The Maven has this to say: “Let’s get two things straight here: first, the expression to call a spade a spade is thousands of years old and etymologically has nothing whatsoever to do with any racial sentiment. The second is that in spite of this, some people think it is a racial statement, and therefore it should be treated with some caution.”
So we should be careful that those who hear our use of an expression are not offended regardless of the intent or context in which the expression is used. This would be “politically correct”. However, it requires that we first know whether, or not, someone will find it offensive. Practically speaking, you cannot know whether a stranger will find a word offensive or not. Consequently, you may not use some words and phrases in public ever for fear of offending someone somewhere.
This, my friends, is the essence of “political correctness”: to remove from the lexicon any word, phrase or expression which describes something in a way that some people do not want it described.
So who are the arbiters of political correctness? In practice, anyone who claims to represent any minority or political persuasion other than “conservative”. Ironically, the word “conservative” is meant pejoratively by these same people while conservatives think of it as a badge of honor. Euphemistically speaking, the word “conservative” means “right-winger” which means “nazi” which means “selfish, mean war-monger” in the lexicon of liberals. In the same way, “liberal” means “left-winger” which means “socialist” which means “communist, mooch, peacenik” in the lexicon of conservatives.
The difference is that conservatives are not allowed to play the “political correctness card.” That card lies solely in the hands of liberals – sort of an Ace-in-the-hole if you will.
There exists a disturbing trend in this arena. Those of us who are inclined to express ourselves without deliberately offending readers who we are attempting to persuade of something are restricted when it comes to words. When we find ways to express ourselves without using words and expressions considered politically incorrect, we are accused of using “code” words which means code for something politically incorrect.
That trend leads me to believe that the problem is not actually the words, but the ideas which are meant to be suppressed.
An example of this issue is the use of the phrase “illegal alien.”
From the website of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists come these excerpts (of excerpts) regarding the use of certain words/terms
- Alien – A word used by the U.S. government to describe a foreign-born person who is not a citizen by naturalization or parentage. In modern times, with science-fiction growing in popularity, “alien” has come to mean a creature from outer space, and is considered pejorative by most immigrants.
- Illegal alien – Avoid. Alternative terms are “undocumented worker,” or “undocumented immigrant.” The pertinent federal agencies use this term for individuals who do not have documents to show they can legally visit, work or live here. Many find the term offensive and dehumanizing because it criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States.
- Illegal immigrant – While many national news outlets use the term “illegal immigrant,” this handbook calls for the discussion and re-evaluation of its use. Instead of using illegal immigrant, alternative labels recommended are “undocumented worker” or “undocumented immigrant.” Illegal immigrant is a term used to describe the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. People who are undocumented according to federal authorities do not have the proper visas to be in the United States legally.
- Illegal – Avoid. Alternative terms are “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker.” This term has been used to describe the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here.
- Immigrant – Similar to reporting about a person’s race, mentioning that a person is a first-generation immigrant could be used to provide readers or viewers with background information, but the relevancy of using the term should be made apparent in the story.
- Undocumented immigrant – Preferred term to “illegal immigrant,” “illegal(s)” and “illegal alien.” This term describes the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here.
- Undocumented worker – Preferred term to “illegal alien,” “illegal immigrant,” or “illegal(s).” This term describes the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here.
For the sake of clarity, here is the definition of “illegal alien” as far as Dictionary.com is concerned:
a foreigner who has entered or resides in a country unlawfully or without the country’s authorization.
a foreigner who enters the U.S. without an entry or immigrant visa, esp. a person who crosses the border by avoiding inspection or who overstays the period of time allowed as a visitor, tourist, or businessperson.
This is an excellent example of political correctness and its intended result. The NAHJ advises journalists to avoid using the actual word or phrase which accurately and legally defines the immigration status of certain people and replace it with one which obfuscates the legal status in the minds of the readers of NAHJ members. “undocumented” makes it sound as though it is an untaken step in a process or that the alien lost his documentation. In other words, the alien just doesn’t possess “documents”. The lack of documents doesn’t necessarily mean the alien is here illegally any more than the lack of a drivers license means you haven’t actually applied for and received one – you might have lost it or left it at home.
And here is the definition of immigrant:
a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.
an organism found in a new habitat.
