Social Issues

Is Political Correctness Helpful or Ineffective?

Political correctness: helpful or ineffective?

Political correctness drives some people crazy, while others think that being careful about language is necessary to keep from causing offence. There are all kinds of people out there being intentionally offensive (just look at Twitter), but to what extent should we as a society go hunting for it when it’s not intended? I don’t think there are any absolute answers, but I wanted to explore some of the possibilities in this post.

What is political correctness?

Google defines political correctness as “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” Britannica‘s description focuses on exclusion through the use of language.

An MIT professor interviewed by NPR suggested that “politically correct” first started to take on negative connotations in relation to Black Power, multiculturalism, and affirmative action in the context of universities back in the 1960s and ’70s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it started to be used in a pejorative sense on a wider basis. Its use in a negative sense has been on the rise, and Donald Trump was a particularly prominent critic of political correctness.

Whether or not something is politically correct isn’t about objectivity. Certain forms of expression are considered pretty universally offensive, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Being PC (or not) is about subjectivity, and where one falls with respect to ambiguous language. For example, “all lives matter” sounds like a good thing based on the words, but it’s the opposite if one is familiar with how it came to be used as a slogan. I don’t see hate speech as being part of the same conversation, so I do think it’s possible for people to be anti-PC but also very much anti-hate.

The euphemism treadmill

One point that’s worth considering is that language can reinforce prejudice, but it doesn’t create it out of nowhere, so changing language alone isn’t enough to eradicate underlying negative attitudes. This is reflected in what Steven Pinker termed the euphemism treadmill, whereby terms become tainted by negative attitudes toward whatever it is they refer to, so they’re replaced by another term that means essentially the same thing, but is untainted… until, with time, it picks up the taint and needs to be recycled.

Word change alone may temporarily appear to reduce prejudice, but it doesn’t produce a lasting change unless something is done to get at the underlying attitudes. An emphasis on word change, followed up by word policing, also assumes that everyone will stay up to date on the latest acceptable term and stop using the discarded term. That’s very unlikely to be the case, though.

Reactance

Then there’s the concept of reactance. When you tell people what to do/say or not to do/say, and they perceive it as infringing on their rights, their inner 4-year-old will push back, and they’ll be inclined to do exactly the opposite of what they were told. Speech tends to be perceived as a fundamental freedom, so telling people how they should talk has a good chance of producing reactance, and therefore the opposite of the desired results.

When pushing for the use of politically correct language, if the focus is all about what to say and not to say, the strong possibility of reactance may outweigh the potential benefits, especially if it makes them write off what people who are different from them have to say. In my mind, that creates a much worse situation than people saying not quite the right things. We may use different terminology around homelessness, but if I get annoyed at being told what to say and decide I don’t give a shit about the homeless issue in general, that’s a bigger problem. Disagreeing about language shouldn’t get in the way of all being able to recognize the underlying issues.

Public opinions

According to 2020 figures from Pew Research, Germany, France, the UK, and the US, were all about a 50/50 split (+/- 10) on opinions on whether people get too easy offended or people need to be careful what they say to avoid offending others. In the US, there was a big difference depending on political leanings; 65% of left-leaning people were concerned about avoiding offence compared to 23% of right-leaning people, which is a huge difference. Republicans in the US and Brexit Leavers reported negative views of political correctness, and equated this to cancel culture.

An article in The Atlantic describes two groups debating political correctness on Twitter: “Team Resentment,” consisting primarily of older white men, and “Team Woke,” made up primarily of young, female people of colour. In reality, the “exhausted majority” of people don’t fit into either team, and are generally averse to political correctness.

The potential downsides

A common raised concern about political correctness is that it creates offence where none was intended, such as if someone used the last correct word/phrase on the euphemism treadmill because they’re not aware of the current one. This can make people reluctant to speak about a subject at all, as they might inadvertently offend someone and face social sanctions as a result.

At the same time, you’ve got marginalized groups, whether that’s based on race, class, disability, gender, or what have you, who are sick of the shitty attitudes that really are out there, PC language or not. Shitty language just adds an extra layer to the bigger shit sandwich. Easing up on political correctness shouldn’t have to come at the expense of adding to their already super-size shit-wich.

