Problematizing Language Censorship

Gavin Victor, Opinion Columnist

The following argument is one of nuance. The thoughts I am presenting may easily be perceived as insensitive and evoke emotional responses which will obscure the reality of the argument. I hope the reader can make a conscious effort to set aside any politically charged emotional responses for the sake of fair argument.

There is conscious etymological change going on in our society that is absolutely productive. As civil rights have progressed, terms have shifted. It is almost undeniable that the words we use have an impact on our realities and that in some cases, small linguistic shifts can alter the social climate. The concept of political correctness is the current level of evolution of this social movement.

But at some point, we will arrive at a point where the marginal benefit from such linguistic shifts will decline into pointlessness. It, as an effort for progression, will act in accordance with the law of diminishing returns, and begin to offer a very small level of social progression for the amount of effort put in. At some point, our focus on language as something that must be altered as an immediate priority for the sake of civil rights will bear less of the fruit it once bore. At this point, the society may be able to better progress itself by changing focus.

I absolutely do not profess to know when that time is. I exist in a position of privilege and ignorance on these matters. What I can do, though, is ask the question that scares me more than virtually any other does: How do we know when we are “there?”

Social progress is becoming ever more nuanced the further we progress. Big changes aren’t as simple as suffrage anymore, and in a sense, this is why we are able to focus so much on terms, linguistics and etymology. These are some of the most amorphous and continuously fluxuous aspects of human life. Taking that into consideration, it makes sense as a subject of both scrutiny and correction in a society making the effort to increase social comfort.

I think with every shift of word we invoke for the sake of social progression, we should analyze both intention and objective result. We should ask ourselves if we’re saying a new term for the sake of the person who may appreciate the switch, or if we’re saying it just to fit in with a certain group. Political correctness can result in barbaric treatment of people who mean no harm. Using a word that was politically correct recently but is no longer is a great way to face massive anger.

Even slips of mouth constitute outrage — imagine the reaction if one were to say “colored person” instead of “person of color.” Another example is the word “welfare” becoming “cash assistance” and then “temporary aid.” The sensitivity to these words is real. I feel it too. But why does it exist? At some point the terms must reach an asymptote of actually progressing meaning. This is one of the most important ways in which tribal politics is enforced within progressive spheres.

What I’m worried about is the possibility of us becoming misguided, lost in the weeds. It is so easy to get caught up in the momentum of our opinions and the opinions of those around us, that we forget to stop and reevaluate ourselves. Maybe that which we focus so much of our social justice energy on — be that the control of language — is not benefiting us as much as the results of other focuses could. Rather than almost synonymous euphemisms, we should, at some point, transfer that focus to more tactical aspects of our society.