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Political correctness for the “naughty aughties”

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2001. Political Correctness for the ìnaughty aughtiesî. Corrigo, Newsletter of the STC Technical Editing SIG March:9.

“Political correctness is an oxymoron”—Jean-Marie Golsse

Even as we’re moving through the first decade of our new millennium, the “naughty aughties” as some wags have dubbed it [*1], we’re still dragging along plenty of baggage [*2] from the last century. For example, inadvertently using offensive or politically incorrect words remains one of those things that wakes editors, screaming, in the middle of the night. (Others include new releases of Microsoft Word, deadlines, documentation reviews by the Marketing department, and subject-matter experts. Come to think of it, all things considered, it’s a wonder that any of us get a sound night’s sleep.)

[*1] “Aught” derives from “naught” (zero), thus 2001 expressed as ’01 becomes “aught one”.
[*2] The luggage variety, not female dependents.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a convenient list of “dirty” words we could refer to to save us from the perils of inadvertently offending some major component of our audience? The good news is that such a word list exists. The bad news? It’s called a “dictionary”. Unfortunately for those of us who still care about such things, a skilled writer can use just about any word offensively with a little skill. Sometimes all it takes is an appropriate adjective. For example: “That Geoff—he's such a @#$%&! editor!” Conversely, words and phrases routinely used to cause offence are easily subverted and turned to perfectly acceptable uses: calling your male puppy a perfect son of a bitch is both complimentary and technically correct.

George Carlin became briefly famous for his standup routine on the seven dirty words you can’t use on television; he observed, for example, that nobody would object to someone "pricking their finger", but inadvertently reversing that innocent phrase in public will get you tarred and feathered in most civilized countries. Speaking of which, language that’s perfectly acceptable at home can get you smirks—if not worse—if you try them abroad. With the Sydney Olympics a recent memory, you have to wonder how many North Americans spent a night in the lockup after innocently inciting their friends to root [*3] for the home team. It’s a good thing the Australians have a robust collective sense of humor.

[*3] Rooting is only legal for adults who have reached the age of consent and even then, not in public. No wonder Australians develop a good sense of humor.

So what’s an editor to do? John Paul Jones once observed that “a gentleman never unintentionally gives offence”, and we all strive to be gentlemen—unless we’re female, of course. Which leads me, inevitably enough, to the merits of gender political correctness. In Quebec, we commonly refer to a girlfriend as “ma blonde” [*4], but using such wording in English will earn you (if you’re lucky, and receive no worse punishment) a visit from the PC police. The problem isn’t the inevitable flurry of “dumb blond” jokes that ensues, but rather the objectification of women by making their hair color their most important characteristic. Most of my blond friends, male and female alike, have been known to occasionally apologize for having a "blond moment", but doing so follows the general rule of thumb that you’re a wit if you mock yourself or your ethnic group, but a bigot or fool if you mock anyone else.

[*4] “My pet blond”—sort of.

Offence occasionally attains the force of legislation. For instance, the “Americans with Disabilities Act” avoids the inoffensive word “handicap” (having more difficulty in doing something [*5]) because the word was used pejoratively for so long. But a vocal minority of nominally “disabled” folk quite correctly point out that “they're still able", and that calling them “disabled” perpetuates the problem by drawing attention to the handicaps rather than the person. So as an editor, should you fight to uphold the voice of reason, and defend the dictionary definition, or should you cave in to political correctness and go with the legal definition?

[*5] If you don’t believe me, consult a dictionary. Any dictionary. And don’t stop to read the dirty words while you’re doing so; you might inadvertently use one of them in future edits.

So what’s a sensitive, well-informed technical communicator to do? You’re going to offend someone no matter what you choose to do. That being the case, speak your truths plainly, with head held high, and let the objections fall whither they may. Then, should anyone accuse you of giving offense, relax and ignore them, secure in the knowledge that you’re among the illuminati who use words the way Webster intended them to be used. As Will Shakespeare once remarked, the criticisms of those with unduly thin skins are undoubtedly “a tale told by an idiot [*6], full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

[*6] Skillful use of literary references, particularly ones created by “dead white males”, is always an acceptable defence. Defuse accusations of political incorrectness—in this case, insensitivity to the needs of idiots—by using the “artistic merit” defence.

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