Whether or not one thinks political correctness is a good or a bad thing, what I think is most important is not get so caught up in language that it stops us from telling and hearing our stories. Perhaps we can move past whether or not we’re offended by particular the words someone uses and talk about our experiences and feelings, and the commonality that draws us all together. I care a lot less about the words people use to describe mental illness than I do about them knowing that stigma makes it hard to get decent healthcare. If someone wants to talk about how unfair it is that the mentally ill can’t access needed care, I don’t give a crap about them referring to us “the mentally ill.” Attitudes matter, and sometimes words are a distraction from those attitudes.

Maybe, instead of focusing on politically correct speech and talking over other people, we’re better off doing a whole lot more listening. It’s very hard to understand anyone else’s experience without listening, and making assumptions based on our own experience doesn’t accomplish a whole heck of a lot.

What do you think of the potential advantages and disadvantages of political correctness?

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69 thoughts on “Is Political Correctness Helpful or Ineffective?”

  1. Speech used in public is quite different than speech used at home, or amongst the similar…so remembering and using the PC terms means nothing in the long run – tho it does perhaps alleviate hurt feelings in the short run. I haven’t been called a derogatory word in years but I have been treated in a derogatory way…yeah, words have power, so do actions. Right now I am all turned around with the changing pronoun maze…I’m a bit too old to start using plural pronouns in the singular yet I have no negative opinions at all about people deciding who they are – it’s all good to me. And yes, a part of me thoroughly understands non-binary, but either develop a whole new singular/plural pronoun system or pick a gender, any gender, just pick one. Tho you know I am going to my grave fighting Ms with every passive aggressive bone in my body. I am not a manuscript!

      1. Depending on the situation, snarky as I can be, I use a gentler approach. I use the Ms (no period, it’s not an abbreviation) when addressing strangers, certainly with young people (and considering I am soon to be 75, that’s just about everybody). All of this PC stuff has the upside that now whenever you have to fill out a form your preferred form of address is one of the questions, as is your preferred pronouns. And bless their hearts, those preferences are actually adhered to. It’s must be a royal pain in the patootie to be constantly on one’s guard.

  2. PC is KILLING us in so many ways. I would much rather someone be truthful and be offensive than someone who stabs me in the back and takes away my freedoms. besides, who gets to determine what is and what is not offensive? It is in the eye of the beholder. PC is leading us down a very dangerous, slippery slope down the road to Socialism and Totalitarianism, a path I have NO desire to ever go down!

  3. One thing I hate is when people are referred to by their race as “blacks” or “whites” instead of black people or white people. That sounds so derogatory to me, as if you’re talking about cowboys and Indians or something. And “the” and get the blacks or the whites, and then I’m really peeved. People are individuals first and foremost.

    I’m not sure how fast the treadmill works, because some PC terms seem much more acceptable than the old ones, like developmental delay instead of retarded. Sounds much nicer.

    I stumbled down a rabbit hole before bed by reading an article about a trans person. The whole article kept referring to the person as “they”. It was confusing to me and seemed to butcher our fine language, and the commentors agreed with me. I’m not sure what the answer is there. But one thing that confuses me is that, if you’re trans, why don’t you just use your preferred gender’s words? (Like, the opposite of your birth gender.) I’m sure there’s an answer to this, and I just don’t know it. But “they” just really trips me up and fries my brain when used repeatedly in an article.

    1. With pronouns I figure it’s just like a person’s name; if they want people to call them by a certain version of their name or certain pronouns, that’s their call. If I know their name/pronoun choice and decide that I’m going to with my own choice around what to call them, I could consider that arrogant and disrespectful on my part.

    2. I use “they”, and many who do believe there’s more than the 2 genders of men and women. For example, multiple cultures have had 3 or more genders, before white colonialism. I get that singular “they” can trip one up. Though most forms of English do use singular “they”: “Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Could you please let them know where they can get it?”

        1. Yeah, probably because of a lot of history, I think? Like if a society doesn’t accept gender neutral stuff, maybe it gets reflected in the language.

