On its surface, political correctness may seem like something positive. It is the idea that we should avoid using forms of expression or engaging in actions that exclude, marginalize, or insult socially disadvantaged people. The most obvious incarnation of this is the disapproval of the use of racial slurs. Most people would agree that using racial slurs, if they are directed at someone or a group of people, is wrong. That isn’t very controversial.
But things start to get a little dicy when we examine something like say, the title of this article. Many people find the words “retarded” and “retard” to be offensive and view them as derogatory terms for people with mental disabilities. The words have become insults, hurled at people or ideas that we find to be stupid or incompetent. Though not as loathed as racial slurs, they can cause quite an uproar.
Before the term “retarded” was widely used, “idiot”, “imbecile”, “moron”, and “cretin” were used to describe people with low IQs. As these words came to be viewed as pejorative, the term “mentally retarded” came into use. But not surprisingly, the terms “retarded” and “retard” suffered the same fate and were replaced by the terms “mentally challenged” and “mentally handicapped”. This progression of terms has been coined by Harvard professor Steven Pinker as the “euphemism treadmill”. And so the question arises: when and how do we get off the treadmill?
This paradox highlights one of the major problems with political correctness. This problem, which is prevalent in many political solutions to social issues, is that it attacks the symptom rather than the disease itself. To elucidate this a bit, let’s draw a parallel to the drug war. The idea behind the drug war, at least ostensibly, is to decrease rates of drug abuse and the associated deaths and illnesses. The methods employed to this end have been prohibition and the incarceration of both users and sellers of drugs. Not shockingly, this hasn’t worked.
But why hasn’t this worked? Because we’re not going after the root of the problem but instead symptoms of the problem, drug use and distribution. The question that we really need to ask is this: Why are people abusing drugs in the first place? Though the answer is somewhat complicated and under debate, there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that addiction, including drugs, gambling, and other vices, is caused by a lack of human connection, childhood trauma, and the chemical imbalances in the brain that result. Knowing this, it would seem that the answer to our problem would not be to throw people in cages, but rather to raise our children correctly (peaceful parenting) and promote stronger communities.
Now, let’s get back to the issue at hand, political correctness. The problem that it seeks to address is the prevalence of discrimination in our culture. This is, no doubt, a pressing issue. But similar to the drug war, political correctness only really confronts a symptom of the problem, the use of specific language. Going back to our example of the evolution of terms for mentally disabled people, we can see that just as we deem a word offensive, another word replaces it that in turn becomes offensive, and so on ad infinitum. So the problem isn’t really solved, it’s just pushed back and avoided.
Like with the drug war, we have to ask the right question: Why are terms for the mentally challenged becoming derogatory in the first place? The answer is that there exists a general stigma and a negative attitude towards the mentally handicapped and those with mental illness. These stigmas can be traced back to superstition (demonic possession, curses, etc.) and to early incorrect views of mental problems (moral deficiencies). Fortunately, the fields of neuroscience and psychology have progressed and we now know that these problems are the result of underdeveloped portions of the brain, trauma, and genetic anomalies. With this knowledge, how do we approach the issue of discrimination?
One solution is education. If we teach our children that the mentally handicapped and mentally ill are suffering from afflictions that are out of their control, and that they deserve our empathy and not our scorn, we could see these attitudes change. In addition, socializing children with people who suffer from these maladies will show them that they are just people and though they are disabled, they have much in common. Contrast this with just telling kids to stop using the term “retarded” (note: this refers to it’s use in everyday speech, not as directed toward an actual handicapped person). This only teaches them that a certain word is considered to be offensive in an abstract, detached way. What it doesn’t do is attack the root of the problem: ignorance about the mentally handicapped.
Political correctness, in its current form, is entirely ignorant of context. For example, saying that “50 Shades of Grey was a retarded movie” is not equivalent to pointing at someone with Down’s Syndrome and calling them a “retard”. In the first statement, the person is saying that the movie was stupid and that they didn’t like it. In the latter example, the person is obviously showing malice towards someone with a disability (and should be reproached accordingly). Believing that these situations are identical leads one to completely ignore the role that the actual meaning of words plays in speech. Instead, a specific string of letters is demonized, instead of the underlying concepts that they point to.
Avoiding the real problem is just one of the major concerns with political correctness. Equally important are issues like the quelling of free speech and increasing government intervention on its behalf. But by taking this specific angle of criticism, we can both address the problem of political correctness and propose a better solution. And hopefully, we can address the issues of discrimination and inequality while maintaining our individual rights and freedoms.