More than 200 people filled Angell Hall Auditorium B on Monday for “Fights about Language and Political Correctness: What’s at Stake?” The discussion, led by Anne Curzan, professor of English and associate dean for humanities, and linguistics professor Robin Queen, addressed the term “political correctness” and what it means in society today.
The event was a part of the University of Michigan’s Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Symposium. In celebration of King, the professors reflected on how subtle details in everyday language can have broad social impacts. Curzan began with a reminder that individual word choice matters in a society focused on maintaining progression and positive change.
“Our language choices matter,” Curzan said. “There is no language choice that is too small to matter. Every single one of us has a role in the choices that we make, and the conscious choices that we can make to thereby make a more inclusive environment.”
The discussion was based on three central themes: language choices matter, intention behind words does not outweigh interpretation and arguments about political correctness go beyond language.
Curzan defined political correctness and explained why the discussion surrounding it is often rife with tension.
“A big part of what we’re debating is power,” Curzan said. “The power to say what words mean, and to say who can and can’t use them … One of the things happening in PC language is that a different set of people — people who have been historically marginalized — are getting to call more of the linguistic shots. That’s what is feeling so contested about it.”
Queen commented on how the discussion on language choice can be used in conversations pertaining to larger social issues.
“A lot of people argue that changing language is a trivial point of intervention,” Queen said. “Maybe, but it’s a place to start. That doesn’t mean that thinking about language is the only thing to do. You can think about language and the climate at the same time. You can think about racism and the words of racism at the same time.”
Queen reflected on how politically correct language forces individuals to think about their place within a larger society and how this consciousness generates more mindfulness.
“How can we be respectful and generous to one another — not only as speakers, but also as listeners?” Queen said. “How can we approach one another from a spirit of love, of thinking of us all in the same boat, all trying to figure out the best ways to treat each other well? The treating each other well comes from goodwill on all of our parts.”
Curzan concluded the presentation with a reflection on how politically correct language is the responsibility of the speaker and the listener to uphold, adding it can be a catalyst for productive conversation and greater learning.
“We have to take responsibility for our words, and listen and know that these choices matter,” Curzan said. “As listeners, we would encourage a kind of generosity that if someone says something that is insulting or offensive, is to not assume that you know intention. One of the things we can do as listeners is to say, ‘here’s what I just heard,’ because that is true … that is a stance that creates more space about that. And dialogue is how we learn.”
Engineering freshman Ruben Coronel echoed Curzan’s sentiments and explained how language impacts individuals both in public and private conversation.
“These kinds of discussion are important to raise awareness, because a lot of people do not necessarily take the time to look at the way people are represented in non-public settings,” Coronel said. “Even if there’s a comment that is not as out in the open as someone making an insensitive remark to a newspaper, for example, (accurate representation) is still just as important.”
After the speech, Simon Rivers, curriculum coordinator for the English Language and Literature Department, said discussions like this is vital to celebrating the memory of King.
“All through our school’s years, we always had the day off, or there was some sort of break there,” Rivers said. “I think it is really important that we take this day where we honor this huge figure in American society and are either learning, doing some sort of service, participating in some sort of activism or raising awareness so it is not a wasteful day.”