War of the Words

Words (Photo Credit: "©iStock.com/iSebastian") “Words, words, words”, said the Bard. Weird little collages of hard and soft sounds pieced together to convey meaning. Nobody really knows how many there are in the English language, because defining the suckers is really quite elusive, but most experts pin it above a cool million. Add approximately another 6,500 unique languages to the mix, and the conversation quickly brings on a dull headache.

Truly, linguistics is a complicated and inexhaustibly fascinating field about how we think and communicate with each other. To the layman (myself), the working vocabulary is substantially smaller, and then within said range, a hierarchy of meanings develops that produces winners (those loaded with significance), and losers (the ones your high school English teacher penned out as “fillers”).

For a long time, but increasingly in the past few weeks, a few of society’s collective “winners” have made headlines. First, Alec Baldwin called some reporters "fags" ... and then did it again. Jonah Hill continued the anti-gay trend, while Donald Sterling dove headfirst into the deep end of the racist pool. His gimmicks had landed him in not only deep, but hot water with the NBA and general public, when Gary Oldman decided to throw him and his companions a lifesaver by accusing Hollywood and the general society of hypocrisy and of taking this whole emphasis on the meaning of words too far. “Political correctness” is fake and annoying, according to Gary.

Naturally, all of these men have apologized in some form or the other (yes, technically Sterling did say 'I’m sorry'). They acknowledged their error, and the importance of words. Jonah’s Jimmy Fallon show mea culpa was so heartfelt, he practically rewrote the textbook on how to say “my bad”. Regardless of varying degrees of sincerity behind the respective retractions, clearly public opinion and the widespread condemnation of harmful words motivated the apologies. Op-Eds, news sites, and E! sung a chorus of harmonious admonishment. Harmful words hurt, and have no place in society.

But scroll a bit farther—to the comments section—and the narrative appears far less settled. While media faces adamantly distance and demolish the perpetrators, a resilient, and from my experience, growing, contingent of people on the receiving side of televisions and tablets shake their heads. Having watched word after word stolen from their mouths and locked shut in the seemingly limitless vault of societal heresy, the “normal” people are sick of losing control. So, they bring themselves to the keyboard or coffee shop, and it begins something like this: “I’m not racist/homophobic/sexist/anti-semitic, but I am totally against this PC thing… It’s gone too far. They’re just words!”

When was the last time you heard somebody declare they were Politically Correct and proud? If you’re scratching your head, that’s OK, the question was rhetorical. Politically Correct has become taboo.

Importantly, the culprits responsible for this hijacking are not the racists/sexists/homophobes/anti-Semites (insofar as everyone is a little bit of these). Rather, the pioneers of PC rejection were those confident in their own impartial judgment of other peoples’ identities. These people weren’t bigots, and naturally, they didn’t need to worry about silly little words. Saying the 'N-word' is fine as long as you know you don’t hate black people. Calling a friend a 'fag' because he’s complaining about finals isn’t a big deal because nobody is talking about gay people. As long as you aren’t a white-Tea-Party-Evangelist-gun-owning-South-Carolinian you’re in the clear because you know deep down you don’t mean it.

The popular counter-argument goes something like this: Words do matter. They are frequently imbued with nasty histories that are inseparable from contemporary meaning. In fact, the past produces the present definitions and connotations. Drawing on this linguistic theory, critics explain hateful words are very damaging to certain groups of people who may associate even flippant references with oppressive pasts. Out of concern for our fellow man’s feelings, then, we must watch our mouths.

Evidently, people aren’t biting. The problem is most people know they don’t mean any harm when they use hate words, at least not to demographic the word victimizes. Because people are so sure they are pure-hearted, they must be faultless.

Instead, the “other” assumes blame when feelings are hurt. Essentially, anyone who takes offense at an unbiased person’s innocent use of an offensive word is unjustified. The victim is “too sensitive” and doesn’t properly understand how “not racist” the perpetrator really is. Plus, the counter doesn’t address my personal favorite anti-PC barb: “Well, obviously I’d never say _______ if I were actually with _______ people.

The truth is human beings are likely to value the thoughts that inhabit their own minds daily over an abstract group of peoples’ “feelings”. The other truth is that Political Correctness if not about the abstract groups’ feelings, it’s about you.

Everyone seems to acknowledge, to the point of universal mild-mannered acceptance, that everyone is a little bit racist (…and the rest of the laundry list). Yet as soon as that hyper-self-aware notion is sufficiently noted, the unpalatable thought retreats back to its home in the segregated part of the brain reserved for “intellectual liberal sensibilities only”.

Let’s integrate for a moment. We are all a little bit racist. Better yet, we are all a little bit scared of things that are different. Call it human nature, evolution, self-interest (in the political sense), or what you will. No matter how well we know our just method, our unjust proclivities crop up somewhere in our head. The key, as with all things unchangeable, is to adapt. Bias is inherent, but actions are entirely our own.

Every time we speak, we are making a choice. From infinite options, we select and arrange words into sentences that convey specific meaning. In few spheres of life are the possibilities so vast and outcomes equally as deliberate. Our process is now so wrapped in daily routine we barely register the extraordinary effort required, without fail, every time we make words, sentences, paragraphs.

So, here’s the bitter pill: your words reflect who you are as much as your inner-self dictates your speech. Understood as a conscious choice, the decision to use hate words over upwards of literally a million other options says more about you than any other utterances will.

Speech presents an opportunity, like any other action, to consider your natural tendencies and move beyond them. In recognizing the extensive decision-making required to form language, both the enormous responsibility and potentially devastating consequences, as well as the possibility for transcendent self-improvement, become apparent in the process of speech.

Speaking is self-reflection. Talking is an occasion to remember ugly instincts and actively choose the high road. Conversation is the chance to expand beyond our narrow world and tap into the consciousness of other peoples through identification and the deployment of select phrases. Dialogue is not a given, but a window through which we may display the brilliant dream of our self we seek to realize. Lazy ignorance to the extravagant choices before us every day is nothing short of accepting that our base nature rules the will. Your worse self prevails. Only so long as you choose, of course.

In the end, I love language because it is freedom. No wonder, then, why I’m not particularly fond of rhetorical questions. I am—or at least I try to be—Politically Correct, and I am proud.