In Defense of Political Correctness
All, or almost all, radical and revolutionary movements seem to go through a stage where they engage in criticizing the use of language. Examples of this include the the anti-racist movement, which has successfully branded certain words as unfit for use unless some pressing reason arises, and the feminist movement, which has combatted the use of various insults degatory towards women.
Yet isn’t it terribly naive to expect that word choice can have serious political implications? Do materialists contradict themselves when they engage in this form of critique as political activity? Does this form of criticism imply subjective and sentimental approach to political discourse rather than a seriously revolutionary one? Isn’t this sort of thing, while offensive, ultimately harmless and somewhat meaningless?
The answer to all those questions is no. No because offensive and harmful language is a product of definite material circumstances: Language is the way we express our thoughts and ideas; each word reflects an idea that we hold on some level. The critique of language is the critique of the ideas represented by that language and, therefore, of the material conditions that create those ideas. The criticism of language becomes the criticism of political-economy. Furthermore, criticizing the language used in everyday discussions serves to raise the political consciousness of those involved, leading them to challenge the implicit assumptions foisted on them by society.
Marx and Gramsci highlighted the fact that the prevailing ideas of every era are the ideas of the ruling class. These ideas, arising from the material conditions of oppression, permeate society and weave their way into the minds of everyone in it. The schools, the media, and other forms of public discourse and social education serve to present a certain implicit narrative of the world- the narrative generated by the ruling class. This process, and the monopoly of ideas that results from it, is what Marxists call cultural hegemony or the epistemology of ignorance. When these ideas, as they manifest themselves in everyday life and conversation, are challenged the ideological foundations of the society that produces them are challenged, and when they are allowed to pass unchallenged the underlying assumptions of society are reinforced.
It is these oppressive ideas, the default ideas of society, that are expressed by the various expressions termed problematic. In order to combat these ideas and rid ourselves of their influence, it is necessary to challenge them when they appear in our everyday lives and modes of speech. Even people who deliberately strive to oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth can still find themselves unthinkingly or habitually using bigoted expressions. That is natural and inventible: we live in a society and no-one can escape the influence of such ideas and social norms entirely, which makes it all the more necessary to challenge oppressive and problematic language (and behavior) when it appears. Those people who catch themselves using such expressions should offer an immediate and sincere apology, along with any necessary explanation of why they were wrong to do so, and anyone who hears another person should speak up to challenge them.
When problematic language is allowed to pass unchallenged that merely serves to reinforce the implicit assumptions behind the language- the assumptions of capitalist society. It maintains the atmosphere of violence and terror created by the oppression people are subject to an a daily basis. People committed to the liberation of humanity from all forms of oppression and to the revolutionary transformation of existing society cannot allow that to happen. They must challenge such language and expose the ideas and assumptions that lie beneath.