I have been thinking a lot about political correctness (PC) lately. I don’t know if it’s the inflammatory nature of the current presidential candidacy sound bites, the building discussions about race and authority figures, or the changing ideals of who is or is not supposed to go to college. Regardless, it’s been on my mind.
Sometimes politically correct speech is taken to an extreme and is the butt of jokes about people being hypersensitive. But, the truth is, words are powerful, not just symbolic. There was a sad period of eugenics in America’s history. It was a time when “less desirable” people were involuntarily sterilized to purify the gene pool. It was a barbaric practice based on labels.
Slowly, through the 1950’s and 1960’s, language and labels started to change, giving birth to the current era of PC language. It is a long and incomplete process that is still evolving, and I am not trying to guess what the end will look like. But, imagine if labels of the eugenics movement were still in place and used to evaluate people today.
Some say political correctness inhibits speech, distorts discourse or glosses ugly truths. Others say it is vital to adhere to the correct language to change thoughts. Being in the field of psychology, I buy into the idea that language, including internal self-talk, forms the basis of how we think about things. There is an entire area of psychological treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which emphasizes how our thoughts affect our behaviors and feed into or shift the way we view the world. It is a well-respected treatment method that focuses on changing our internal dialog. What we hear and learn affects how we think and view the world.
I started pondering how I am raising my child in this time of political correctness. I think we all live along a spectrum of PC language in our private lives, but I tend to move toward the end that embraces how words affect thoughts. I choose to use language that is inclusive and respectful. I want my child to learn that there are words she may hear that are not accepting and are cruel or misguided. They will interfere with her ability to make up her own mind about people, places and actions. I’d rather she start with a cleaner slate.
It may seem like too small of a step to take, simply changing a word here and there. But, if adhered to with diligence, the respectful and less charged language eventually begins to be the internal language. If that can happen for me, a person raised in a more conservative part of the country with more conservative parents, imagine what could happen with staying the course for each new generation of attentive, curious ears. It is called a cognitive shift. Generations of time may be required, but it’s worth the effort. Look at marriage equality, for goodness’ sake!
Just like the terms used to justify eugenics in the beginning of the last century are now considered repugnant and unfathomable, the terms used to separate and engender hatred will slowly abate. With different words, we form different thoughts. And, with different thoughts, we form different judgments. And, with different judgment, we take different actions. That is how PC helps us see things with new eyes. That is my hope for my child’s future.