I would never say that political correctness is a bad thing – any institution that makes it social anathema to call a black person the n-word or a gay person f*g is getting no complaints from me. But sometimes I feel that I don’t know what words to use anymore, that our language is so heavily policed that it is difficult to communicate what we want to without hovering around the issue to the extent that our original point is lost.
I’m bringing this up because I’ve noticed that on tumblr, people who are making statements will often be sure to qualify those statements in the tags so as there is no possible misinterpretation of those words, and people cannot take their words and derive offense from them. I’ve also experienced the need to do this, and the nervousness which can accompany putting any sort of opinion or view on the internet for fear that I’ll get half a dozen social justice bloggers or just uptight assholes with nothing better to do than police the language of random internet users jumping down my throat.
Though I guess that begs the question if the problem is really with political correctness or with the whole structure of internet anonymity and the lack of consequences embedded in that anonymity. People seem to often loose sight of the fact that they are talking to a person – and while I would certainly never say to someone that their opinion is stupid as fuck and they are a douche in real life, I have done so on the internet.
Anyways. That got off topic.
The thing that always really worries me is how to refer to ethnic minorities. Seriously. That might be offensive. I don’t know anymore. I know African American is not ideal (because not all black people are African nor American). I think black is okay, but always sounds like it is wrong. People of colour or POC seems to be the really commonly accepted ‘right’ term, but then again, I recently saw someone condemning that term for various reasons (which I can’t remember, because I was too sidelined by the fact that POC too was, apparently, offensive).
I think the anonymity of the internet helps contribute to this anxiety. Because while in real life a person might take the time to politely correct your terminology, on the internet you are far more likely to have someone calling you a racist and delineating all the ways that you are perpetuating systems of oppression. This extends into my long-time confusion over the terms transsexual and transgender (which I don’t think I’m alone in). While a quick google search reveals the difference, you might not always remember it, and it is really easy to get confused. So when talking about trans* individuals, for a long time, I would dance around the term, being careful not to label their gender expression at all for fear of using the wrong term. I suppose that ties into a greater desire to not appear like an uneducated bigoted ass as well.
IDK. I’m not sure any of this makes sense, or what my point really is.
i think language is definitely a bigger deal online than off. this is mostly understandable, since language is the only method of communication (no inflection, body language, etc. and often no prior knowledge of the person speaking). communication online also happens in contained blocks (not like an organic dialogue with interruptions and clarifications).
i think this is largely justified. using (and not using) words as they are defined by the community they belong to is one of the most basic ways you can show that community respect and support. i mean i’m tempted to play devil’s advocate here and just say that if you don’t have confidence in your terminology maybe you shouldn’t be saying anything, but i don’t really believe in that 100%. the internet has a lot of potential for education and dialogue, and i am a fan of both those things.
on the other hand, this is the internet, and that means you’re almost always talking to a (potentially) large group of people. so:
a. the “correct” language might differ from person to person.
b. someone is always going to want to be a shit disturber.
c. you are definitely going to fuck up at some point(s).
honestly, in my own internet travels, if someone fucks up on a terminology level, if they:
b. don’t temper that apology with excuses/misdirection/”but did you have to be so rude about it?”
c. and don’t do it again
no one really cares beyond that. (unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be how it usually goes, especially with b.)
i agree that internet anonymity is a contributor. more so that you don’t empathize with the other person than that you yourself are anonymous, like you point out. it might also be the sense that “i dealt with this all day irl and now here it is again”, potentially somewhere that is their own space like their blog.
to back track a bit, there’s also the problem of how fluid and conflicted information online is. when i think of “political correctness” i tend to think of what a politician could say to not get in shit during an interview. a lot of times what’s permissible in an online (and especially a social justice context) is very different from that. i think a lot of communities have sort of beginner, intermediate, and advanced vocabulary, and while beginner is usually the baseline offline, advanced is sometimes the baseline online.