As anyone who can read English can see, the intention of the NAHJ is to soften the term “illegal alien” to something more palatable to the illegal aliens while obfuscating their true status by eliminating anything to do with illegality. That’s a bit like re-wording “infestation of rats” to “uninvited hosting of mammals.” It sounds a bit better to the rats, but unfortunately, it doesn’t change reality for the “hosts.” Illegal aliens are here illegally. They might have all sorts of rationalizations for their status, but rationalizations don’t change the status or the law.
Analogy – I love analogies.
Suppose I am 5’8″ tall and weigh 800 pounds. The medical community might classify me as morbidly obese. Further suppose that I am in a state of denial about my condition and referring to me as morbidly obese causes me stress. I don’t want to be classified at morbidly obese. I don’t want to be reminded that I am morbidly obese. I decide to fly to San Francisco to visit my mother. It might go like this:
Ticket agent: Good afternoon sir. How may I help you?
Me: I’d like to go to San Francisco on the next flight.
Ticket agent: We have space. However, you will have to purchase an entire row of seats.
Ticket agent: Our policy is that persons so obese as to be unable to fit into one seat must purchase as many seats as is necessary to accommodate them. You look like about a row.
Me: Oh no you didn’t!?!
Ticket agent: Sir?
Me: You said “obese.”
Ticket agent: Yes?
Me: “obese” is a politically incorrect, pejorative term.
Ticket agent: I’m very sorry sir. How would you prefer to be described?
Me: As girth-enhanced.
Ticket agent: Girth-enhanced?
Ticket agent: Our policy is that persons so girth-enhanced as to be unable to fit into one seat must purchase as many seats as is necessary to accommodate them.
Me: You called me obese. I’m thinking about suing you or bringing other girth-enhanced citizens here to demonstrate against your airline.
Ticket agent: Sir I’m just trying to do my job and follow airline policy.
Me: No you’re not. You’re trying to hurt my feelings by calling me obese. I can’t believe in this day and age you would use such a term. You are a bigot!
Ticket agent: Again sir, I’m very sorry about using that term. Can we start over again?
Me: Don’t change the subject.
Ticket agent: Sir I am only trying to get you on the flight to San Francisco as you requested.
Me: Don’t lie to me. You are trying to hurt my feelings, insult me and humiliate me in front of all these other customers in line.
Ticket agent: Well, its true there are others waiting in line.
Me: See! You admit that you want to humiliate me in front of these other passengers.
Ticket agent: Sir, may I please get you ticketed?
Me: Yes. I don’t want to be around people like you any longer than necessary.
Ticket agent: Ok. Now which row of seats would you like to purchase today?
Me: Row of seats? Did you just say row of seats?
Ticket agent: Yes sir. As I explained our policy…
Me: I demand to see the “policy!”
Ticket agent: Yes sir. See right here it says that ob…
Me: WHAT?!?!? Were you just going to say the o-word again? You were. You were just going to say the o-word again. I can’t believe this.
Ticket agent: Well sir you asked to see our policy.
Me: Yes I did. And I don’t see that it says anywhere in it anything about “girth-enhanced”.
Ticket agent: Well, that’s what it means when it says obe…
Me: Oh. So now you’re going to use code words?
Ticket agent: Sir I’m just trying to get you to San Francisco as you requested.
Me: I didn’t request to be insulted and abused by some skinny bitch.
Ticket agent: Sir what do you want me to do? Your enhanced-girth condition requires that we use up an entire row of seats to accommodate you. Those are seats we won’t be able to sell to other passengers. If we don’t sell the seats the airline will lose money on flights and ultimately go out of business.
Me: Well you should have thought of that before you decided to be prejudiced against the girth-enhanced.
Ticket agent: Sir please. What can I do to resolve this situation amicably.
Me: That’s better. You can sell me a seat to San Francisco – not a row. That is what you would do if you weren’t prejudiced against the girth-enhanced.
Ticket agent: Sir in order to satisfy you and move the line along I am going to make an exception to our policy. However, I would like you to know that it will require that I reject three other passengers who won’t be able to fly in the other seats in your row.
Me: Well that’s their problem isn’t it? Those skinny jerks are probably all prejudiced too. (Raising my fist and shouting “girth power!” as I waddle to the gate only to find myself stuck in the door, causing the flight to be cancelled.)
Actually, it would be much easier, more accurate and descriptively correct to call a spade a spade….