Whenever political correctness fades from the headlines, another example pops up. The latest installment comes from Washington State Senate President pro tem Rosa Franklin. She has proposed replacing 54 references to “at risk” or “disadvantaged” children in state law with the term “at hope,” so negative labels won’t undermine their ability to succeed.
Such encouraging re-labeling simply substitutes one euphemism for another, abandoning even the hope of clarity. It tries to eliminate language that might hurt anyone’s feelings, because as Diane Ravitch put it, “advocates for social change have set their sights on controlling reality by changing the way in which it is presented.”
Nothing PC is allowed to be negative. Anything that could be construed as evaluative or judgmental must come across as positive. What cannot be made to appear good in other ways must be achieved through verbal contortions, trading in words with clear meanings for phrases that enmesh us in ambiguity, hindering understanding and useful communication. In fact, even traditional children’s alphabet books would fail “at hope” standards.
“A is for Apple” could not be used, because apples remind people of Eve’s role in the Garden of Eden story, which some might find sexist. “B is for Ball” would be out because of its potential sexual overtones. “C is for Cat” and “D is for Dog” would be unusable because of their possible connection to ideas of verbal sniping (being catty) or being lazy (dogging it). We would, in short, have to abandon those alphabet books for “new and improved” ones.
A PC alphabet book would have to rely on using soothing phrases to mollify potential objections. Given the vast number of words people find ways to object to, it would be almost impossible. But perhaps the following almost-alliterative alphabet of politically correct terms would work.
A can be for Attitudinal Antiquity, which can replace the potentially insulting “old fashioned.” B can be for Botanical Bankruptcy, a kinder, gentler way of saying that someone lacks a green thumb. Cranially Constrained can be substituted for stupid and Diplomatically Deprived for rude, so that stupid and rude people won’t think you noticed. Euphemistic Enhancements could replace accusations of lying.
We could use Follically Fortunate instead of the term hairy, which can upset both the hirsutely over-and underendowed. And being Gravitationally Gifted is certainly better than being fat. In the same vein, since no one likes being called egotistical, we could substitute Honorifically Habituated, and shy people could instead become Interactionally Impaired. Hurt feelings could also be avoided by substituting Judicially Juxtaposed for confused and Karmically Keen for superstitious. Similarly, criminals could be upgraded to Legally Lavish, schizophrenics to Mentally Mobile, and inattentive listeners to Neurologically Noncompliant.
We could turn slobs into people who are Organizationally Overburdened, and replace good-looking people (a term which injures the psyches of those who don’t think the term extends to them) with those who are Perceptionally Preferenced. Complainers can rise to being Quintessentially Querulous, bad dancers to being Rhythmically Repressed, and poor dressers to being Sartorially Stressed. Being old can be transformed into being Temporally Troubled, “lazy bums” to those who are Ubiquitously Underutilized, and those who can’t hold a job can become Vocationally Variable.
W-Z could be left undecided, to avoid hurting anyone’s ego with the implication that they couldn’t help society with their own contributions. But with this approach, we could all be at hope to pass PC muster. Unfortunately, at first, none of us will know what anyone else is saying. And when we do figure out the latest replacements for hurtful expressions mean, people will get just as upset as they did before. Then we’ll have to change them all over again, and still more convoluted vocabulary will be necessary. CRO
copyright 2010 Gary Galles
Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.