Language Orthodoxy and Political Correctness

They say language is performative. I get that. I would not contest it.

Over the past month my colleagues and I have been conducting in-depth interviews with Americans of all walks of life. I must say, it has been one of the most interesting professional experiences I have had (quite possibly, this is a feeling I always experience when I do qualitative research). We are so deeply embedded in our own bubbles that sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us that a conversation with someone different can flow almost naturally. As someone who actually struggles at small talk (I claim I am an introverted extrovert), a script helps and sometimes I forget that we have such different lives and backgrounds even though we have limited time and specific topics to cover.

Our project aims to understand polarization in the United States as well as the role identity, otherization, and in-group and out-group dynamics play into this phenomenon (as well as the extent of it). Methodologically, we used cluster segmentation analysis to identify different segments within American society. We have named the groups at the extremes the Progressive Activists (8 per cent of the population) and at the other end the Religious or Christian Conservatives (25 per cent, names are still under review). There are four other groups in the middle, who hold different views (in tone and intensity). As someone who is clearly not American, I have not interviewed the people who most strongly opposed immigration as that could bias the interview, but I have talked to everyone else from the spectrum. I am also lucky that my colleague who has interviewed the Religious Conservatives is extremely brilliant and I can watch his interviews – he is one skilled man at eliciting interesting information.

And wow. Speaking to people of different beliefs generates a sense of empathy and understanding that perhaps only fiction can also engender. Qualitative research entails suspending judgment and letting the interviewee express her views without challenging them and hopefully with full honesty – I’d strongly encourage everyone to do that at least every once in a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I still hold my progressive views, but as time goes by, I am more and more convinced that the way the left in the U.S. (perhaps also in the U.K. and increasingly more in some European countries) goes about it is only fostering more backlash and taking us further and further away from our ideals. This applies in different realms, but today I want to briefly talk about language.

Americans from all segments told us that political correctness is a problem. This included (and I hate hate hate categorizing) black, Hispanic, Asian, and white Americans. Everyone, except a few in the Progressive Activists segment. We must be respectful and mindful when we speak, there are rules of decorum and human decency that we should all follow, but when language orthodoxy gets on the way of people’s ability to ask genuine questions, we have a problem.

There are now many words or things that one is not supposed to say and the list increases at a fast pace. I must admit that I am still trying to figure out how to go about it and I can definitely understand the rationale behind it, yet even as I write these words,  I fear that what I am saying might be perceived as offensive and insensitive (should we really feel like that?). The left too swiftly assumes ill-intent and casts those who stray away from acceptable language as someone to be ostracized, black-listed. In doing so, in a way, we are distancing ourselves from (may I add, essential) ideals of freedom and deliberation.

In a podcast I was recently listening to, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it better. She said that in liberal orthodoxy there are now things that we are not supposed to say and there are now “fiercely leftist crusading well-meaning people” that make those who don’t use the right language feel tainted; people in my “tribe” respond by silencing, not with debate.

More than shutting others down we need to be better equipped to, first (and most importantly) listen with an open mind and an assumption of good will and, second, debate with respect. I am afraid that if we don’t do that, we will push people towards Trump-alikes, not for the love of them but for lack of alternatives that don’t leave them feeling like inferior beings not worthy of conversation.

I’d love to have a conversation about this. Thoughts?

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