I will admit that I am a hypocrite.
Especially, when it comes to being politically correct. Sure, when someone refers to the human race with the word ‘man,’ I’ll be the first to call him or her sexist and ignorant, not to mention just plain retarded — which my roommate has informed me, time and time again, is totally offensive. Yet I still use the word. Especially when it comes to describing a socially awkward boy I liked for a week who then turned out too “macho” to fulfill my desire for a “little gay boyfriend”. You know, the straight boy who can dress well, cook gourmet, cry at movies and calls himself a feminist. Those are my favorites.
Have I offended you yet?
I hope so.
Normally, I would never say those things. Well, at least not to people I did not know, say, the readers of the Yale Daily News; people whom I do not know well enough to know whether or not it is “safe” to say those things.
Here at Yale, it is not safe to say those things (in public at least). In a liberal institution of higher education such as Yale, we don’t often hear that kind of blatant prejudice and stereotypes, especially not from a self-proclaimed liberal such as myself. Here, being politically incorrect in public is not OK. No one wants to offend anyone. We try to use the latest politically correct lingo when identifying people. We debate over whether to say ‘black’ or ‘African-American;’ who can use the “n” word and how.
The answers to those questions are not always obvious or predictable. They depend on who is speaking, who is listening and the context in which this conversation is taking place. Nevertheless, there is immense value in just asking these questions. They are questions that come from our recent attempt to be more politically aware and culturally sensitive. By paying attention to the way in which we speak, we are made more aware of the needs and concerns of others. We are acknowledging the diverse set of people and ideas and cultures that surround us. And we are acknowledging the significance of words.
Yet sometimes our desire to be politically correct quells dialogue. Our fear of being offensive causes us to censor ourselves. Instead of saying what they really think, people say what they think they should say. Rather than talking about the real issues, we talk around them. In an attempt at being politically correct, people foreclose the possibility of having an honest conversation, of revealing their true prejudices, and of being held accountable for their thoughts and practices, politically correct or not.
In a real sense, politically correct discourse is far more insidious. It allows people to hide behind their words, for it gives the impression of tolerance and fairness and understanding. It allows us to ignore the intentional and unintentional prejudices we hold. It allows us to forget the racism and misogyny and homophobia that pervade society. Were I not an advocate for equal rights for all humans, including women, gays, lesbians, people with disabilities, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native-Americans. I might not be able to say the things I said before. And although I do believe in equality for all, it does not mean that what I said was therefore excusable. I do buy into stereotypes. I do use politically incorrect words. I do harbor certain assumptions and prejudices that are unfair and harmful. Yet had I not written them down, had I worried about offending you, had I been entirely politically correct, you might have never known I did.
Politically incorrect speech presents us with the opportunity to call one another out. It holds the potential for real dialogue where the speaker is forced to come to terms with his or her assumptions and prejudices, and where the listener can inform the speaker about the power of his or her words and the fallacy of such thinking.
Now, I am not advocating that people revert back to using racial epitaphs and telling sexist jokes. Words are messy, complicated little things that possess an unruly amount of power. They can provoke and incite. They can hurt and upset people. They can cause irreparable damage. And there are some words that are so loaded with decades of discrimination and hate that I think they are better left unsaid.
Yet there is a difference between hate speech and offensive speech. Hate speech is violent and meant to inflict harm. It is saying politically incorrect things with the knowledge that they are hurtful and unwelcome. Offensive speech, while it too can also cause harm, is usually less malicious and its effect less understood. It stems more out of ignorance than out of sheer hate. Therefore, it can provide a locus for dialogue, for a rational and productive conversation about the word and its implications. It demands that people express their feelings, acknowledge their inherent prejudices, and work to improve themselves as well as their relations with others. Honest speech, as difficult and painful as it might be, is one way we can begin to break down the walls of hate and intolerance and misunderstanding.
Della Sentilles is a junior in Silliman College.