"They'll All Turn On You Eventually!" – On Political Correctness

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

People who don’t practice political correctness – or, as I like to call it, “treating other people with respect” – seem to think that you’re choosing your words carefully as a form of inoculation.  As if you use the correct terminology once, and then nobody ever bothers you again!
I say this because when I step on the wrong words and offend folks, someone invariably crows, “See?  This is the way this political correctness works!  They’ll turn on you!  They will all turn on you!”
As if the only reason I’d chosen my words carefully was out of fear!
But no.  When people complain, I welcome the feedback.  Because if I have offended you, I want to know.  I’d rather you bother me a bit so I can see why something might be hurtful, because the point is that I’d rather not step on your feelings out of ignorance.
Those comments aren’t a mob, whirling self-righteously to devour me in anger – they’re people expecting an explanation as to why I’d say something so stupidly hurtful.
Keep in mind: just because someone registers a complaint doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to act upon that.  I have a friend who hates it when I say, “I’m going to bitch about this for a while,” because to her, the word “bitch” is so synonymous with “angry, silly female” that she feels the word in any usage is an insult to her sex.
I thought about that.  And ultimately decided that I didn’t think “bitch,” when used in the sense of “complaining for not much of a good reason,” was actually an assault on women in general.
That’s what political correctness is to me: choosing, quite carefully and proactively, to offend.  I know my friend doesn’t like it.  Yet her distaste doesn’t mean I slavishly follow her impulses.  It means I’ve considered her argument, asked, “Am I slandering women by using this term?” and answered, “…no.  No, I don’t think I am.  I think she’s taking offense over something that she shouldn’t.”
She cringes whenever I use it.  And if she chooses not to read me because she thinks my language is too vulgar, I support her right to remove herself from my presence, same as I have no problems with people who go, “You swear too much, Ferrett, I don’t like reading that filth.”
People can choose not to read me for a variety of reasons. I support all of ’em.
And that bitch thing?  It’s an ongoing conversation, not a one-time decision.  If enough people start telling me they’re personally hurt by the language, I’ll stop using it.  I used to use the term “retarded” to refer to stupid things – on the East Coast when I grew up, it was a generic slur.  But enough people contacted me to say, “Hey, that hurts my feelings” that I’ve quietly expunged it from my writings.
And I’ll never get it perfect.  In some cases, I literally can’t.  When dealing with transgender people, I get flack no matter what terminology I use.  Some people have very specific terms they’d like me to use, each very convinced that they speak for all transgender people, and feel personally slighted when I use the ones they consider to be wrong (or, as they put it, “uneducated”).
Over the last few months I’ve had more people expressing a preference for “transgender,” so I now use that.  But literally the second time I used that term, I got yet another private email saying, “Um, actually, we prefer transgender*ed*…”
But regardless, too many of these yahoos who cry, “See?  They’ll turn on you!” seem to think that a) people are only politically correct in an attempt to be seen as lovable, and b) language should be this stable thing, where what was inoffensive ten years ago should always remain inoffensive.
But no.  The landscape changes, and thank God!  People of all sorts feel empowered enough to register complaints they didn’t feel comfortable speaking out before!  That’s a wonderful sign that it’s not the language that’s evolving, but the people!
I’m politically correct because I don’t want to offend inadvertently.  I’m speaking loudly about controversial topics, and when I land a blow I want it to be because I meant to hit that person (or at least couldn’t avoid it).
Injuring someone because you spoke sloppily is like throwing elbows on a crowded subway – bad manners and ignorance combined.
If all I ever got was silence, I’d suspect I wasn’t talking about particularly important topics.  I’m going to bruise people’s feelings.  I’m going to tell them that some things they believe aren’t just wrong, but maybe actively toxic.  To expect no pushback, no counter-concerns about my own beliefs?  That’d be crazy.
The PC responses aren’t a group of hungry piranha, scenting blood in the water – it’s a feedback loop, where you can either apologize for the injury, argue that they’ve misunderstood you, or tell them they’re stupid for feeling that way.  Most go the “You’re stupid” route and, not surprisingly, get flooded with angry people.
But I’ve fucked up with some really dumb words in public.  There’s always a thin scum of bitter jerks who refuse to forgive any transgression, of course…. but mostly, I’ve found a prompt “I’m sorry!” and doing your best to speak better will get you forgiveness.  Because most realize that words are hard and it’s impossible to always get it right.
And yet for all of this, some idiot will misinterpret everything I’ve said as “I want to live in a world where nobody ever offends anybody and we all float happily down Cotton Candy Lane!”  No.  I want a world where we’re driving madly down a dirt road, the wheels rattling and the seatbelts on to keep our asses in the seat, taking dangerous chances with what we do.  But in that world, I want not to smack the pedestrians on the back of the head with our side-view mirrors as we rush by, I want not to splash them with puddles, I want to ensure that if I run over some poor schmuck that they were someone I pointed this fucking Jeep right at them.
That’s what PC is for me.  Words are a weapon, and we fire them.  So let’s ensure we choose our targets so we hit only who we damn well meant to.


  1. Andrew Hilmer
    May 7, 2014

    The corollary is more telling: the idea among traditional (religious people) that if one converts (becomes saved, in the current language of American religiosity) your past sins are forgiven and your future non-deadlies can be “fixed” by theological maintenance. You sacrifice bits of wealth and time every week to the altar. It’s an important idea in most cultures: follow the rules of ritual humiliation and being bored to death for half an hour and you can remain in the community.
    Instead of ritual, internet-enabled writers like you have conversation. That seems to me to be an improvement on something like crackers and cheap wine.
    As far as the unmollified PC scolds go (if there are such in this case), the community of the world is not delimited by its individuals. Crass language isn’t going to go away while it remains effective, and the measurement of sin of a particular instance isn’t something the concern trolls are qualified to judge.

  2. Anonymous
    May 14, 2014

    On ‘ret*rded’…Please do not use that word. That word is used for everything from demeaning people’s basic humanity to creating sympathy for people who murder people like me. Ableist language is a serious, fucked up problem. I can’t make you do anything, but please at least send folk like these an ask for fuller justification about why this word is a problem. http://realsocialskills.tumblr.com/ They will probably be more able to to explain it with more information than me with my kneejerk emotional response and my complete lack of ability to use search engines correctly.

  3. Sarah
    Jun 24, 2014

    Thanks for writing this post! Being an ally is a challenging and ongoing process, and by acknowledging it as such I would like to think that you are inviting others to join the path of social consciousness.
    Like your friend, I am a woman who gets rather uncomfortable when males use the word “bitch” (along with “cunt”, “pussy”, etc). To me, that term feels distinctly gendered — the word “bitch” is inherently associated with the female sex in our culture’s mind, and the term “bitch” as a verb has a distinctly negative connotation. As with the word “pussy” (see examples like, “C’mon, man, don’t be such a pussy”), it directly links a part of the female identity to a completely negatively, unflattering trait. Although many thoughtful male allies will hear the word “bitching”, consider its political implications, and be able to dissociate the word from its connection to the female gender, most men (likely, a vast majority) will not. They will continue to use words like “bitch”, “cunt”, and “pussy” indiscriminately, not understanding how they are helping to perpetuate a culture that maligns & harms women. Their language choices won’t be the only thing that determines their attitude towards women; however, their use of these words (and the way that people react to their usage) will ultimately contribute.
    As your post states so articulately, every person is entitled to make their own informed decisions about political correctness and social justice. However, as a young woman that reads your site consistently, it would mean a lot to me if you would reconsider your position on that term.

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