These are just a smattering of words that come to mind as I contemplate divisive, political, and powerful words (both empowering and disempowering, depending on which end of the stick you get). These words help me organize my own understanding of the complexities of human bodies in a cultural context. Some are words that set my teeth to gnashing (Moslum), others are words that I imagine keep my conservative father awake at night (heteronormativity). These words are the hand grenades and whizzing bullets of our modern word war over reproductive health, human sexuality, gender politics, race, and general human-ness. While we do hurl insults and labels about one another’s beliefs, income, dietary habits, style, cars, clothes, etc., it seems that language about our bodies bites with a certain sting that the rest of our linguistic arsenal can’t touch.
From an early age I heard my dad rail against the terrors of political correctness. The twisted discomforts of minding p’s and q’s were a torture he could never abide. No politician was going to tell him how to talk, and certainly not how to think. The words he put in place of the euphemistic and jargon-y pleasantries we’ve come to love in recent decades were often vitriolic, contemptuous, and generally unpleasant to take in. African Americans were “the blacks”. Wide swaths of the Middle East were populated by “the ragheads”. And the collapse of the great American way could be attributed to one “Feminist bitch” after another.
At some point it dawned on me that the fervor of his annoyance with political correctness went beyond staunch conservatism, rugged individualism, or even stubborn rebelliousness, and was, instead, the leakage of real racism, sexism, and homophobia.
I quickly got to work constructing my young identity around whatever would oppose my father’s worldview. Where he would model rejection of countless groups based on their skin color, reproductive organs, or what they chose to do with them, I would try to cultivate radical acceptance of all people. I would seek never to judge, and certainly never to pre-judge a person based on some visible or disclosed aspect of their identity. I tried to encounter each new person with as few assumptions as possible. To allow them to define themselves if and as they saw fit and to unquestioningly accept the definitions they gave for themselves, rather than insist on those I might prefer that they maintain for my comfort or convenience.
I went to college and graduate school. I slogged through my own swamp of cultural maturation. Encountering one buried prejudice after another. Relinquishing a never ending series of crutches, life-lines, and security blankets. The white privilege. The male privilege. The heteronormativity. The entitlement. The ignorance. It would all finally stop with me. The boy-child of mid-twentieth-century social upheaval, I would be the embodiment of the brave new world.
Somehow I would master “it” without ever knowing quite what “it” is. “It” always had to do with language, though. Learning just the right terminology to prove I’m one of the good guys. Caring. Sensitive. Thoughtful. Deferential. Non-violent. Non-threatening. Accepting.
But somehow Nirvana never came. I never leveraged my considerable arsenal of terminology to shatter my ignorance, and break through into the “age of Aquarius”, or wherever it is that children of all nations hold hands and lions lay down with lambs. Where no one is marginalized, oppressed, or disadvantaged. No one is bullied or made to feel ashamed. And where I would be rewarded for my many years of wandering with a deep, unbreakable togetherness with everyone on the planet. Where I would know my place in the puzzle as clearly as a square peg in a square hole. I would finally fit and belong. I could cease my timid self-monitoring, and omnipresent guilt over being so white, so male, so heterosexual.
In other words, I never learned to talk my way to moral purity.
I’m still this wretched cultural being. Tethered to my particularity. Shackled to my point of view. Constantly transmitting my advantage like a skunk releasing stench. I just can’t help myself, it seems. The more I fuss, the more of a mess I seem to make.
The answer is not, “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.” It is not to dismiss the quest as a fool’s errand, to lay down in the road, and to sink slowly into the mud of xenophobia. In fact, my truest act of allegiance to those flower children who dreamed a dream of peace, unity, and equality (that echoes to this day) is to keep on playing an unwinnable game. To bravely walk out into the world unprotected by assumptions, prejudice, and simplified explanations of those around me.
Only now I’m ready to up the ante. I’m ready to take off one more suit of armor. I’m ready to declare before the world: You were right Dad. Political Correctness is a hollow and self-righteous practice.
In ways, it is nearly as bad as the prejudices it seeks to refute. It can behave like one more tribe seeking to assert its superiority over the rest by shaming those in the out-group, and rewarding those in the in-group with prestige and status (I speak as one guilty of P.C. tribalism, throughout the years). So, now when I experience someone trying to shame me for how I just spoke, or how I see the world, I think there’s a good bet that they aren’t trying to help me - they’re trying to numb their own pain. The pain of cultural embeddedness.
We are embedded in the natural world - air is flowing through our lungs and nutrients are flowing through our digestive systems. We are nourished or poisoned by sunlight, bacteria, toxins and chemical agents. For the time being (until we live in bubbles on the moon, perhaps) we are inextricably entangled with the natural world.
