There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language. Each word, no matter how commonplace, packs a powerful punch. We can string words together to make someone’s day, break a heart, spread ideas or even cause mass hysteria. While some people dismiss this fascinating phenomenon with the phrase “words are just words,” this ideology entirely ignores the communicative properties of words and invalidates their importance to both society and culture.
Because of our advanced level of communication, we must be hyper-aware of what we are saying and the connotations of the words we speak. I have found that our society often does not prioritize this understanding; our education on these connotations and how they might make others feel is extremely lacking.
I have found myself surrounded by phrases such as “that’s so gay” on a day-to-day basis. My peers — and honestly, myself — rarely bat an eye when it comes to comments like the ones I just described. Our society has normalized the use of words that describe someone different from ourselves in negative contexts to the extent that we have become desensitized to such occurrences.
When was the last time you heard someone say “that’s so gay” to something that made them happy? Likely: never. It is often used when a person is responding to something they do not like or when mocking something. Using the word “gay” with a negative connotation is a form of discrimination toward the LGBTQ+ community.
I used the previous phrase as my example because it is such a common one to hear, but the same kind of ignorance is perpetuated with many other misused words and phrases such as “I’m going to kill myself” or “that’s so Jewish.” Using words packed with such heavy social or historical implications in frivolous contexts is ignorant and disappointing. However, if I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt, maybe they don’t know what it is they are doing and why it is wrong.
In that case, I’ll break it down for you. Several of the examples above can be referred to as microaggressions, which are typically subtle ways of showing negative attitudes toward a marginalized group.
One of the reasons why this issue persists is because of the numerous people in positions of power who have encouraged our society’s miseducation. For example, former President Donald Trump once stated, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people and I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”
In some ways, there is value in being straightforward and to the point, but to encourage an atmosphere of totally uncensored speech soundly rejects the spirit of democracy and goes against our values of diversity, safety and a welcoming environment. Trump’s apparent lack of time to replace a disrespectful word with a respectful one has nothing to do with time and everything to do with the ingrained racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia that prevails in our country — despite how progressive we might think it is.
Some of our distaste for political correctness can be traced back to ancient Greece, when wealthy students were taught more advanced rhetoric than their less wealthy counterparts in order to give them an advantage in winning elections or even evading prison time. These ideas even carried into our country’s founding, where a “free marketplace of ideas” was encouraged through limited government censorship. This meant the persuasive nature of ideas contributed in large part to a particular idea’s popularity and acceptance, even if the idea was persuading listeners in the wrong way. These trends show a historical relationship between eloquent speech paired with an element of distrust, which still exists today.
For this reason, we sometimes associate carefully executed speech with calculated, ill-intentioned speech that is designed to manipulate. Trump’s simpler and less sophisticated (yet politically incorrect) rhetoric appeals to many Americans because it makes you feel more like you are just talking to the “guy next door.” This tendency to associate ourselves with those more demographically similar to us is called homophily, and explains why we might prefer to listen to a more casual speaker talk to us rather than a grandiose speaker who seems, and probably is, smarter than us.
With that said, it is no secret that our leaders play a formidable role in promoting or impeding political correctness. While some of us may be averse to the eloquent, occasionally complicated and politically correct speech that is associated with the left, I urge you to keep in mind that you can say the exact same things in hundreds of different ways with varying degrees of social acceptability — that is the beauty of the English language.
Circling back to the tremendous impact our leaders have on our social perspectives: whether it is the leader of a country, a celebrity, a parent, a coach or a teacher, every influence, large or small, matters. This is especially applicable to our youth, who are highly impressionable throughout their journey of becoming an adult with steadfast values and beliefs. It is the job of those with more experience and knowledge than the youth to catch these wrongdoings and correct them before they become cyclical, persistent and difficult to reverse.
To further combat these shortcomings, the American Psychological Association suggests that if you are the victim of a microaggression, you should try to consider the context of the situation to help you determine the best course of action, practice self-care and use your experiences as an opportunity to educate. On the other hand, if you are a bystander, it is useful to act as an ally to the victim and assist in uplifting their voice. It is important to allow them to speak for themselves as well, and act more as a helping hand than an overpowering voice.
While I have not found political incorrectness to be an outstanding issue here at the University of Michigan, that is only my experience as a white person and does not represent our student body as a whole, nor other parts of our country. If you hear something on campus or elsewhere, say something. In order to encourage productive conversation and change, be vigilant in your endeavors by educating rather than scolding or talking down to those who lack political correctness.
I envision a society where everyone is articulate, inclusive and sensitive to their own speech and either receptive or corrective to the speech of others. Remember to think before you speak and be conscious of others’ beliefs, identities and feelings. With the correct educational reinforcements and a dash of heightened social awareness, as well as our leaders setting a desirable example for others, the solution to this issue is hiding in plain sight.
Anna Trupiano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.