Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Way We Talk Now: Politically Correct

I have been greatly enjoying Geoffrey Nunberg’s The Way We Talk Now, a collection of his commentaries on language and culture from NPR's show Fresh Air.

In particular, this piece—from 1991—on the phrase politically correct still has resonances today:

The phrase politically correct begain its life as a bit of Marxist jargon. I suspect it was a direct translation of the German phrase politisch korrect, but that may itself have been a translation of a Chinese phrase of Chairman Mao’s.

In any event, the English translation is a happy accident for the cultural right. In the original, the word correct meant simply “right” or “true,” as it does in an English sentence like “Do you have the correct time?”—a nod to the doctrinaire Marxist view of history as an exact science. But the word has another meaning in English: when it’s applied to social behaviour, it suggests a conformity to superficial rules. You might ask which fork it’s correct to use with the fish course, or whether it’s correct to use like as a conjunction. But you probably wouldn’t ask about the “correct” way to tell your son that you’re disinheriting him.

So when the phrase politically correct came into the English language, it implied that the doctrines at stake were mere matters of fashion. Rhetorically, it does the same work that radical chic did a generation ago: it drapes the cultural left in tie-died T-shirts.
Since then, of course, the conservative right has successfully claimed the phrase political correctness as a sneering weapon to wield against liberals, often tacking on the amplifiers gone wild or gone mad to make it all the clearer how nutty these lefties, with their ideas of inclusivity and sensitivity, really are. This is a discourse not of debate, but of shouting down.

The power of language to shape opinion is still being used by conservatives today. Creationism, with its negative connotations of old-school fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism, is recast as Intelligent Design, a friendlier term which sounds rational, almost scientific. And solid old-fashioned accountability, which sounds like a positive force for democracy, is recast as the blame game and as finger-pointing, negative distractions to our right-thinking leaders.

Language has power; and the choice of words is often a political act.

(Nunberg published a new collection last year, Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times, which I’m looking forward to reading when it arrives in the library. And here's Nunberg’s recent Fresh Air commentary on the language of Katrina.)