Monday, September 28, 2009

Critical Reading Collaboration: Shawna Blumenschein and Jennifer Kerr

"Bias-Free Language: Some Guidelines" by Rosalie Maggio and "The Word Police" by Michiko Kakutani in Exploring Language are two essays that address the question of politically correct language. In Maggio's essay, she advocates the usage of unbiased, gender-neutral terms, whereas Kakutani argues that the political correctness movement has been taken too far.

Before reading these articles the titles of each create certain expectations about the content. The title "Bias-Free Language: Some Guidelines" clearly communicates the subject matter. The expectation is that an analysis of the impact and effect of words and word choice will follow, and that the argument will center around increasing awareness about biased language. However, the addition of "Some Guidelines" in the title sounds presumptuous, thus creating a defensive mindset in the reader. The phrasing of "Some Guidelines" sounds dogmatic, as if Maggio is telling others what to think before making her argument. The second article's title, "The Word Police," brings to mind people who obsessively correct the grammar of others. For example, imagine a party-goer who constantly interrupts conversations to correct people's speech. This expectation is proven false as the article responds to the political correctness movement.

Both articles address the movement of political correctness in speech and text. However, they take opposite sides of the argument. Maggio advocates strongly for the abolition of biased language. She addresses a variety of categories of language including inclusive versus exclusive constructions, nonsexist terminology, and the people first rule. Examples of inclusive and exclusive phrases are "the people" or "our generation" which include everyone, as opposed to referring to the human race as "man" which excludes women. Nonsexist terminology involves not referring to sex unless it's necessary. According to Maggio, sexist language "promotes and maintains attitudes that stereotype people according to gender while assuming that the male is the norm" (447). Thus, statements should be made with equal terminology, for example saying husband and wife instead of man and wife. Other gender non-specific words abound such as mail carrier instead of mailman and firefighter instead of fireman. These words do not give the impression that women should not and indeed can not pursue these careers. The people first rule is important in the medical field. Persons with disabilities should be put before their medical condition because their condition should not define who they are. Therefore, it is a child with Down's syndrome, not a Down's syndrome child.

Kakutani takes the opposite side of the argument from Maggio. Kakutani references a poem by Maya Angelou that lists several ethnicities, religious groups, and labels applied to various social groups. Kakutani says that such extensive recognition with an eye toward including everyone and offending no one is an "official embrace of multiculturalism and a new politics of inclusion." (453) This is the beginning of the political correctness movement, which Kakutani agrees with in theory, but that she feels advocates like Maggio have pushed to the level of absurdity. Indeed, Kakutani says that using nicer words, such as "underhoused" instead of "homeless"(456), could in fact detract from the severity of the problem. Ultimately, Kakutani feels that the extreme emphasis placed on politically correct language amounts to a smokescreen that obfuscates the real problems of inequality, racism, and sexism and makes them seem solved when in fact they continue to thrive.

Some of the points Kakutani makes are anticipated by Maggio. She outlines four arguments often used by detractors of unbiased language. These arguments include the fear of losing words, that people are tired of paying attention to what they say, it's limiting the use of language, and that it will create absurd terms. Maggio responds to each of these excuses. Firstly, she says that losing offensive words will not impact negatively on society or language because of our vast vocabulary and ability to create new terms. Secondly, Maggio flips the argument of watching what one says into people being tired of being sensitive; she adds that we have been taught from childhood to filter what we say depending on who we are speaking to. Thirdly, Maggio does not view being careful speakers and writers as limiting, but rather as being thoughtful. Lastly, Maggio points out that particular examples of absurdities, such as saying he/she all the time, are used to condemn the entire idea of inclusive language, including terms that would not sound as comical or unwieldy. Maggio further says that using specific, non-cliched words is rewarding and allows for better communication.

Political correctness is a well-intentioned movement. However, like anything, there is the potential for it to be taken too far. As such, being politically correct is often a target for comedians and social commentators.

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