  4. I think the goal of avoiding needless offense in language is a good one. However, the things I do not like with respect to political correctness:

    1) The over-active policing of non-PC language. It doesn’t actually change offensive sentiment, it is strange to tell people how they have to refer to themselves, it can stifle or take away focus from necessary and productive debate, and it’s often a weird form of distasteful self-righteous virtue signaling.

    2) The way PC language / concepts can be used to mask policies that aren’t working. I think we could have a lot more positive change if it were possible to have real, data-based discussion (and listening) let go on the policies that are politically correct / politically expedient.

    1. Good points. And governments are always so short-term and election cycle-focused in their thinking, while real social change takes consistency over the longer term.

  5. Great post, Ashley! You really covered all the points. I do believe that making it unacceptable to use ethnic slurs is important because it dehumanizes people. The argument that “they” use it among themselves is irrelevant. Jews mock themselves all the time, but others should not. How hard is this to understand? Yet you hear this same idiotic argument repeatedly regarding the N-word. So what if Blacks use it? They have the right to.

    I have no issue with online platforms banning ethnic slurs, misogyny, threats of violence, etc. Why would you want to have that crap where kids can access it? It’s not freedom; it’s just bullying so certain groups feel unwelcome. But it does get difficult for even a well-meaning person to keep up with all the things that offend people and I personally have drawn the line at not giving a crap about whatever offends transfolks. I’m not going to stop using the word “mother,” for example.

    But no it doesn’t lead to socialism lol. We had loads of banned words and concepts back in the 50s, a time rightwing capitalists idealize. Hell, they couldn’t even show a married couple sleeping in the same bed on TV. And god forbid there was a mixed race love affair…

    Nothing new under the sun, eh?

    1. Always new ways to judge and demonize other people.

      I hadn’t heard of the mother issue before. Taking a quick look at a few articles on Google, it sounds like that was individual instances of a few trans men who’d given birth and were very legitimately fighting the system, and it morphed into something it never should have morphed into. It seems like a good example of PC gone wrong. Instead of changing the system so that trans men can be identified the way they want to identified, PC language demanded that people not use the word mother rather than actually doing anything to treat unique individuals like unique individual.

  6. Excellent post about the pitfalls of being politically correct. I never really thought much about these, so I’m appreciative of your post. I guess in the end some people can’t help but interject their own attitudes, good or bad. So, making it about listening is indeed a good move.

    1. I think it really comes down to what’s most likely to promote positive change, and as is the case with mental illness stigma, that may not always be what seems intuitively like the best course of action.

        1. I don’t think it’s necessary to throw in the towel, but some methods are more effective than others, and that’s not necessarily easy to predict without hard data.

  7. I really struggle with this. As a person, I am always brutally honest and I speak my mind. I don’t try to be nice when I’m not and I will not lie to look better or get my way. I know some people really enjoy my honesty but I also know that I hurt people because they thought my directness and bluntness were particularly aimed at them, so that I was bad mouthing them in a way.
    Due to me taking almost anything literally, thank you autism, I struggle with the example you used: all lives matter. As, when taking it literally, I can see it as a positive thing, everybody matters, we all should be treated as equals with respect. But then I found out that it was to be taken anything but literally and then I was lost again… Because I learned that it meant that some people thought themselves more worthy than others… (if I understood it right in the end).
    I sometimes do think that people can be more easily angry and offended these days. Plus, I’ve found out that some things really have different measures. I was bullied by a few guys of color, they called me names, chased me through the street and threatened to do stuff with me… Offensive stuff. I was called an arrogant white b*tch. When I told someone about this, still shaken up, I said that I felt like this was racism. They attacked me because I was white and female (and in those day, obese). But that person got all upset because “that’s not how racism works”. 🤔 Really, still confused about that one.
    So reading this made me wonder again… What is acceptable and when? And more importantly, why is it acceptable, or maybe not?
    For someone who struggles dearly with social things, this is a very tricky subject. I am always afraid of making people upset by saying or doing the wrong things, often I just keep quiet…
    Sorry about my long reply… It just really got me thinking… 😊

    1. It’s a very tricky subject, and people will always find something to be offended about if they’re looking for it.

      I’ve heard that idea that some people think white people by definition can’t be targets of racism, and on a systemic level, sure, but on an individual level, a white person can be targeted because of their race just as much as anyone else can. That kind of racial targeting is never good, no matter which races are involved.

