Some Thoughts on Politically Correct Language

I know, I know, this is such a remnant of the culture wars & a silly remnant at that. Why return to the subject now, when all language seems drained of significance? One hardly ever encounters arguments about "political correctness" except among jejune  undergraduates, usually but not always boys & usually but not always "conservatives." I wouldn't bring it up except that the subject has rippled to the surface several times in conversations with students I would have thought more sophisticated. "Why do you always say 'he or she'," I've been asked. Or, a student has asserted, "I don't go in for all that politically correct language."  As a poet, my response is ambivalent. I want to agree with students who resent the machinery of social control telling them that they cannot call a dickhead a dickhead or a mean-spirited bitch, well, a mean-spirited, soul-killing bitch. On the other hand, if by "politically correct language" one means gender neutrality or the avoidance of racial or sexual slurs designed to wound or marginalize individuals or groups, then I am in favor of politically correct language. Context, of course, is crucial. Members of a marginalized group may turn oppressive language against the oppressor; lovers may say to each other in private what they would not say in public; one may put into a poem or story languages one would not usually use in the lecture hall or lunchroom. I conclude that my students have glommed onto the right-wing media meme about leftist educators trying to impose conformity -- if they have thought about it even that much -- and employed it as a shield against thinking. Thinking always involves dispensing with universals (slogans) and engaging with ambiguity & change (contexts).

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Politically Correct Language”

  1. I disagree with you. You make assumptions about a world of people you couldn’t possibly know all about. You generalize your ideals (based upon your own point of view, limited in time and space, just like those of everyone else) to attempt to discredit the intellect of another group of people.

    By making these claims, you are not only discrediting yourself by judging your students, you also go so far to bring politics into the discussion. Indeed there are forces trying to control the way in which we speak and think, but I would be more careful than to write these forces off as a “right-wing media meme about leftist educators trying to impose conformity”. Secondly, what do you really mean by “conformity”? Subscribing to universals, such as those of politics, only serves to reduce clarity. Searching for an explanation is one thing, but acknowledging political forces as a sole contributor to a particular social phenomenon only contradicts your suggestion of “dispensing with universals”. A Scottish politics professor once taught me a piece of advice, “society is full of complicated responses to many complicated stimuli, and anyone who says a complicated social phenomenon is due to one particular stimulus doesn’t know what he or she is really talking about.”

    And for future reference, there are several scholarly articles about political correctness–not written by undergraduates and not drained of significance. See,, and many more available on Google Scholar.

    1. Well, Ryan, We all make assumptions all the time about people we couldn’t possibly know all about. If we didn’t, we would not be able to say anything, except perhaps to utter strictly empirical observations: that’s a hat, this is a keyboard, etc. The key, I think, is to be as clear as possible about the assumptions we do make. So, yes, my knowledge of undergraduates is imperfect, but don’t you occasionally make general statements based on imperfect knowledge? Professors, say? In any case, one does not discredit one’s self by making honest judgments. Indeed, I was making making a judgment and I don’t apologize for it, but it was not the ad hominem attack you seem to think. I’ll go further: I believe it is my job to make judgments. And by the way, while I hadn’t read the scholarly articles you refer me to, this is a debate I’ve followed pretty closely in both the popular and scholarly press for a quarter century. In other words, I know jejune when I see it.

      The judgment in my observation is partly political & partly, I guess, sociological. Mostly, it is offered in the way of a slightly bemused observation by a superannuated professor. I remain bemused. In my post I talked about students in general because it would have been unethical of me to single out specific students and the conversations I’m referring to have been frequent enough that I think they are worth making a note of. I don’t know what you mean by “go so far as to bring politics into the discussion.” In my view, every discussion has a political dimension; but beyond that tautology, how in the world can one say something about the political use of language without bringing politics into the discussion?

      I was pretty clear in my blog post — and it is a blog post, not a scholarly article, let’s remember — about my assumptions. And I also used a number of qualifying statements and never generalize to all students. Throughout, my intention is to clarify my own position, not put students down. And I’m talking about “several occasions,” not every encounter with students. In any case, you seem to have focused pretty exclusively on my penultimate sentence. It is penultimate for a reason — have have tried to lay out briefly but carefully in the preceding eight sentences the context in which I am making my conclusion.

