being brown

Twisting and turning through political correctness

Deepa (name changed) is a writer, apart from being a friend. She is a writer and true to being a writer, she is concerned with the use of words. She took issue with me for using the word ‘boy-cut’ to allude to a type of hairstyle that …well, quite frankly…….is alluded to in India, as a boycut. The term is understood by every Indian as a haircut that resembles a boy and his hairstyle, ordinarily. Stereotypically , the hairstyle requires a short crop, exposing the whole neck and neatly framing the ears. She was bothered by the use of the term, she said, because it was stereotypical and, therefore, not politically correct.

Another acquaintance, also conscious of political correctness in language, was aghast at my use of the word ‘common man’ in referring to the lay person. She felt that ‘common person’ would not only be more appropriate but also more sensitive and take into consideration all people. The same individual (there! I used a gender neutral term) objected to my use of ‘brethren’ when talking of a certain people. In indignation, I was asked, “well, what about sistren?”

I am reminded now of my friend, Steve (name changed), whose friend objected to his use of the term ‘person’ to refer to an individual. Apparently, the word is derived from ‘per son of Adam and Eve’. So the politically correct term would be ‘per descendant’. (Ofcourse, the fact that the descendant continues to be of Adam and Eve and not of Ram and Sita, Mohammed and one of his wives or the monkeys of evolution fame, does not seem to irk people’s political correctness).

I have been, sometimes, called a ‘midget’ to bring focus to my short stature. Ofcourse, this is done to tease me. I did not realize how insensitive this statement was until I met an American doctor to whom I mentioned that the word is used to tease me. Fleetingly, I saw shock pass across her face and immediately she donned a smile to hide her confusion.

So what is political correctness in language? And are all these instances, variations of the same theme? Then why do some appear more serious than others? And some absolutely absurd?

Take, for example, my interaction with our friend Deepa. Was she right? Yes. It is a stereotype. It says that boys usually have this haircut. And girls usually don’t have this haircut. So yes, it is a stereotype. Stereotypes are cognitive simplifications and categorizations, that ALL human beings make, to efficiently process information. So, for example, if a person is catholic and believes in prolife, it is natural for us to assume that she/he is religious and her/his prolife stance comes from her/his religiousness . But that might not be the case. However, when these stereotypes are used as category tools to differentiate, prejudice and discriminate against a group of people, then stereotypes become dangerous. Does the word ‘boycut’ discriminate against boys with that cut or girls with that cut or boys without that cut or girls without that cut? No. Does the word ‘midget’, on the other hand, imply any kind of discrimination. Yes. It carries the weight of historical abuse and political oppression of a people based on their height and physical development. Is it politically wrong? Yes. Is it wrong? Yes.

My sister and I have always been told to be correct. Correctness, it was explained to us, was to behave and talk in a way that doesn’t hurt people around you. Yes we have our prejudices, but sort those out in your own time, we were told. To make people comfortable in your company was your responsibility. It was necessary to understand the historical and political implications of our words and deeds. We were told to be vigilante and introspective. Perhaps ‘correctness’ can be used as a measure to keep from doing ‘political correctness’ to death. Because when you do political correctness to death, you kill it for all the small people , which would be plain wrong.

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10 responses

  1. Ayun

    Someone had to say it. People are just so god-damn worried about being politically correct that they forget to actually BE correct. It’s isane.

    March 8, 2010 at 4:04 pm

  2. vasu

    A good blog and well focused thoughts. Of course any good thing executed beyond its limits kills itself and so is “Politically correctness”. I hope I am being correct here.

    March 15, 2010 at 12:11 pm

  3. Ayun

    ^Vasu, haha 😀 Yeah, you’re not being incorrect 😉

    March 19, 2010 at 12:35 pm

  4. I agree. There is so such a thing as too much’correctness’ yet the line is so thin. I understand so well as i wrestle with words and their nuances and implicatin as much as their meanings. But what or who these ‘small people’?

    March 20, 2010 at 5:07 am

  5. sumanyav

    the ‘small people’ is with reference to the ‘midget’ term dealt with earlier in the post. Little person or small person is the politically correct word as also the correct word considering the history of the word midget.

    March 20, 2010 at 5:19 am

  6. shachi

    erm… some politically correct terms are rather riddiculous as well…why african-american when the contact with africa isnt at all recent?? no one says european-americans, right? also isn’t the term ‘little person’ a bit belittleing?

    March 22, 2010 at 4:29 am

  7. sumanyav

    I agree with you about the african-american bit. Infact, i would say that call all caucasians in america, European Americans. And the first nation people are the original americans. Well Little Person is the accepted political correct term for people afflicted with dwarfism. And personally I dont think it is derogatory for the simple reason that it refers to a persons physical stature. But i do see how it can be taken as belittling.

    And woman, it is quite obvious that you directly read the comments and decided to comment on that and havent read the original post. Because if you had you would know that thats eaxctly what i am saying- that political correct terms are sometimes very very absurd.

    March 22, 2010 at 10:57 am

  8. sumanyav

    but at the same time I think the people suffering indignity have the right to choose how they want to be refered to. So if African American’s believe that that is correct way of refering to them no matter how recent or not their connection with Africa is, it has to be respected. I think that is what i mean when i say, use correctness as a measure for political correctness. Dont absurdify terms, but see how terms affect the group or the people,if they are uncomfortable with it…change it!

    March 22, 2010 at 11:04 am

  9. Sonali

    I think some people here in the US do call themselves as “European” Americans if they identify themselves as “whites”( Note: I said Some not all). Same people who call “blacks” African americans, Mongoloids as Asian Americans and Browns as South Asian American. I have friends here who identify themselves as Italian American, German American, Indian American or Irish American. The hyphenated American is an ongoing debate, I believe. I think it has more to do with identifying your origins than anything to do with contact. Also I think it may have something to do with Affirmitive action too.

    I find “little people” to be condescending.

    April 27, 2010 at 2:52 pm

  10. sumanyav

    ofcourse it has something to do with affirmative action. Also as terms evolve, they take on different meanings and become unacceptable. African American could become unacceptable with time, if discrimination continues (as i am sure it does and will) and soon people will start rejecting it as racist. Which brings me back to if attitudes and behaviours dont change, changing language and labels is pointless. In the ultimate analysis, i repeat, the people who are victims get to decide what they want to be called….whether they want to identify themselves with their origin or not would be their prerogative.

    April 27, 2010 at 3:55 pm

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