Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bad Rap: Political Correctness

Originally published in a Disability Rights newsletter, Spring 2007

Growing up I had a cousin nicknamed “Butchie” or “Butchie Baby”. As he grew into adulthood, he asked us to call him by his name, August or Auggie. It was a difficult transition for all of us. Decades later, some still fall back to the old name. Auggie’s request meant he wanted us to see he was no longer a Butchie. He was a man and wanted us to acknowledge that. Every family has similar story. I do not know one person who refused such a request.

Yet, on a broader level, this is political correctness and many say it has gone too far. Critics charge that no one can say anything about anyone without offending. As if it’s about offending. Some say it is tyranny to be expected to talk decently about others. They say it’s their right to be politically incorrect. Just Google the phrase “politically correct” and you will see what I mean.

Are the names we call others a window to understanding and acknowledgement, or nothing more than what we use to communicate and they convey nothing more than information? As I write this, Senator Joe Biden peddling backwards as fast as he can. He is getting a lot of flack for saying Senator Barach Obama stands out in relationship to other African-Americans because he is so articulate and clean. Biden says he simply chose the wrong words. I think it tells us how he feels about African-Americans at his core.

As people with disabilities we have a personal stake in what is politically correct. It’s more than harmless name calling; it defines who we are and our struggle for equality and justice. Who benefits from calling a group struggling for equality by the old names? Obviously, it benefits those who have the power and want to maintain the status quo.

Demanding an understanding of another’s culture, status or position in a society is far from tyranny. It can be a matter of life and death. For example the “N” word dehumanized a people and made it easy to oppress and hang them.

For people with disabilities, it meant a sub-human existence, abuse and death. Imbeciles went to insane asylums. Freaks worked in circus sideshows. Spastics were hidden from the public. Those words described the individual in totality and their position on society. If we are to change the hearts and minds of others, we need new words that convey the dignity and equality we fight for.

The words we use are exceedingly important. Each is a “little packet of meaning [that] infers understanding”. (changingminds.org) Likewise, the words people use represent whether or not others accept the change we want to see. If they continue to use the “old words or names” then they have rejected the meaning and status that the new words (worlds) bring.

Words create a combination of mental pictures, beliefs, principles, orientation and more. People with disabilities, as members of an oppressed group, need to embrace political correctness. It is our friend and a powerful tool we can use to create change. Don’t make fun of it, stand up for it.

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