February 29, 2008

A short argument for political correctness

(1) One is being politically correct if one is deliberately avoiding using language that others find offensive or derogatory unless one has a good reason.
(2) In general, one should deliberately avoid using language that others find offensive or derogatory unless one has a good reason.
(3) Hence, in general, one should be politically correct.

Let's take a look at the good reason clause, since it's actually doing some important work here.

Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor said many things that others found offensive. I don't think they said many things that others found derogatory, but maybe that's just because I haven't listened to enough of them. But, without the good reason clause, one would come to the conclusion, from 2, that Bruce and Pryor did not act as they should have. And I don't think that sounds right.

We could fix this by dropping the offensiveness condition, so being politically correct amounts to only avoiding language that is derogatory. But not everything offensive is derogatory -- a crude comment about your coworker's breasts might be meant as a compliment, but would still be offensive, and would not be politically correct. Similarly, to talk about lynching a black person doesn't seem to be derogatory, but it's still offensive.

So leave the offensiveness condition in, and the good reason clause. Bruce and Pryor had good reason to be offensive, I think -- they were challenging a racist, classist, and sexually repressive social order. On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be any good reason to use (as opposed to mention) the phrase `nappy-headed hos'. There was no good reason for Imus' use of that phrase, in particular, so we can still say that he did not do what he should have.

One might try to claim that challenging the oppressive social order of political correctness itself is a good reason to use offensive or derogatory language. This seems to be the typical strategy when someone complains semicoherently about political correctness -- that liberals who insist on political correctness are being intolerant, or some such. This claim assumes that it's oppressive to say that one should deliberately avoid using language that others find offensive or derogatory unless one has a good reason. That is, it assumes that 2 is oppressive. If the opposite of `oppressive' is `liberting', then the claim assumes that there's something liberating about offending or derogating people without good reason. This sounds downright bizarre to me; at the very least, it can't be assumed.

6 comments:

Drew said...

I think you've got this almost exactly right, and I used this very argument on a forum recently when I tried to argue that Jane Fonda shouldn't have used the c-word on the Today show. She could have made her point perfectly well without using that particular word. And seeing as how she was appearing on live network daytime television, she really ought to have avoided using it.

But I think you should remove the good reason clause from (1). This changes the argument only slightly, but I think it more precisely captures the way people generally use the term "politically correct". It seems odd to suggest that Pryor and Bruce were being politically correct because they fell under the good reason exception. No, they were being politically incorrect, but that's okay because they fell under the good reason exception of (2).

Drew said...

Oh, if you accept my suggested alteration, you'd have to add the good reason clause to (3). That does change the argument a bit, but it better reflects the way I view the issue. What do you think?

Noumena said...

If I'm understanding your suggestion right, then the argument wouldn't be valid.

MosBen said...

Where I find people hung up a lot is on the "deliberately" part of the second clause. "Oh, I don't know whether to call someone black or African American because there's some disagreement between people's preferences, therefore we shouldn't be politically correct at all!" To my mind political correctness has far less to do with what you say than the effect you expect what you say to have and the choice you make whether or not to continue saying it. There are statements which may or may not be offensive depending on who hears them. The controlling factor is if you know that you're about to offend someone and do it anyway. And, I should also add, after offending someone you refuse to apologize for the offense.

Drew said...

(1) One is being politically correct if one is deliberately avoiding using language that others find offensive or derogatory.

(2) In general, one should avoid using language that others find offensive or derogatory unless one has a good reason.

(3) Hence, in general, one should be politically correct unless one has a good reason.

That's my argument. I'm a lot further removed from this stuff than you are, but is that not valid?

Noumena said...

Drew -
Ahh, I see. You want to attach the good reason clause to the should, while I was including it in the definition of political correctness. For clarity, we might rewrite your (2) as `In general, and unless one has a good reason, one should avoid using language that others find offensive or derogatory'. (3) would get similar treatment. But this doesn't actually change the logical form of your argument -- it's valid in either presentation.

Ben -
I was mulling over whether or not to include `deliberately' as I was working this out on my walk home. If we want to look just at consequences, then what one should do is avoid offensive language. But we do generally give people an ethical pass for ignorance -- although, just to make things complicated, we also generally think that the ignorance itself is not acceptable.

I eventually decided to include `deliberately' because it weakens (2), and so makes it much more likely that a hostile audience will concede (2).

I don't think we disagree here at all; we're just looking at `deliberately' from different sides.