the question in a more politically correct fashion, and in so doing, illustrate the drama of political correctness itself – by obscuring the very point that I might wish to make?
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