      1. Thank you for your kind reply! And yes, it does feel like some people are just looking for everything and anything to feel offended about these days.

        I think that’s what happened with the person who I was talking to, indeed… I don’t like racism, but I know in the heat of the moment, I can fall for it as well, mostly in a curse that I only can hear… (for instance, my upstairs neighbors aren’t of Dutch origin, and they like music that I really hate… Some days, they play it till after 1AM when I have asked if they could turn it down after 11 as I need to get some sleep due to my chronic illness. So when I hear that howling through the floor, yes, I’ve cursed about my stupid foreign neighbors that don’t care about others). But I always try to be correct, not hateful or anything else offensive… But as you wrote, some people already act offensive if you just say “good day” to them when passing them on the path you’re both on….

        1. I would hate it if I had loud upstairs neighbours, especially at that time. I’d be tempted to bang a broom against the ceiling around 5AM to wake them up…

          1. It gets even worse at times…. She denies that it is her washing machine thumping though my apartment ceiling… But occasionally I wake up in fright because of the thumping noise at 2:30AM. I asked about this, twice, and she keeps saying it’s not her washing machine… But there’s too much rhythm in it to be something else she likes to do now that she has a new boo…. Ugh…. Loud people, that’s for sure. I am always excited when I see her get in the car with her boo after her son is picked up by his dad… It means I get a few hours without any noise! I am thinking of playing some Rammstein at 7AM some day though… Poor neighbors below me 😂

  8. We think PC allowed well-meaning white liberals to feel like we were doing more to combat racism and promote equality than we really were—especially in institutions like universities and places of worship. Systemic racism persisted, even strengthened, but as long as we listened to NPR, had the right bumper stickers, and kept up with euphemism treadmills, we pretended racism was dead. We were fragile and poor allies.

    We are waking up now.

    We agree that gender political correctness is more challenging to” get right “ than some other kinds. In cancel culture, who wants to risk fucking up terms? It puts a chill on dialog. We agree with you that listening and getting at ideas/feelings/needs/lives experience has real benefits and the word choice can be secondary.

    Many people don’t give a crap about any of it, including progressive ideas. Before the election, Older Child and we saw this flag/banner in a rural yard: “FUCK YOUR FEELINGS. TRUMP 2020.”

    This makes listening even more important!

  9. As a person of color, the term political correctness oftentimes is used as code language to shut folk up who are pointing out when they or others have been treated horribly. Folks will rush to use the word or cry ‘woke’ or snowflake to get focus off the said horrid treatment. That said, it’s important to call each other out when folk being hurtful and nasty to one another. The term needs to be retired, imo. It’s just like pornography def: you know it when you see it. Folks take liberties on line feeling anonymous. They say horrific things under cover of being unknown. Then, when discovered and called out fall behind the words ‘cancel culture’, ‘woke’, ‘political correctness’, and the like. No homie you just being mean. We need to respect one another’s culture. If I tell you the N word is terribly hurtful, apologize for using and keep it moving. Don’t give me a history lesson of why other POC can use it in rap music!🤬 We ALL must own our word choices. As a black woman, for 52 years I am forever chastised about being angry over this or that. Am passionate. What’s wrong with that? And, quite frankly us black chicks have an awful lot to be pissed about. Don’t believe me research maternity deaths, healthcare, redlining yada yada. WONDERFUL read.

  10. Great article! I’ve wanted to talk more about it but it’s a huge subject to broach, especially for someone as tangent prone as I am 😂. Im uncomfortable with anyone who tries to control speech because it’s a hop skip and a jump away from authoritarianism, and not just among the people who oppose it. The left is fortunate that they control the cultural values of the United States because in the few times we’ve seen the lens of political correctness turned on them, they haven’t fared well.

    But as you said, it’s not overly important to the average person (which might not be a good thing in the long term). People scoff when it’s mentioned that the USSR also had a long list of things one couldn’t say and that turned out to be a pretty bad thing for the average citizen.

