Trigger Warning: Mentions of abuses and ableist, casteist slurs
Posted by Ishan Kaur Khalsa
In an era of social media, cancel culture and increasing consciousness one often finds oneself wondering where to draw the line between political correctness and the urge to speak your mind. Yes, it may be difficult to navigate the turbulent waters of terminology when it keeps on evolving to incorporate individuals, identities and intersectionality(ies). However, it also brings up the question: how important is it to be politically correct and why?
At a time when we see the revival of one of the (arguably) greatest TV shows of all time F.R.I.E.N.D.S, one cannot help but wonder; how vital is it to be politically correct about the TV show that would not have seen the light of the day had it been released in today’s time because of its racist, homophobic tones? Especially the ones where Monica was fat-shamed, Rachel was patronised and Phoebe characterised as the crazy lady?
It might anger a lot of fans of this TV show, as to why this question is being asked now? After all, it is 23 years after the TV series set sail in a homophobic and racist America.
But the more important question is, do millennials feel a burden of censorship when they are being nudged to be politically correct? Is being politically correct a restrictive practice?
A colleague at work tells me that he does not want to engage in a conversation about gender equality with me, for he was scared that I would bring up the “big guns of Feminism” and he would be ridiculed for not having stuck by the rules of political correctness, and ended up avoiding the discussion altogether.
I wonder if the agenda of being politically correct ever included making people fear saying out their thoughts out loud, or was it just an inconsequential impact of the internet and cancel culture?
But political correctness is important too, right?
The answer to this lies in understanding the biases the language inherently beholds- for it almost subconsciously reinforces the bias. Language can be slippery, but its capability is never to be underestimated. Something as simple as ‘izzat loot li jaana’ inherently ensures impunity of the rapists and impotence of the system. The literal English translation of izzat lootna is “to rob one’s honor” [izzat = honor, lootna = to rob]. The women in our patriarchal systems are conditioned to subconsciously internalise these standards imposed on us through the language as they speak. Rape does not rob a woman of her character and respect, then why do we as a society through language pervasive gender-based violence, promote the internalisation of shaming and blaming the victim?
Another example is where your 12-year-old sibling picks up the abuse ‘motherf*cker’ on the school bus, and without understanding its patriarchal connotation where rape culture is imbibed, uses it the next time he has a fight in class.
The problem is not so much with the term, as much as it is with the normalisation of the term. Because the slippery slope is relatively steep when it comes to words such as these and more often than not, leads to acceptance and legitimisation of the act itself.
We also find severe mental disabilities being belittled through their casual usage. For instance, how F.R.I.E.N.D.S caricaturised Monica’s OCD for cleaning, or Phoebe’s PTSD. It is important to understand here that these are fictional characters that do not embody these diseases, and neither do we unless clinically diagnosed. But their casual usage clearly belittles someone’s identity as a person with a disability.
Similarly, caste-based discrimination is deeply entrenched in our language, people keep using casteist slurs casually on an everyday basis without considering the historical and sociological baggage these words carry. Words like Bhangi, Chamar, Kanjar, Kameeni/Kameena are deeply insensitive to communities and it’s high time we educate ourselves, and learn to use our language better.
While it does not work like a bargaining system and one cannot suddenly expect the world to stop saying slurs that shame women, castes or mock disabilities in a day, one can surely hope that the realisation comes gradually, if not all at once.
Therefore it is important to discard wrongful terminologies. But it is more important to bring about a consciousness on the usage of such words or phrases to convey in our daily conversations. So how do we go about navigating this ship of political correctness without being characterised as a prude, uptight or hyper-woke?
We take the first step of bringing about the consciousness in the usage of our words and of those around us, in our language and of those around us. We could try to bring about awareness about the connotations that certain words behold.
We try to be considerate and raise awareness of the fact that casually calling someone dyslexic is not funny. It is a disability and not a convenient slur to use to joke around with or mock someone. Just as the disability rights discourse suggests – your joke is another person’s disability. Even though we cannot change the connotations that certain words bring, we can bring about consciousness on their usage and hope for more responsible usage. So that every time someone casually swears on a word such as motherf*cker or uses ableist slurs in a day to day conversation, it would come with a realisation of using someone’s identity as a form of mockery.
It is this conscious and continuous realisation that might just bring about a change that is required. But one must also remember that political correctness is not a battle to be fought in a day, for change happens only through a constant and continuous struggle. This is however not an endorsement of the emotional labour that goes into creating this ecosystem of consciousness. More often than not, the parties who are affected, are the ones who are left to do the emotional labour required to right this wrong and it is a responsibility that they have not asked for, in addition to the decades of trauma and oppression that they might have had to face owing to their identity. It is therefore the responsibility of the entire society, more importantly that of the people who have had the privilege to not be subjected to these slurs, to call out their friends, family and loved ones. These make for uncomfortable conversations and confrontations, but are just as necessary to rattle status quo.
It is also important to understand that the world around us is insensitive to great lengths, but the compromise is not between political correctness and free speech but rather sensitivity v/s reinforcing age-old biases. It is only about equipping oneself with the right tools to survive in a world of social media, where words have an impact beyond borders, time and communities. So, “I have to watch every word I say” could rather be perceived as “I’d like to know the correct way to express myself” instead of taking it as a form of censorship.
Featured image source: newrepublic