      Are you mad because I have suggested that only jejune undergraduates seem interested in this debate these days, or that I have attributed the waving of the anti-political correctness flag in the faces of (often) liberal professors to the right-wing media? The waving of that flag occurs so often in the pages of conservative journals & in other media outlets that I think its empirical status is well-established. You’re free to disagree. I was, in fact, making a point about the way some students, in my experience, immediately reject as “political correctness” certain ideas or social/linguistic practices with which they disagree, or that make them feel uncomfortable, perhaps by implicitly calling into question their status as members of a dominant social group. It happens. Similarly, students often roll their eyes when I mention or quote Freud — without, usually, having ever cracked one of Freud’s books. (They should, he’s a marvelous writer, even in translation.) I have taken to telling those students that they can roll their eyes after they have read The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The Interpretation of Dreams, and Civilization and its Discontents, which happen to be my three favorites among Freud’s huge and varied oeuvre. But back to political correctness: It seems to me that often, though not always, my students cite “political correctness” as part of a ready-made attitude, rather than on the basis of any sort of thoughtful analysis. Students on the left no doubt do the same sort of thing. I’m sure if I were writing from an office at Reed College I might be talking about knee-jerk liberal attitudes trotted out in place of actual thought; but I’m at Clarkson & Clarkson being what it is I tend to encounter more conservative students and more conservative conformism than liberal.

      Finally — this is longer than my original post! — I think I didn’t end by blog post very well because I couldn’t find a way to say that, for me, public discourse, ought to promote freedom, joy, life, understanding, insight, etc. The sort of “politically correct” language that people like me supposedly engage in — yes, according to the right-wing political media — things like saying “he or she” — are designed to further those ends. I believe we ought to encourage uses of public language that do not encode and perpetuate hatred, or that serve to marginalize those we disagree with or are afraid of. I do not, however, believe in speech codes enacted by any institution, though it seems clear enough that employers have a responsibility to prevent harassment, including verbal harassment, in the work place.

  2. It’s work to reve myself up to an interest in insular, privileged wet behind the ears smelly self-skidmarked young (only young?) “Americans” and
    I feel on my way out as our former “Republic”
    is on it’s way down ignorant and oligarcic
    paths to the loss our our feted but no longer earned “Democracy” to a serfdom welcomed by these dolts.
    I’ll be 74 next month and here is a literary life self-summary:


    Edward Mycue was born in Niagara Falls, New York, and raised in Texas from age eleven. He was a Teaching Fellow at North Texas State, a Lowell Fellow at Boston University, a WGBH-TV Boston intern, a Macdowell Colony Fellow, a Peace Corps teacher in Ghana; spent wander-years in Europe–a shipyard in Rotterdam, wine, vegetable, chestnut harvests in southern France, sharing American literature at the International People’s College in Elsinore, Denmark, delivering washing machines in then West Berlin. Lots of tramping around.
    Edward Mycue following an initial exposure in 1961 in the summer U.S. Peace Corps training program and later in the 1966 entry in the the then countercultures of that free time has lived continuously in the San Francisco Bay area since 1970 following three years in mainly Western Europe, particularly the British poetry’s London ferment. During the 1960’s onward the sudden explosion of small-circulation little literary magazines set the ground for the literary life Edward Mycue entered when he first became a poet who entered the traffic and became part of the literary conversations of the English writing world and with it a wider world in translantion.
    Some of Edward Mycue’s books are: DAMAGE WITHIN THE COMMUNITY published by Panjandrum Press, San Francisco, 1973 and ROOT ROUTE & RANGE THE SONG RETURNS from Paper Castle in Melbourne, Australia . In the next decade came THE SINGING MAN MY FATHER GAVE ME from Menard Press in London, England and THE TORN STAR, EDWARD and the chapbooks NO ONE FOR FREE, GRATE COUNTRY , IDOLINO, NEXT YEARS’ WORDS and THE SINGING SURGEON. in the 1990’s came PINK GARDENS BROWN TREES and BECAUSE WE SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE (both of those from England) and the chapbook LIFE IS BUILT FROM THE INSIDE OUT. In 2000 came NIGHTBOATS and most recently MINDWALKING NEW & SELECTED POEMS 1937-2007. In 2009, Wordrunner Press of Petaluma, California published of 25 selected poems I AM A FACT NOT A FICTION. A television program featuring Edward Mycue is on the internet at and

