Like most American universities, Harvard can’t stop thinking about political correctness. We rebrand insensitive slang, reconsider house names, change faculty titles, and replace school seals to keep in tune with PC culture. But the term “politically correct” is slippery, and according to Harvard students, it ranges from “impositions that supposedly protect marginalized groups” to “terminology that define[s] people by their status as a person and not their disability.” Needless to say, the conversation is ongoing.
But at its core, political correctness is an attempt to impose desirable mental attitudes by removing undesirable words from our vocabulary. The words we use, after all, frame our understanding of what we think, write, and say. Changing our vocabulary is thus a matter of changing our intellectual, ethical, and philosophical perspectives. To encourage gender equality, “actress” becomes “actor.” To inspire religious tolerance, “Merry Christmas” becomes “Happy Holidays.” To motivate empathy, “mental retardation” becomes “intellectual disability.” Such vocabulary inculcates unconscious virtue (if there is such a thing) as enlightened society would define it. Although they’re imposed by the ivory towers of business, media, politics, and academia, such attitudes can hardly be considered dangerous. Society, after all, could only benefit if everyone were respectful enough to substitute insensitive words for politically correct, if top-down engineered, ones.
Eric Arthur Blair might disagree with that assessment.
Blair, more commonly known by the pen name George Orwell, joined the PC conversation in 1949, when he published his dystopian classic, “1984.” In the chilling world of totalitarian super-states, where two plus two equals five because Big Brother says so, Orwell’s most eerie invention is Newspeak. This reductionist language is designed to diminish vocabulary and amputate nuance until party members are unable to express independent, heretical thinking that would threaten Big Brother’s power. “Equal” means only “the same” in a literal sense; “all men are created equal” can only be sensibly rendered as “crimethink.” In the parlance of Big Brother, the words to describe freedom and equality’s intellectual or existential dimensions simply do not exist. Words are changed so that mental attitudes—and soon, intellectual, ethical, and philosophical aptitudes—change accordingly.
We all generally recognize that the aim of calling the poor “economically disadvantaged” or the lame “physically challenged” is to express respect for, or at least sensitivity towards, those less fortunate than we. Everyone knows PC words are attitude micro-adjusters. Less obvious than the effect of what we say, however, is the effect of what we don’t. As harsh delineations become offensive and prevarication respectful, PC words—like Orwell’s Newspeak—are often used not so much to express meaning as to destroy it.
Newspeak crams nuance into “blanket words” to choke the dangerous precision of ideas. As a result, all words associated with liberty and equality become “crimethink” and all words associated with objectivity and rationalism become “oldthink.” Today, for one example, many words associated with deficiency or disadvantage have become “challenged.” From the physical defects of the “vertically challenged,” “visually challenged,” “aurally challenged,” or simply “challenged,” to the moral felonies of the “ethically challenged,” PC language collects the short, blind, deaf, handicapped, and criminal in the same conceptual cohort. Such misleading euphemisms are becoming the new golden standard of “respect” and “empathy.”
As a result, PC language begins to erase the lines between condition and volition. A person born blind is “challenged” in the same sense as the person who willfully chooses to violate the law. Both are victims of circumstance. “Criminal” or “cripple,” or any other way of distinguishing the two, becomes a dirty word. Precision, true but insensitive, soon acquires a disagreeable taste.
The blurry lines continue. “Juvenile delinquents” are “children at risk.” Over-reactive college students are “triggered.” “Bums” are “homeless people.” Welfare recipients are beneficiaries of “government aid.” And, as justification, “politically correct” is simply “sensitive.” Masked by prevaricating language, accountability too often falls through the cracks of consciousness as it slips through the fingers of discourse.
In the wake of this censorship, the attitudes and ideas eschewed by PC vocabulary are becoming increasingly inexpressible. To say “bum” or “cripple” now is to be condemned and discredited as insensitive—a label devastating enough professionally and socially to make such language almost unthinkable. Though the year is 2017 and not 1984, the step from language to idea is still a slippery one, and a concept without the words to describe it, though not unthinkable, is certainly unarguable. And in a society built on debate and discourse, unarguable ideas remain unarguably powerless.
This isn’t to accuse PC culture of an Orwellian conspiracy. This is simply a caution, as urgent to us as it was to Blair in 1949, that the words we use—and more importantly, the words we don’t—affect the thoughts we think, and ultimately the liberties we either keep or concede.
Lauren D. Spohn ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Currier House.
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