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.