    I could go into a TANGENT about how it’s deeply related to the feminization of men but that’s for my own blog, perhaps. Lol

    1. I think our society has messed up the whole gender socialization thing altogether, but that’s another blog post.

      I think governments and the media have a responsibility to be clear in the language they’re using. A little while back I was pissed off because a legit journalist used the word psychotic as synonymous with violence. Given that’s not what the word means, and that’s probably the most damaging mental illness stereotype there is, and he was reaching a wide audience, I took issue with it. But in general, absolutely, trying to control speech is a slippery slope.

      1. Yeah, ideally people who can’t think or write wouldn’t be employed by news organizations but as you said they’re writing for the average, not for people who know what psychotic means.

  11. This is an excellent post Ashley on a topic that makes me always second guess if what l am writing is right or wrong. I believe in being true to yourself, but not offensive to others and yet at times, people can become so easily offended at the drop of a hat.when no offense was ever meant.

      1. Indeed, even writing on a personal level can be difficult, maybe you even recall a few years ago someone had a go at me because l was using the language used against me as a child by my father and they took offense that l had even deigned to write the words and wanted to report me to WP!

        They were just eager to take offense.

  12. I have worked with so many different people and so many of them use different expressions. I have seen misunderstandings when someone used a term that hurt someone else. It’s made me almost unconsciously adopt a natural diplomacy, which means I have been able to deal with even very volatile situations. But even in general, when you choose to exercise some care and choose your words wisely, people are so much more likely to respond warmly and to be reasonable and open to discussion even on sensitive subjects.

    But I have realized that there is almost an art to gracious speech, and if it does not come naturally, it can take effort to improve communication skills.

    I am from the North of England, and although I value the general candour – there is sometimes a “call a spade a spade” mentality, or sometimes a little too much “jokiness” accompanying a rather brutal combination of words that the listener is expected to take in good humour. I think people do feel proud in a sense of that honesty and openness, but I have also seen others, especially those who did not grow up in the North, feel offended by that kind of direct speech. But at the same time when I moved to the south of England, I found that sometimes a very polite manner from someone was not always sincere. Sorry this is not really just a north/south thing, but I did notice a difference in communication. When I moved to London, I saw how many different cultures are living in close proximity and I saw even more that considered choice of words has powerful and positive force, whereas careless choice of words can cause distress.

    1. I think it also makes a difference to choose words with clear meanings rather than words with more ambiguous meanings that don’t have the same connotations for everyone. Travelling and working with people from foreign countries or different regions can make it easier to choose language with greater clarity.

  13. Thank you this is so insightful! You’ve made me realize that though I am entirely non-discriminatory (I think and hope!), I’ve been too focussed on the language when it’s the attitude that makes up the real issue. I particularly appreciate the idea of the word treadmill and thanks for this crucial remind; I agree!

  14. Generally, I’m in favour of using language that doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but it’s attitudes and actions that really matter.

    1. Yeah, ideally using non-offensive language would be good, but sometimes it’s hard to predict what might end up hurting someone’s feelings.

  15. This will likely be a lengthy comment.

    I have had mixed feelings about political correctness for many years. This is one reason why I meet weekly with the linguistics professor whom I often mention in my posts. He is very clear about distinguishing whether something is a straight-up example of the euphemism treadmill, or whether it falls into the more legitimate category of “reconceptualization.”

    In the latter category, the changing of a word that has become pejorative is justified not merely by a temporary reprieve from pejoration, but also by a conceptualization of the term that is clearly superior to the previous way that the issue was perceived.

    For example, consider the suggestion that “homeless” ought to be replaced by “houseless” — a suggestion that Portland activists are, to my view, inordinately insistent upon bringing to pass.

    If we consider that a homeless person living in a tent or an RV actually does have a home — that is, the tent or RV, it is technically more accurate to say “houseless” because what they don’t have is a “house.” The tent or RV is their home.

    However, if we weigh that against the relative value of whether the reconceptualization justifies the change of wording, my opinion is that it does not. For one thing, the hassle factor is fairly huge. Will the National Coalition on Homelessness need to change their name to the National Coalition on Houselessness? Will Street Spirit News change their longstanding slogan to “Justice News and Houseless Blues?” Were they to do so at this stage, they’d probably sell way less papers.

    Also, most people who have been homeless for any length of time refer to themselves neither as “homeless” nor “houseless” but as “outside” (as opposed to “inside.”) That has been my experience talking with people who live outdoors in at least ten different cities in three different States.

