Language is an amazing tool. With it we can describe our inner and outer lives, light and darkness, wind and rain, roads and cars, smiles and frowns. And other people: those we know, those who are strangers, those who are different.
With language we communicate greetings, farewells, directions, corrections, information, truth, praise, insults.
“Politically correct” refers to how we use language and words, and it has been criticized as forcing people to speak in ways acceptable to those on the political left, to liberal orthodoxy. Thus, according to critics, to be “politically correct” is to evade, to mute the truth, to not call reality as it is.
But reality can be described in a number of ways, and “politically correct” is really about using language not to needlessly and carelessly insult and harm others. Sticks and stones may hurt our bones, and words can hurt our souls. In short, “politically correct” comes not from our politics but from our moral desire to respect others, particularly those who are unlike us, who being such are too often ignored, looked down upon, and described in hurtful, even hateful, terms.
To be “politically correct,” then, is to follow the admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves, and even if at times it seems excessive, it errs on the side of love, not disrespect and hate. Clearly, saying “merry Christmas” is not seriously insulting or harmful, but calling immigrants “druggies” and “thieves” is.
Clearly, calling some nations “shitholes” is. Clearly calling all those who embrace another religion “extremists” and “terrorists” is. Clearly calling LGBTQ people “perverts” is. Clearly calling our political opponents “unpatriotic” is.
Yes, the harm done by language is not limited to one political party or religion or non-religion. It can be done by anyone who doesn’t care about harming others. Believers can use it to hurt non-believers, non-believers to hurt believers.
To be “politically correct” is not meant to evade seeing reality as it is or not to accurately describe it. It does not mean calling out beliefs and actions we disagree with. It does not mean hiding the truth. Murder is murder. Rape is rape. Genocide is genocide. Tyranny is tyranny. Ignorance is ignorance. Hate is hate. Racism is racism. Lies are lies.
Yes, at times to be PC errs, but it errs on the side of love, errs on the side of not inflicting uncalled-for harm through language. It is not a political ideology or dictatorial censoring of language. Rather, it is an expression of our highest moral values, of our best selves.
Perhaps we should just get rid of the term, which is used so often now to stereotypically criticize beliefs and actions. Perhaps, in our deeply divided society, we should simply be aware of our need to speak as accurately and carefully as possible. We are a community, and need to respect others in our community, so that we can have conversations that further understanding and solve pressing problems and issues. So we can love our neighbor as ourselves.
Jack Hernandez is professor emeritus of philosophy at Bakersfield College.