Photo Credit: South Park, “Stunning and Brave,” S19E01, South Park Digital Studios

There’s gotta be a better argument for political correctness

Stop focusing on how offensive everything is

The language we speak and the words we use affect the way our minds work at a subconscious level.

For example, some languages don’t use egocentric directions — they don’t have words for “left” or “right.” The Australian Aboriginal language, Guugu Yimithirr, only uses cardinal directions when referring to space, which means the brains of those who speak it are conditioned from the time they learn the language to always know which direction is east, no matter what. The words they use and the concepts associated with them have fundamentally altered the way people who speak Guugu interact with the world. (Check out this New York Times article from 2010 to learn more neat shit about human language.)

When we speak, our brains extract bits of information and use them to inform our decisions, thoughts, and actions. That’s true for everything — from the way we understand abstract concepts like spatial awareness to whether or not we say undocumented immigrants instead of illegal aliens. The effects may not be as extreme in both cases, but the basic principle still applies.

The more we use certain words, the deeper they become implanted in our subconscious, along with whatever connotations and assumptions are attached to them. Eventually, those associations make their way back into our everyday life.

That’s why I think it’s important to be conscious of the things we say.

Saying “fireman” instead of “firefighter” can be offensive to some people, yes. But the reason it’s offensive is because of the implication. If it is offensive, it’s because it implies that fighting fires is a job reserved exclusively for men. Saying “fireman” instead of “firefighter” doesn’t automatically make you sexist, and any reasonable person will be able to tell the difference based on the context of the conversation.

But it’s also true that kids who grow up hearing that kind of terminology over and over again are more likely to internalize the ideas attached to those words — like the notion that women don’t belong in firehouses, for instance. Take that assumption and apply it over the course of twenty or thirty years, and it’s not hard to understand how we ended up with generations of (male) fire chiefs — and plenty of other people in positions of power, influence, and prestige — who either subconsciously or deliberately pass over female applicants.

Language isn’t the only reason, but it definitely plays a part.

This may seem obvious to some of you, but most political correctness debates completely gloss over this. Everyone’s so preoccupied with whether or not something is offensive, that they forget to mention why words like fireman, congressman, or policeman, etc. can be problematic.

People’s feelings are definitely an important part of the equation, but I like to think most people are basically decent — at least in person (the Internet is a different story). Most of the time, the people I talk about these issues with aren’t intentionally trying to offend people or hurt their feelings.

When it comes to normal, decent people with a basic understanding of empathy, I think this argument will carry more weight in a discussion about political correctness than arguments based on the potentially offensive nature of a particular word or phrase.

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