    You wrote: “We may use different terminology around homelessness, but if I get annoyed at being told what to say and decide I don’t give a shit about the homeless issue in general, that’s a bigger problem.”

    I almost did just that. Not that I would ever fail to give a hoot, but that it increased my sense of despair that the actual problem concerning social stigma and the human rights of homeless people will ever be addressed, if we keep fussing over perfect language.

    You also wrote: “Maybe, instead of focusing on politically correct speech and talking over other people, we’re better off doing a whole lot more listening. It’s very hard to understand anyone else’s experience without listening, and making assumptions based on our own experience doesn’t accomplish a whole heck of a lot.”

    This leads to my main problem with political correctness. It is wonderful in theory but does not always effect positive change in practice. For example, when I was referring to my gay high school drama director who had had an affair with a teenage boy, I wasn’t permitted to finish my sentence before someone interrupted: “He wasn’t gay! He was a pederast!!”

    Outside of the obvious truth that he WAS gay, in addition to being a pederast, I was annoyed because the interruption was rude.

    So it’s the way that the weapon of political correctness is wielded by some, as though we are in a war against ignorant people — and not against ignorance itself — that causes a lot of the complaints.

    As far as my own personal gripe, I am more at peace than I was earlier. The musical Eden in Babylon is set specifically in the year 2018. In other words, it’s a “period piece” — and in that period of our history, “homeless” was the predominant term. That said, those who are homeless in my musical often refer to themselves as “outside.” I was outside for many years. I know whereof I speak.

    An unusually thought-provoking post (obviously!) Sharing on Twitter and Facebook.

    1. To me, houseless is a clear example of political correctness gone too far. If we want to get really literal about it, I’m houseless because I live in an apartment. If someone has a home of their choosing, whatever form that takes, great. If someone lacks the type of home of their choice because there are socioeconomic barriers in the way, they’re homeless. Someone living in a van by choice hasn’t been let down by society, so why on earth should they be part of the conversation on homelessness?

  16. You know, those are great points — and I hadn’t thought of them before. Like you, I am literally houseless, because I live in an apartment. I often think that about buying a van and living in, so as not to have to pay rent — which in my case, is about half my monthly income. Would I then be suffering the same oppression as many homeless people suffer? Not at all. I would not only not be a logical part of the conversation on homelessness, but I would go to considerable lengths to make sure I am not included in that conversation. No one likes to be included in conversations that don’t apply to them.

  17. Hey, there – great post, and fantastic discussion! (I love the humaneness, decency and compassion that I see on these pages – not something one necessarily expects to find on internet forums.)

    I happen to be the linguistics professor that A.P. mentioned above, and one of my research areas is in fact the language of disability. As A.P. hinted, I am a bit of a critic of Pinker’s “euphemism treadmill” thesis.

    The ‘euphemism treadmill’ phenomenon does clearly exist. A classic example is the constant turnover in words for the place we normally go to perform excretory functions. A “toilet” was originally a lace doily, commonly placed on a lady’s dressing table. (That’s “lady” in the old-fashioned sense of a woman of a certain class, or who at least aspired to a certain higher-class position). By ‘metonymic’ association, “toilet” came to refer to the dressing table itself. So when people said “she’s at her toilet,” they meant that she was at her dressing table, and hence (by a further associative leap) that she was doing her makeup, sprucing herself up, or whatever. (The word “toiletries,” incidentally, derives from this older sense of “toilet.”)

    Later, people would euphemistically say “she’s at her toilet” to mean she had retired to (what we now call) the bathroom or restroom. (The idea was roughly the same as when we now jokingly say “I think I’ll go powder my nose!”) Soon enough, “toilet” became the default euphemism for the room where excretory functions are performed. Except that now, by yet another associative shift, it has come to refer also (and probably chiefly) to the actual device into which bodily excreta are expelled, and down which they are flushed.

