Saturday, March 28, 2009

Political Correctness: An Evolving History

I remember the first time I heard the term "African-American." No I don't. But I do remember my reaction to it. I thought it was a fantastic development. What a great step forward to refer to people by their history rather than by their skin color. I sensed a movement underway, a step in the right moral direction.

Then, before you knew it, the backlash emerged and branded this new language as "political correctness." I in turn branded the backlash people as "respect-challenged." (Not really, but I should have thought of it.)

As time went by--and hyphens became downright fashionable--a strange thing happened: I actually started to sympathize with the backlashers. This new terminological movement no longer moved toward the truth; it obfuscated against it. I found myself increasingly receptive to the comedians who exposed it as the domain of the human nature-denying academic bourgeoisie. "Hey, let's be honest, when we make a distinction about race, we really are talking about race. Isn't it dishonest to pretend we're talking about history when we really are talking about skin color?" I had to admit, they had a point.

But then, no sooner had I joined the anti-PC crowd that I felt compelled to switch sides again. Why? Because now I realized that every true bigot and misogynist was using "PC" as a shield against their racism and misogyny. I hesitate to think about how many Life Minutes I lost listening to idiot men on sports and political talk radio preface a comment with, "Well, I may not be the most 'politically correct' guy on the planet, but..." and then follow it up with something baldly racist or sexist. From their perspective, it was a brilliant ruse: Hey, I can say and do anything I want with no accountability, simply by being all unapologetically masculine about my hatred and/or ignorance!

Now, alas, as of one week ago, I once again find myself flirting with the other side. First, I was gently chastened for using the term "normal," when apparently "typical" is the preferred word. That's okay. If I think really hard about it, I can see that the former holds more of a value judgment than the latter. Next, I was sitting in my church, which I lovingly call Our Lady of Prius, when the band struck up "Amazing Grace." Everybody knows the words (at least to the first verse), but I nevertheless decided to glance up at the screen where they flash all song lyrics. And this is what I saw:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved someone like me.
"Someone"? "Someone"?! Excuse me, but the word is "wretch": that saved a WRETCH like me. I didn't know until now that "Amazing Grace" was written by a reformed slave trader, John Newton, and that the song may or may not have been his apologia for engaging in said profession. But it doesn't matter. Whatever this song's composer is regretting--and he's obviously writing from a state of extreme regret--he's calling himself a "wretch." A miserable person. Someone who is filled with self-loathing. It's a strong word. It's important.

You can't mess with author intent like that. You can't change self-loathing into matter-of-fact genericism. And what exactly is wrong with the word "wretch"? Is it offensive to somebody? Is there a cabal of self-proclaimed wretches out there who are both self-loathing and overly sensitive? Is there a wretch lobby that has decided to build awareness of their condition and demand more societal respect via a new microsite at www.wretch-the-fever.com?

It's ridiculous. No, it's beyond ridiculous. It's shameful. In fact, it's not even politically correct. It's just incorrect... which is a PC way of saying "wrong."

- A Wretch

3 comments:

Kristen Gill said...

Great post! I have had similar thoughts on the matter. I have always not liked the term "African American" as some people I know who are "black" have neither African nor American roots. So, it's weird to call them something that does not relate to them whatsoever! And, taking Amazing Grace's lyrics and changing them is just plain wrong! Bah!

Ted said...

Truly you never cease to amaze me Marc. You have such an interesting mosh pit of ideologies. Rather enjoyed it. And truth be told I would rather be called a wrech than someone. The former is much more accurate.

Vegas Gopher said...

Conk -- I remember seeing those lyrics changed to "saved a soul like me" years back. Similar intent, I guess. I think it comes not from the PC movement, but rather the push to make language in the Catholic church gender neutral.

First there was tap-dancing around masculine pronouns in prayers, changing "for the good of all his church" to "for the good of all the church," for example. And once that door opened, nothing was ... well ... sacred, including the lyrics to favorite hymns.

Now, I don't know if "wretch" ever took on feminine connotations, i.e. it was used as a synonym for "prostitute," but I do believe there was a time, at least, when it was considered an overly base term that was too strong for church language. The people who wanted to see it removed from "Amazing Grace" probably didn't want their little rugrats to pipe up from the back seat on the way home from Mass with, "Mommy, what does 'wretch' mean?"

Or "Daddy" -- I don't want to come off as gender-insensitive or imply that I believe only women were behind this push to soften the church's language. Ah dammit, now I'm doing it too!