I really thought that after all these years the debate on political correctness would be all set in stone. And yet, apparently, it is still a contentious issue with oddly flammable opinions. Then again, at a college whose president is trying to get “affirmative action for conservatism,” an ideology that can range from limited government to white supremacy, I should not be surprised. There is a problem with all these attacks on “political correctness”: They don’t really understand the power of language. Mind you, I am by no means a philosophy major; I just like to read books and enjoy free speech. So, instead of thinking about language as a temporary vessel of ideas, one should understand the power of words to dehumanize sections of society, which is the contending point that political correctness is trying to address.
When someone expresses a word, it is tempting to think that the intentional ideas are conveyed perfectly to any listeners. However, languages require interpretation by the listeners, which means the listeners must supplement the words with their social meaning. In “Cratylus,” Plato traces the etymology of words and concludes that words are the combination of the onomatopoeia of the “natural name” of the word and the convention of society that imbued the meanings into each object. Indeed, the process of naming an object does not necessarily seek to describe the object in its truest sense but more so to create a representation of the object for the purpose of communication. Therefore, representations of objects diverged from the actual objects, designating the representation as the generator of ideas of said objects and not the other way around. Put simply, objects don’t create ideas; humans create ideas about objects.
The listener must always interpret the representation in order for it to mean something. The listener must rely on the data provided by society—their familial or communitarian signs and conventions—to incorporate the ideas into their contextual world. The expressed intention of words becomes entirely irrelevant, as the words take on new meaning in the world of the listener.
To illustrate my point, the statement “I am comfortable with gay marriage, but I do not think gay parents should be able to adopt” could have the same expressed intention as the statement “I agree with gay marriage, but gay adoption makes me feel weird.” However, assuming the listener is a gay person, like myself, the statement could mean “I don’t think gay people deserve all human rights because they are lesser humans than I am.”
Then, the expressed words engage in a project in which societal norms are created through the usage of words. The conception that societal norms are based on language paradoxically happens in the pre-spoken process of speech. While this sentence is quite loaded, Gilles Deleuze illustrated this point using the notions of “sense” and “nonsense.” When a statement is nonsensical, it is an arrangement of words that does not conform to the listener’s expectation of what truth is supposed to be. Thus, the agreement that words are sensible requires a pre-spoken expectation of conformity about what truth is and is not.
As a consequence, nonsense exists as all possible combination of words, while sense is a designated area of expectation when one engages in language. In other words, the act of speaking designates within society—as someone is speaking—the areas that language becomes sensible and thus constructs societal norms. Speaking in itself is imbued with the power of shaping one’s world, one word at a time. To make my point clearer, when someone references a number of philosophers such as Edmund Burke, Ciscero, and Gilberth K. Chesterton, they are designating that from this point on, their statements will have the power of intellectuality. In the reader’s mind, any opposing thoughts beyond this point must have a comparable intellectuality or their power of truth is nonsensical. Indeed, words can designate which are the structurally acceptable utterances in society.
As a consequence, the expression of ideas through language is imbued with power of societal normalization that can designate the various identities of people with an arbitrary amount of humanity.
We could imagine that when one person speaks within this world of over seven billion people, it is certainly just a drop in the societal discourse. However, the world is not a vacuum, and history isn’t necessarily neutral. For the people who historically have been in the position to exercise violence—whether through class, gender, or colonization—words can carry a lot more weight than the words of the less privileged. As such, societal norms can be shaped more easily by these people with power.
Then, the act of arguing ideas with dehumanizing implications carries the designatory power that prevents subsets of people to assume the supposedly humanistic idea that all humans are equal. Even so, these kinds of arguments are inherently unfair as the privileged speaker can choose to engage in ideas without cost, while the underprivileged listeners must first defend their status as a legitimate arguer. One could imagine that, if a wealthy person argues that tax and welfare should be lowered because welfare recipients are all “inner-city welfare queens,” their words can carry wide-ranging influence with minimal cost. However, a working-class mother—whose family would die without said tax to pay for the welfare—must first defend her status that she is not an “inner-city welfare queen” before she can engage in cost-benefits analysis of the policy. One can imagine the inherent powerlessness of this situation.
In truth, the dehumanizing aspect of language is incommunicable to the person engaging in said project because they have never had to experience it. Well, it would also take a lot of time just to explain all of the cruel aspects of language. Hence, we just agree to stop dehumanizing people for the sake of brevity, which is in other words: political correctness.
Bright Palakarn is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.