It is exactly the same with our cultural world. We can never transcend our location in the cultural ecology. We can never step outside of, or above it. We all exist as a unique individual, belonging to many assigned and developed cultural groups, and finally within a universal identity. These three dimensions of our identity are nested, intersecting, and reciprocating, just as a vibrating string vibrates at once in segments and as a whole. We cannot choose to inhabit one of these dimensions to the exclusion of the others, just as we can’t choose to stop breathing, drinking, or eating.
The hope that refining the precision of our language can pull us above ourselves - allow us to map the entire cultural landscape of which we are a part - is a noble pursuit. But those of us who pretend that such knowledge is a get-out-of-jail-free card from the embedded identities fused to our being are living a fantasy.
We all will make others uncomfortable from time to time. We all will embarrass ourselves. We will misspeak and act insensitively. And maybe this discomfort is good. It means we are extending ourselves into new territory. We are vulnerable, but also well positioned to make contact with the richness of the world, and give ourselves the nutrients to grow beyond our present limitations. If we wait around until we’re perfectly equipped with the exact right things to say everyone will have left the party by the time we show up.
So let’s talk about our bodies and the million ways they impact our daily experiences. Let’s talk about men who want to stay home to raise children. Women who like to build things. Boys who want to wear dresses. People who feel trapped in a body of the wrong sex. People who want to love in a way that disrupts historical notions of normality. Men who like to talk about feelings (that’s my favorite, personally).
Most of all let’s talk about the uncomfortable topics that implicate us personally. How we fit in, and how we don’t. How we feel trapped by our labels and definitions, rather than empowered by them. Or, how we fit traditional definitions, and how that can be just as problematic.
There is no right or wrong way to have these conversations. The judgment of those pretending there is can be just as silencing as the shame and fear that used to say we shouldn’t discuss such things at all. Let’s be clear, hate crime happens. Bullying happens. Words are used with the express purpose to hurt, belittle, intimidate, coerce, and oppress. This is not okay.
But no one word is inherently good or bad (okay, a few words are just bad, but there’s little controversy over which ones those are) – rather, “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right (Ani DiFranco, ‘My I.Q.’)”.
And, no one is the final authority on whose speech is hateful, and whose is simply distasteful. You can’t go online and check the objectionability of your language for the day, like checking the smog report in Beijing. These rules aren’t created objectively and levied against us without prejudice. We’re all down here in the muck, slogging it out together. No one is perfect.
In the end, I think it isn’t which words we choose that matters, it is our intent behind them. We may intend to inflict harm, or we may simply be reaching awkwardly across that chasm between each of us – the one that none of us can outgrow or outsmart. We just have to keep reaching.
I believe this is what Sally Kohn means by Emotional Correctness.
In closing, I’ll leave you with my favorite episode of the political-correctness-pantomime, passed on to me by a friend (paraphrased). They outsource some of their data entry work to a company in India. It has been the source of much linguistic consternation around there:
Friend: “Yeah, I suppose I can do it, but it’s going to be tedious and take me a few weeks.”
Co-Worker One: “Well let’s give it to the Indians.”
Co-worker Two: “Ummm, do we really want to call them that?”
Co-Worker One: “What?! It’s not racist. They are Indians.”
Co-worker Two: “Yeah. It just doesn’t sound right to me. You wouldn’t say ‘give it to the Canadians’, would you?”
Co-Worker One: “Sure I would.”
Co-worker Two: “I don’t know, I don’t like it.”
Friend: “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. How would we feel if they sat around talking about, “oh I got this stupid project from the Americans.”
Co-Worker One: “What do you want me to say, ‘give it to the citizens of India?’”
Co-worker Two: “No, that’s ridiculous. How about we just learn their names, and we use their names?”
Co-Worker One: “Okay, his name’s Scott.”
Friend: “No, that’s just the made-up American name they gave him to make their American customers more comfortable, so in a way that’s more imperialistic. I think his real name’s Dinesh.”
Co-Worker One: “Yeah? Are you sure? I hadn’t heard that. Besides, we’re working with more than one person. How about the Indian workers?”
Co-worker Two: “That’s worse than ‘the Indians’.”
Friend: “How about ‘Our Friends in India’.”
Everyone: “Our friends in India!”
Do you feel the juicy awkwardness? Next time you feel it in your own life, try sitting with it. Move toward it instead of away. There’s no right way to have a conversation. But two sure-fire ways to screw it up are avoidance on the one hand, and self-righteous judging on the other.
There you have it. I wish you all a very awkward life