We are, at this point, used enough to our culture’s politically correct language police to consider them commonplace if not humdrum: every few weeks or months there is some new rule we must learn about how to talk. Sometimes the new rule is a word or a phrase you “can’t say;” other times the rule is a mandate on the way you’re allowed to say a word or a phrase. Recently, for instance, there has been a not-insubstantial effort to get people to stop saying “autistic people” in favor of saying “people with autism.” It does not seem to matter that autistic people themselves mostly seem to have no problem with the attributive noun form; a bunch of other people have decided that the prepositional construct is the only one that will do. (You can be virtually guaranteed, in fact I would bet $25 on it, that in a few years’ time “people with autism” will be offensive, and some other construction will take its place.)
I happen to agree with my colleague and friend Stella Morabito, who says that efforts at political correctness are meant to “manipulat[e] the fears of social isolation in people in order to get them to self-censor.” In some cases the intended results are relatively innocuous, as is the case with phrases like “people with autism.” Other times the intended results are genuinely dangerous: witness the demand to drop the phrase “pregnant women” in favor of “pregnant people,” so as not to offend mentally ill “transgender” women who believe they are men (just so it’s clear: yes, there are indeed a large number of people who sincerely believe, fanatically so, that “men” can get pregnant). Political correctness can be a trifling, irritating thing, but it can also enable some serious pathologies that we should be working to correct instead of encouraging.
That’s not just idle talk, as Christopher Caldwell demonstrates in a tremendous essay on opioid abuse over at First Things:
The director of a Midwestern state’s mental health programs emailed a chart called “‘Watch What You Call Me’: The Changing Language of Addiction and Mental Illness,” compiled by the Boston University doctor Richard Saltz. It is a document so Orwellian that one’s first reaction is to suspect it is a parody, or some kind of “fake news” dreamed up on a cynical website. We are not supposed to say “drug abuse”; use “substance use disorder” instead. To say that an addict’s urine sample is “clean” is to use “words that wound”; better to say he had a “negative drug test.” “Binge drinking” is out—“heavy alcohol use” is what you should say. Bizarrely, “attempted suicide” is deemed unacceptable; we need to call it an “unsuccessful suicide.”
Notice that the chart’s title itself is an example of deceptive communication: it refers to “the changing language of addiction and mental illness,” as if it were a natural change rather than an artificial and consciously imposed one.
Caldwell points out that “These terms are periphrastic and antiscientific. Imprecision is their goal.” This is indeed the objective, because imprecision, properly rendered, is not very likely to offend, which is one of the paramount goals of political correctness: to negate any possibility of even the tiniest amount of “offense.” (“Offense” in this context means “something you object to, even if it’s accurate.”) The problem is, while neutered language is less likely to cause someone discomfort, it’s not very likely to do much of anything else either—certainly imprecise language is not going to adequately qualify a phenomenon like a drug epidemic, not with phrases like “substance use disorder,” which communicates absolutely nothing and is a weak and effete term to boot.
Good language packs a punch. The arbiters of politically correct linguistics understand this: they do not like punches and so they do not like good language. A phrase like “binge drinking,” thanks to its being informed by a culture and a deliberate linguistic history, carries with it a set of implications and presumed values that are distinctly negative, which is precisely the point: binge drinking is bad and we want to discourage people from doing it. “Heavy alcohol use,” on the other hand, means nothing at all: from a practical standpoint it is incoherent (who decides what is “heavy,” based on what paradigm and what parameters?), while from the intended sociological standpoint it is devastatingly meaningless, and intentionally so. It communicates the same phenomenon as binge drinking but it does so in a way that masks the profoundly negative connotations that the term “binge drinking” needs to impart. It is much the same way that, say, our society used to say a man “took advantage” of a woman when what he really did was rape her: it is a clever bit of wordplay, not strictly incorrect but nonetheless woefully and stupidly inadequate to describe the phenomenon at hand.
Rest assured that, if it catches on, “heavy alcohol use” will also, one day, be too offensive to utter: “immoderate alcohol consumption relative to society’s arbitrary standards” will one day take its place, before something else replaces that.
There is a great moment in—where else?—Saved by the Bell that nicely highlights the end point of politically correct language policing: Lt. Chet Adams, an ROTC-like representative who sets up shop at Bayside High, declares that his military program “separates the men from the boys.” Uber-feminist Jesse Spano takes offense over this, at which point Lt. Adams self-corrects: “I mean, the persons from the persons.” It is a funny bit of comedy, but it rings true. (Lt. Adams could have of course made it easier by saying that the military “separates the weak from the strong.” But in a world where people believe that referring to a drug test as “clean” is an example of “words that wound,” do we honestly believe such loaded qualifiers like weak and strong will be around for very long?)
Indeed, it is genuinely not hard to imagine a day not too distant in the future when the term “pregnant,” even the term “people,” are both verboten. Why not? Why should we fixate on a person’s gestational status, after all—let alone their narrowly- and capriciously-defined status of personhood? One day we’ll move past these ancient, restrictive locutions in favor of non-confining inclusive linguistic harmony: instead of referring to “pregnant people” we’ll simply refer to “thing things.” You get what I’m trying to say, don’t you?