    3 February 3, 2011

  3. In general, I think political correctness serves a good purpose, but not when it is excessive. I don’t like to make my writing too verbose by saying “he or she,” but I can see its application. However, when a place is looking to hire a new “waitron,” as though it were a robot, it seems the goal of offending absolutely no one has gone a little too far. Why can’t you say “waiter or waitress”? Because a radical feminist might be upset by having the waitress listed second? Perhaps you could use the word “server” instead, to avoid making up nonsense words. But “server” doesn’t seem to have the same meaning as “waiter.” The reason that the PC annoys me is for muddying the waters like this, and it is annoyance mostly directed at those who become overly offended at everything, such as the hypothetical radical feminist in the case above.

    But let’s get away from the battle of the sexes, because that is far too clouded of an issue to be the best example. How about the “mentally handicapped”? Why is calling someone “mentally retarded” a bad thing? Let’s look at the word “retard” for a moment. says:

    –verb… to make slow; delay the development or progress of (an action, process, etc.); hinder or impede.
    –noun… a slowing down, diminution, or hindrance, as in a machine.

    Those so disabled have had developmental hindrance, are impeded, are slowed. Why isn’t this an apt term? Sometimes, the word “retard” is used in offensive context, but in such a context, I’ve hardly ever heard it applied to someone who was actually “mentally handicapped.” In the offensive context, it is used to insinuate that a (normal, if you will) person has lower mental capacity than they should. Why make the PC switch to “handicapped,” then? Because it can have an offensive use? People make words mean whatever they want to. It could just be that “handicapped” will become the new “retarded” in the world of schoolyard insults.

    In closing, I think being PC is good in the context of trying to be generally socially acceptable. There are some things you just should not say to others and many times when you should hold your tongue. But in the quest to not offend anyone, I feel like language has gotten muddied with too many “waitrons” and “hir” (his or her) and “ze” (he or she). I guess I just wish people were more tolerant and less quick to get offended by completely innocuous words. Too many people just looking for a fight are turning everyday language into a mockery.

    1. In the case of “waitron,” I think the advertisement is being ironic: “Yes, we’re being PC,” says the restaurant, “but being a waiter is still mind-numbingly, robotic work” (wink, wink.) And by making up the word they also and at the same time get to poke a little satirical fun at excessive PC. In any case, it is better than the really ugly construction “waitperson.” There is an interesting parallel in the actor / actress pairing & in the poet / poetess pairing. No one says “poetess” nowadays unless they are bing intentionally insulting; fewer and fewer people use “actress,” including female actors. We just have poets and actors w/o any gender identification.

      In the case of “retard,” I would agree with you if only technical and formal definitions mattered, but I agree with Wittgenstein, who reminded us that a word’s meaning is its use & since “retard” has been used as an insult for so long in American English, it is probably best left on the shelf. As you know, I have myself used the word “retarded” in the title of a poem, as a simple descriptor that was in general medical use when I wrote the poem. I’m not sure what I’d call the poem if I wrote it today, but if it is ever republished, I’ll keep the same title. (For one thing, I think the poem itself redeems and stands in contrast to the ugliness of “retarded” as insult. Parallel case: Queer. When I was in school it was common to insult someone by calling them “queer,” which I think most people would now agree is hurtful and harmful; but gay people — some, anyway — have adopted “queer” as a marker of identity. We even have Queer Studies programs at universities. Interestingly, the use of the word “gay” for homosexual became common when I was in college (back before the queering of queer), but in recent years, I have often heard “gay” used as a term of derision.

      Because meaning is never fixed in language, but always shifting in response to cultural and historical contexts, it is almost impossible to formulate any completely satisfactorily general rule about “politically correct” language. My original post on this topic was an attempt to suggest that we ought to try to use political language to enlarge freedom rather than restrict it, which would make me “anti-pc” in the current discussion; but at the same time, I wanted to argue that language ought to be used as an instrument of kindness, love, and solidarity. This last doesn’t mean always being nice, by the way. In my book, being nice is overrated.

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