i think you maybe have more exposure to some of the more interesting elements of the social justice community than i do. i do sometimes feel like there is a superficial engagement with a lot of issues (which, i mean, shit’s complicated, and you don’t have to go into every part of everything every time-but if your stance on any social justice issue is “why can’t we all just get alooooong” i am going to start judging you), and i find that some of the people who are most invested in hyper-specific language are sometimes those same superficial people. maybe.
i mean i’m thinking more and more about my own experiences, and i’m way more likely to be aware of “correct” language (or at least the debates going on about it) in communities that i’m a part of… and i’m much more likely to be upset about it then if it’s with some one i know during the day.
on the other hand, i think debates about terminology (which will never by as precise and universal as we want it to be) at some point have to take a backseat to more practical/immediate issues.
most of the blogs etc that i read that are written by pocs use poc; i haven’t really seen much criticism of the term?
That is a large part of my trouble with online communication I think – and honestly, comes up when I’m talking to someone IRL who isn’t used to me – that a large part of what I say is embedded in sarcasm and hyperbole, and a lot of that sort of language is lost online, or is far more difficult to communicate.
I certainly agree with you that using the language as set out by the community is important, and is certainly something that I try for – but, as you point out, online it often feels as though communities of people expect commentators or people passing through to be on the ‘advanced’ level, whereas I often feel like I am constantly and continually at a beginners stage (in pretty much everything ever) – and online, people who are, as you point out, often frustrated with seeing the same shit over and over again, are far more likely to lash out than to take the time to explain again and again. And the problem with the devil’s advocate position, that if people are told not to say anything if they don’t completely understand it, then it does remove a lot of opportunities for education. It also opens a lot of doors for absolute asshattery, but such is the internet. I definitely think a greater effort towards respect on both sides goes a long way, as does the ability to say “only if your comfortable” and “no, I am not”.
Maybe I’m just parsing through the more… as you termed it, ‘interesting’ parts of the social justice community, but it often feels like a struggle to include every possible element that someone might take offence to, and often is an exhausting impossibility. And, as you pointed out, some people seem to take the most superficial approach to this – getting offended for the sake of being offended, not because the OP was trying to be offensive or was really out of line at all (such as the people who look at any representation and point out the missing elements, with no consideration to the fact that there isn’t any way to include every single element in every single representation – if that wasn’t too vague). And while I do often find myself looking at my computer screen and moaning “why can’t we all get aloooooong” to myself, it is certainly an inadequate response.
Recently I’ve been trying to cut the word ‘retard’ out of my vocabulary, as it was never something I was happy about picking up, but due to constant use by classmates, ended up becoming part of my language anyways. I told this to a friend, and a bit later we were out and I said something that she had done was ‘retarded’, and she looked at me and said ‘excuse me?!’ (you know the tone). I knew as soon as I said it that I should have said something else – I am immensely aware of every time I slip up – but having someone policing my language like that made me want to just stand there and say it over and over again (a bit of a childish reaction, I admit – though I obviously didn’t actually do it). I think this is a pretty common reaction though, to be being told what to do, and something that just gets worse online.
Thinking of my own experiences, maybe I just find the constant policing of language frustrating because I am lucky enough to be a skinny white educated cis able-bodied person who doesn’t, as a general rule, have to put up with that much bullshit (besides the constant inquiries about my sexualities from the guys I work with). So maybe this whole thing is me being a privileged dink, who doesn’t really understanding the anger and frustration that certain communities feel due to constant harassment and exclusion.
On the other hand, as you point out, there are more important issues. There is a difference between calling someone out for using derogatory language such as the n-word or f***ot, and debating whether or not ‘queer’ is an appropriate term due to its history as a slur, despite the LGBTQ communities reclamation of it.
