Saturday, May 3, 2014

Jackasses for Freedom of Speech

Politically Correct adjective
     : agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people
     : conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated
Note the conspicuous absence of ": not being a jackass."

Political correctness has become something of a favored whipping boy (": a boy formerly educated with a prince and punished in his stead") especially on the American political Right because it becomes a really convenient way to push back against other people's rules around language in the name of "Freedom." But in so doing, "being politically correct" has become synonymous with "not being a prick," and so we're starting to see many people deciding that showing basic courtesies to others is somehow a transgression on their freedom of speech.

I've noted before that the baggage that comes with language is something that the listener carries around with them - it's impossible to insult or offend someone who either refuses to be bothered or doesn't realize that what you're saying should violate their sensibilities. I think that a number of people honestly do understand that, and many of us understand our own responsibility in this. But that doesn't obligate people to be sanguine in the face of intentional insults that are then cloaked in pushing back against the excesses of political correctness. In other words, even if I were to feel that using the words "jew," "welsh" or "gyp" as synonymous with "cheat" shouldn't be considered a punishable offense, I have no business using those words when I'm speaking to someone I know to be Jewish, Welsh or Gypsy (Romani). Or, for that matter, Egyptian. And if I do, I shouldn't claim that they have no business being offended, because I'm simply pushing back against "political correctness," any more than that claim is an appropriate defense against treating the word "bitch" as synonymous with "woman" or "girl."

One of my rules of life is: if you're going to do it, own it. If you want the freedom to say that you were gypped when your buddy jewed you after welshing on a bet, with the full knowledge of how that's going to be taken, go right ahead. But freedom comes with responsibility - in this case, the responsibility to deal with the fact that people you've offended are going to decide that you deliberately disrespected them by placing your freedom to offend their sensibilities ahead of treating them with what they understand they deserve. And whether or not the freedom argument is made from ignorance or intentional disingenuity, it's conflating two things that aren't actually the same.

For me, political correctness has always been problematic because it requires people to be aware of not only any number of potentially problematic words in however many languages one speaks, but the shifting preferences of any number of other groups (and sometimes, it seems, individuals). That's a really tall order. Understanding what it really means to be politically correct, however, is fairly simple. After all, it's in the dictionary.

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