    Yeccchh — time for another lexical replacement! Enter the word “bathroom.” This was meant to deflect attention away from that device, and toward another one commonly found in the same room (the bathtub or shower). But “bathroom,” too, acquires direct excretory connotations: soon enough, we are talking about the dog who has just “gone to the bathroom” — by which of course we likely mean, not that the dog has wandered off to that room of the house, but rather that he has left his calling card on the living room carpet! Time for a new euphemism: enter the odd replacement word “restroom” …and so on.

    So, the “euphemism treadmill” most definitely exists, and this is a prime example. Where I would differ from Pinker is in his uncritical application of this concept to the coinage of new terms to refer to people belonging to traditionally stigmatized groups. As A.P. noted above, these new coinages often reflect, not reactive euphemistic replacement, but rather proactive attempts to reframe how we think of these groups – how their status is ‘conceptualized’.

    And that’s a fascinating story. …But this post is already long enough; in case you’re still reading (and still interested), please proceed to the following one.

    1. [continued from preceding] …Let’s take the term “African-American.” Is this a euphemistic replacement for “Black”? It’s often assumed to be. But if so, how do we explain the fact that people (of whatever ethnic identity) who use “African-American” STILL also commonly use the term “Black,” with absolutely no sense of pejorative connotation? (For example: we are now saying “Black Lives Matter,” not “African-American Lives Matter.”)

      So what’s going on, here? The people who originally coined the term “African-American” were not abandoning the term “Black,” as if it had somehow become contaminated with negative connotations, associated with a people who would always, no matter what, be despised (say, in the way that we all instintively despise the smell of excrement, and thus constantly need to change the name of the place where excretory functions are performed, so as to avoid those repulsive associations). Frankly, it’s repulsive even to consider innovative terms for racial or ethnic identity in that sort of light. No. “Black” was still (and IS still) beautiful.

      So if it’s not a euphemistic replacement for “Black,” what IS the motivation behind the more recent coinage “African-American”? It was in fact a conceptual REFRAMING of ethnicity. Given the historical legacy (still very much with us) of a “color line” in the United States that sharply demarcates the two sides of what Isabel Wilkerson and others have identified as a rigid caste system, the naming of racial groups in terms of a “black / white” color distinction cannot but articulate and reinforce that system. For people on the stigmatized side of that color line to choose to self-identify as “African-Americans” was to critique the terms on which this caste system was built up. Instead, it affirmed an alternative KIND of identity, grounded in their own unique historical and cultural provenance. In the 1970s, more and more people were beginning to recognize that Americans of (chiefly) African or European provenance differed, not just in terms of skin color (and, accordingly, their respective positions within the American caste system), but also, and importantly, in terms of rich and distinctive cultural heritages, each of which needed to be understood and appreciated in its own right. (This is not just ‘political correctness’; it’s a fact well grounded in scholarship, as well as common sense.)

      Within the caste framework, “Negro” had chiefly meant “not White;” its chief function was to assign those so designated to the devalued side of the caste divide. “Black” (with the “Black is beautiful” slogan in the conceptual background) helped to revalorize the status, but it did not fully break out of the nexus of color and caste status. The shift to “African-American” attempted to do just that; this new identifying term had a grounding (at least partly) outside of and independent of our country’s racialized caste system. To some extent, I think, the attempt has been successful.

      This does not of course mean any magical transformation of reality; the caste system is still very much in place. Still – although I differ from Steve Pinker on this – my view, as a cognitive linguist, is that it makes a difference how we talk about (and therefore conceptualize) that system of oppression. If we have ways of referring to the people ensnared in the system which are not themselves so tightly enmeshed with it, and which have some grounding outside of it (in this case, in a distinctive historical and cultural heritage that long antedates America’s “peculiar institution” [chattel slavery] and the color-based caste system which is its legacy), then we are a bit better equipped to deal critically and intelligently with this unfortunate legacy.

      Back to “Black Lives Matter.” Why not “African-American Lives Matter”? I at first assumed that it was just that the latter is too wordy — not “punchy” enough. And that’s probably part of it. But is it not possible that the word “Black” here serves a semantic purpose: namely, to throw into critical focus the fact that we still do live in a color-based caste system, in which some people’s lives ARE in fact more highly valued than others, depending upon which side of the color line they find themselves on?

      In any case, the term “Black” never underwent ‘pejoration’ (a worsening of connotation), and so that’s not what led to the coining of the new term “African-American.” The two have different nuances, and both can still be used, depending (partly, at least) on which nuances one chooses to invoke, and in what context.

