Some time ago, the phrase “politically correct” was hijacked to refer to a form of absurd censorship where, for example, someone who was was losing their hair should not be called ‘bald’ — because of the negative connotations associated with that word — but instead some other phrase like ‘follically-challenged’. It is easy to make fun of such nonsense, and so use of the term “politically correct” skyrocketed.

Ironically, it became a politically loaded term, because conservatives used the phrase to ridicule those who would object to discrimination or disenfranchisement, or simply point out the fact that some words were lacking in respect.

I remember the phrase ‘politically correct’ from about 1983, specifically in reference to shopping at a particular coffee shop rather than another near the campus of Yale University. At the time, ‘politically correct’ was used to indicate that our actions, sometimes insignificant ones, can have an impact on peoples lives. Although the coffee was the same, one coffee shop treated its employees better than the other, and so arose the notion that spending money in that shop was healthier for the community.

As applied to language, the meaning seemed obvious. Subtle uses of words do frame the way we think about issues and about people, and seemingly insignificant word choices can have a large impact when repeated over and over. My favorite example is the use of the word ‘slave’ to label a person. Take this passage from “American Constitutional Law” (Mason, Beaney and Stephenson):

“In 1834, Dred Scott, a Negro slave belonging to Dr. Emerson, a surgeon in the United States Army, was taken by his master to Illinois, where slavery was forbidden”

This passage nicely illustrates a misleading use of the word. Scott is identified as a slave in the same way that Emerson is identified as a surgeon, as if ‘slave’ were a profession, and that Scott deserved his chains as much as Emerson deserved his commission. A politically correct rewriting acknowledges that ‘slave’ is a word which dehumanizes the person to whom the label is attached, replacing the phrase “a Negro slave belonging to” with “a Negro enslaved by”

The passage also prompts a further question — what about the word “Negro” ? Is skin color relevant to the Dred Scott case? If it were not, then the word “person” would do nicely. But the case occurred before the 13th Amendment, and, sadly, skin color was an issue in interpreting the laws of different states, and so substituting “person” removes a salient fact about the case. No doubt there is a more au courant term which could be used, but any other choice leaves us with the same unappealing fact that we must mention skin color because the law in 1857 (when the Dred Scott case was decided) makes it necessary to mention. It would be difficult to replace “Negro” with anything else, not because “Negro” is a connotation-free word (its not), but because there are no satisfactory replacements.

Which brings us back to the bald guy. The hijacked meaning of politically correct would lead you to believe that it is OK to refer to someone’s baldness as long as you use a hate-free term for it. But the originally meaning of politically correct prompts us to ask why one needs to talk about baldness in the first place. If there is a need which is not disrespectful, by all means use the word ‘bald’ — but if there is disparagement hiding behind the word, better just to not say anything.

In any case, today I was greatly heartened to happen upon the following quote from none less than Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, writing in majority opinion from Chisholm v. Georgia (1793):

“Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language. Is a toast asked? ‘The United States,’ instead of the ‘People of the United States,’ is the toast given. This is not politically correct.”

Here, he is referring to the misconception that Government somehow has power over the citizens, when in fact it is the power of the citizenry which constitutes the Government, suggesting that raising a toast “to The United States” is a mis-targeted compliment that misleads us further upon each repetition. Instead, raising a toast “to the People of The United States” appropriately acknowledges and remonds us where the power of government originates. That’s the meaning of ‘politically correct’ that resonates with me.

In researching this entry, I happened upon this citation from H. V. Morton’s In the Steps of St. Paul (1936), which uses a darker meaning: that of avoiding language which would be politically sensitive:

“To use such words would have been equivalent to calling his audience ‘slaves and robbers’. But ‘Galatians’, a term that was politically correct, embraced everyone under Roman rule, from the aristocrat in Antioch to the little slave girl in Iconium.”

Oh, the irony!