Bad Euphemisms, Political Correctness and Censorship
It’s Banned Books Week. So in celebration, let’s look at censorship, how politically correct speech is ruining schools and why euphemisms are silly.
Does anyone really consider vertically challenged a good alternative to short? Does old really carry such a negative connotation to require us to remove it from our speech?
Some people think so. This article outlines how committees have banned words like bookworm and blind from US textbooks in the interest of sensitivity.
I think it’s ridiculous. Not just because it’s easy to see how being politically correct can be taken too extremes (the article uses the example of The Older Person and the Water to sanitize Hemingway’s famous novella The Old Man and the Sea). And not just because too often this seems to be an effort to protect groups that really feel no need to be protected (many people who can’t hear prefer the term deaf over hearing impaired, even though the former has been stigmatized as politically incorrect). But also because euphemisms rarely stay euphemistic.
Euphemisms go bad.
Words created to soften the blow of something taboo quickly absorb any negative connotations they were meant to avoid in the first place. Linguist Steven Pinker calls this the “euphemism treadmill,” also known as pejoration.
Consider moron. According to an article in American Speech in 1974 by Sharon Henderson Taylor, moron was espoused by the American Association for the Study of the Feebleminded in 1910 because it was a descriptive term, lacking emotional overtones (202). It’s pretty clear that moron has since been disavowed by the medical community and has become a pejorative.
Another telling passage from that same article:
In serious conversation about any unpleasant subject, speakers tend to choose softened terms over their blunter (and often crueler) alternatives. Thus, one will say passed away in preference to died and retarded or slow in preference to stupid. (197)
In 1974, Taylor suggested speakers replace stupid with retarded because originally, it simply meant “hindered, with delayed development, timing or progress.” Today, though, retarded has gone through a process of pejoration where it’s become a taboo, derogatory term.
More examples of good euphemisms gone bad? What about lame to crippled to handicapped and so on? Or George Carlin’s famous discussion on words that hide reality like shell shock to battle fatigue to PTSD?
My point is that attempts to create euphemisms only create a new generation of derogatory terms. As Pinker says in his article “The Game of the Name”:
The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge: give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name.
But what if the idea is to change how we think? To eradicate bad words from our speech so we don’t think in those terms? It’s a noble goal, but …
Bad words don’t go away.
Even if I give no more examples, think about all the dirty words your parents never wanted you to say. Fuck is one of the most enduring, versatile and pervasive words in English, despite it being frowned upon, hushed up, and excluded from print for most of our history.
Trying to hide the words we deem offensive simply doesn’t work. Beyond that, not only do the bad words not disappear, but spackling these ideas they represent with emotionless terms only hides the real issues and removes us from rational debate.
A study by Leaf Van Boven published in Political Psychology connects taboos to pluralistic ignorance:
… people’s desire to avoid public ridicule and to avoid being seen as racist or sexist may lead them to publicly espouse PC attitudes …. even though they may question those attitudes in private. (269)
Basically, when society seems to espouse certain values, individuals put up a front of the same. But often, it only seems that way because most people are putting up the façade with the belief that everyone else is genuine in their conviction.
True, much of the PC speak we have is a result of issues and prejudices we all struggle with. But if appearing politically correct becomes the issue, then we’re all being disingenuous. Changing the vocabulary we use only hides the issues, instead of addressing them.
Political correctness may hinder education.
I’m reading a fairly scary book titled The Language Police: Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. The author, Diane Ravitch, describes the reaction to a story about ancient Egypt, which was meant to be used as a reading exercise in standardized testing:
A story contrasted how people’s ways of living varied in accordance with their wealth and status. Some lived in palaces, others were noblemen, others were farmers or city workers. The size and grandeur of one’s house, said the story, depended on family wealth. To the naked eye, the story was descriptive, not judgmental. But the bias and sensitivity reviewers preferred to eliminate it, claiming that references to wealth and class distinctions had an “elitist” tone. The fact that these class distinctions were historically accurate was irrelevant to the reviewers. In the world that they wanted children to read about, class distinctions did not exist, not now and not in the past, either. (13)
Turning a blind eye to issues we find taboo—like race, sexuality, or disabilities—does our children no favors. This recent report in Newsweek explains not only how children innately look for differences, but also how in a study meant to increase cultural sensitivity, parents couldn’t speak to their children about race at all for fear of appearing racist.
Ravitch goes on to argue how the efforts to be completely culturally sensitive are dumbing down what students learn:
We must recognize that the censorship that is now so widespread in education represents a systemic breakdown of our ability to educate the next generation and to transmit to them a full and open range of ideas about important issues in the world. By avoiding controversy, we teach them to avoid dealing with reality. By expurgating literature, we teach them that words are meaningless and fungible. (165)
By censoring our speech and our literature, we’re losing out on the variety and colorfulness of life. We’re dulling the sharpness of language, and thereby clouding our view of reality. Yes, sometimes life’s ugly and heartless. But it’s better to see it and discuss it openly than to cast a blanket of euphemisms over it so we needn’t see it.
I think Ravitch says it beautifully: “Great literature does not comfort us; it does not make us feel better about ourselves. … It shakes us up; it makes us think. Sometimes it makes us cry.” (164)
So what are your thoughts on political correctness and euphemisms? Do they really help anyone? And what are you doing to celebrate Banned Books Week? I, for one, am reading some Kurt Vonnegut and posting this blog.
Consulted works (in case you’re looking for more info):
Andrews, Edna. “Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming.” American Speech, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Winter 1996): 389-404.
Ravitch, Diane. The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
Taylor, Sharon Henderson. “Terms for Low Intelligence.” American Speech, Vol. 49, No. ¾ (Autumn – Winter, 1974): 197-207.
Van Boven, Leaf. “Pluralistic Ignorance and Political Correctness: The Case of Affirmative Action.” Political Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June, 2000): 267-276.