(Most of the POC blogs that I read by POCs use POC as well – I think it was just the one random person… it was mostly that it kind of sidelined me with the whole “really, that too?” of it, where I wanted to wave my arms in the air and give up on talking).
although that does make me think more about my own background-not only as a fairly privileged person, but also not having had language used against me very much. most of the times i’ve had slurs etc thrown my way have been in situations where i was able to laugh/write that person off as an asshole and carry on my way, not in a situation where i felt very threatened. also, coming from a very rural conservative background where no one learns these kinds of vocabularies; whenever i come across someone who calls someone else out and then tacks on any kind of “how could you not know this/you’re uneducated” i get really uncomfortable, because i think of how many people i know who, despite their intelligence/ethics/anything about themselves, simply don’t have the language.
i mean i guess i usually feel that anything which encourages people to talk (to each other, not pontificating) and question is good, and anything which discourages that should be looked at pretty critically.
ok, that is childish, and i give you judgmental eyes over the internet. but it’s hard to change your vocabulary (i remember like two years ago i was like i am going to stop blaspheming with other people’s religions…and well…you can see how that’s going). and i think that it is legitimately frightening how complicated the world is, that i will never know or understand everything, that i will make mistakes and probably hurt people, and that there probably are no real answers (see: why i find doing math proofs soothing). and maybe a lot of times people feel like they can make these things less difficult to deal with by being able to talk about it? and i think that’s true, but not to the extent that we maybe want it to be. i mean you can be capable of using all the right language but still be ignorant of history, current events, and real issues.
i think maybe sometimes “political correctness” gets hijacked on the internet actually in the form of tone policing and some other common responses (like the person who shows up on a blog about poc to inform the world that we’re all people and they’re being divisive).
one of my favorite sj blogs has this post about the role of niceness in social justice, which i think sort of informs my thinking on why a lot of people get upset about being told their language is wrong (and is also really fucking interesting). on the other hand, the fear that you originally wrote about is different in my mind. maybe related, but different. i mean i think it stems from not wanting to hurt other people, and acknowledging your own ignorance. and i don’t know if there’s anyway around this other than to listen a lot, to know you’ll probably fuck up, and to be ready to keep listening and learning and apologizing. and maybe to try to remain aware that those fuck-ups are things you did, not you yourself?
i feel like i’m veering wildly off topic now, but i know one of the other things that scares me off of these kinds of discussions on the internet is the permanency of it. the ignorant/not-pc shit i said in conversation 3 or 4 or however many years ago is basically gone, but something on the internet can stay attached to you forever.
i just tried to write a concluding sentence but i JUST DON’T KNOW.
Like you said, the very few times I’ve had things said to me it wasn’t in situations where I’ve ended up feeling threatened, and though I’ve yelled at people for the language they have used, it wasn’t actually directed at me (a supervisor called another employee f*g over the headset and I bitched her out for it, another time a coworker kept saying he was “jewing it up” getting free meals from the company and I almost punched him). But it those situations the people very certainly knew better. Like I said, there is language that everyone knows is unacceptable, and language which enters into that kind of nebulous debatable environment of political correctness and community-approval.
I guess I think that the best reaction would be patient explanations rather than any sort of holier-than-though lecturing or policing – that is far much less likely to provoke a childish reaction such as a complete shut out of what the person who was offended might be trying to explain. While I sympathize with the degree of frustration that people who are faced with providing these explanations over and over again experience, snapping at people is just going to make them snap back, and make them far more likely to remain ignorant. Discussion is important, rather than just yelling at each other. I always really appreciate it when I run across blogs who answer questions with patience and politeness every time, no matter how inappropriate the question or rude the asker.
That article is AWESOME by the way.
I guess overall (to rephrase what you basically already said) it is kind of impossible to take everything into consideration, and we have to move through life with the knowledge that we might at some point say something to put someone else off, but with the conscientiousness and willingness to listen and change should someone raise an issue with your language or knowledge.
We just have to try our best, and continue educating ourselves. And keep in mind that fear of fucking up should not stop you from trying.
i just realized while editing that you basically ended this with “everyone try your best!”