      This doesn’t begin to address many of the important issues that Ashley and others here have raised (including the negative impact of ‘language policing’). I agree wholeheartedly with these points: those of us who choose to engage in reframing through renaming should by all means do so — but it needs to be an invitational process (not a coercive or shaming one). All the best, to all of you!

      1. Well, if you consider Steven Pinker’s description of n***** -> coloured person -> person of colour -> negro -> black, there’s a common thread there. And why was black replaced? Could it be that it picked up the social taint of racism? I find the shift to African American to be a bit odd because African Americans may be more generations removed from Africa than someone of European ancestry who is simply called American. Then you throw in the Black people of Caribbean heritage who have an even more indirect link to Africa. So perhaps it’s a reconceptualization, but it’s not one that’s stopped police officers from killing Black people.

        It seems like there’s been a process of language reclamation with Black kind of like there has been with n*****. But no matter what white people call Black people, racism is still there. Black people are massively overrepresented in correctional institutions, and that’s not because white people value Blackness. It doesn’t matter if Derek Chauvin thought of George Floyd as Black, African American, or an Oreo cookie; in a society that is racist, when it comes to moments of tension, implicit beliefs about race are going to be available well before any explicit ideas about what the right type of language to use. Implicit bias results in triggers being pulled, or necks being knelt on, not semantic nuances.

      2. While the main motive for introducing the term “African American” may have been a positive reconceptualization of the racial group being identified, I disagree with Kurt in that “Black” had not been pejorated, at least in part. I have lived in places where expressions such as “you’re acting like a Black guy” are common. The implication is that the actions are those of a hustler or a whiner or some other characteristic that could easily pertain to those of any race, and yet Black people are singled out on the streets for being chinsy in their dealings and complaining inordinately about their lot.

        Having lived on the streets, I can attest to the fact that neither of these stereotypes is true. I agree with Ashley’s comment to the effect that many of the changes in terminology concerning those of African descent evidence Stephen Pinker’s euphemism treadmill. However, I agree with Kurt that the main reason for attempting to replace “Black” with “African American” was a reconceptualization; viz., to emphasize a cultural difference rather than a difference in skin color. Also, as Kurt has pointed out, the word “Black” was not replaced, but merely appended, so this transition is not a logical instance of the treadmill.

        Of course, if I were to continue to engage in aspect of the discussion, I will probably always stand somewhere midway between Kurt and Ashley on this spectrum. Something just tells me that, from having had many fine conversations with both of you, over time.

    2. I think person-first language is an interesting example of an attempt at reconceptualization that didn’t necessarily change much of anything. To talk about being “mentally ill” is considered highly stigmatized and inappropriate. Yet whether I’m mentally ill or a person with a mental illness, it means the same thing. The only difference is that mentally ill carries a greater sense of immediacy, which stirs up underlying stigmatized attitudes. Even the idea that it’s okay for me to describe myself using a positive adjective, like I am intelligent, and that’s not all that I am and all that I ever will be until the end of time, but yet if I’m mentally ill, that is perceived to be all I am and all I ever will be. The difference isn’t the lack of person-first, the difference is the underlying stigma. Even to suggest that I must talk about that particular aspect of my identity in a different way feeds into the idea that it’s not a socially normal characteristic.

      1. Spinning off Ashley’s comment having to do with underlying stigma, an interesting fact in my personal experience is this.

        When I was homeless, I often got the sense (both from other homeless people and from people who lived inside) that being homeless was “all I was and all I ever would be.” This sense was so pervasive, it really discouraged me from finding the confidence I would need to believe in my ability to get off the streets. Yet homelessness ought to be regarded as a temporary, not a permanent condition. A homeless person is human just like any other kind of person, and any human being could live either inside or outside at different times in that person’s life.

        Homelessness obviously doesn’t come close to “defining me” now, being as I’ve lived indoors for almost five years now. But even when I lived outdoors, that description of my experience ought not to have defined me.

        1. That’s the nature of stigma. While socially acceptable identities are seen as being one aspect of an individual, deviant identities are seen as subsuming all other identities.

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