I must have been six or seven when my grandmother, a schoolteacher, explained to me “when we’re talking about boys and girls together, we call them all ‘he’.” I loved my Nana, but thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard.  When I got to college, I realized that many others felt the same way.  Most people were saying “he or she” and writing “s/he” – unfazed by the ridicule of the few who hadn’t caught on.

This isn’t something I thought about much over the years. But a recent comment by Sharon Presley, reminded me why sexism in language really does matter:

“(L)anguage communicates the rules of our culture and has the power to restrict behavior. It reiterates(repeats) the social patterns of our culture and thereby perpetuates cultural norms. Children’s minds are molded by language so that they think like other members of the society. A child’s reality is shaped by the way they talk about reality.”

Presley went on to discuss the use of generic male pronouns; the use of the word “man” to indicate “humanity;” the fact that women are more often described in terms of their relations to men while men are described in terms of their occupations, and other ways that women are routinely objectified or trivialized through language.

To understand Presley’s point, men should imagine things were the other way around.  Imagine growing up in a culture where femininity was presumed and masculinity was a lesser, secondary exception.  Don’t tell me that it wouldn’t affect your confidence, how you thought of yourself, and how you thought of your masculinity, as you grew up.

While men may not yet experience this kind of discrimination precisely, one might argue that they are beginning to understand how it feels to be marginalized and suppressed.   Increasingly, what had previously been recognized as normal behavior for young males, including a need for intense physical movement and aggressive play, is being pathologized as multiple variations on the ADD/ADHD theme.  According to a recent BusinessWeek article:

“The U.S. — mostly its boys — now consumes 80% of the world’s supply of methylphenidate (the generic name for Ritalin). That use has increased 500% over the past decade, leading some to call it the new K-12 management tool. There are school districts where 20% to 25% of the boys are on the drug, says Paul R. Wolpe, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the senior fellow at the school’s Center for Bioethics.’”

Prescribing drugs for the “condition” of being little boys doesn’t seem to have done much to help them.  A study by the Center on Education Policy released earlier this year revealed a startling gap in academic performance between boys and girls.  In every state and at every level, boys lagged behind girls in reading proficiency.  “There is a consistent achievement gap,” said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center. “Something is going on in our schools holding back boys.”

Could that something be a system-wide view of boys that treats their normal male behavior as a pathology to be medicated and suppressed?  And if so, would this be any different from the way feminists have long argued normal female behavior has historically been treated?

Whether or not a boy is subjected to such treatment himself, if he is within the system that promotes this view it is sure to influence his perception of himself as he grows up — just as the traditional marginalizing of women influences girls’ perceptions of themselves.  Given the potentially harmful impact of such cultural conditioning, I can appreciate someone like Laurence Berg(Canada Research Chair for Human Rights, Diversity and Identity) saying “(w)hat [they]’re calling the ‘PC movement’ I would call a social movement by marginalized people …to use language that’s more correct—not ‘politically correct’—that more accurately represents reality.”

Undoubtedly, these aforementioned changes in language were a step forward.  But, as we will see below, the modern PC movement  has become something far more than just the correcting of harmful or slighting speech and attitudes — and something far less benign.

I was first introduced to political correctness in one of my Chinese history classes, when I learned that Mao Zedong and his followers used the term to distinguish acceptable thought (and even acceptable math!) — and in the process, to help distinguish those whose lives would be destroyed from those who would be spared. So when I saw the term on the bulletin board of my college newspaper, I thought it was a joke.  Perhaps those who had written it were poking fun at themselves by making the comparison to a murderous and psychotic regime.

I would soon learn, however, that they were dead serious. I caught my first glimpse of the PC movement’s true nature when I saw a friend thrown out of a public forum for opposing sanctions against South Africa; Months later, another friend was evicted from the college dorms for taping to his door an article deemed “offensive”;   Meanwhile, stacks of the alternative newspaper I edited were routinely dumped into trash cans on campus. Rather than celebrating diversity and tolerating different perspectives, the PC movement on campus was bullying students into ideological conformity.

More recently, another facet of the movement’s less tolerant side has emerged.  It is the use of the term “privileged” to describe those who are not routinely discriminated against.  Laurence Berg, for example, is paraphrased here by Momoko Price as saying that “…in its original context, PC was a pejorative term used by people who felt they were losing something. Exactly what they were losing is very hard to describe, especially to them. But many sociologists and historians today have come to a consensus on what they call it: it’s a loss of privilege—and in terms of race, a loss of white privilege.”

That just doesn’t ring true to me — and not only because Berg gets the history wrong. Perhaps, as Price’s title suggests, it’s because I’m white. But I don’t see why suppression of dissent from officially sanctioned opinion, and the dampening of genuine intellectual inquiry is a good thing for anyone.  Undoubtedly, there are those who react against the PC movement because they feel threatened by the rise of the historically marginalized.  But for PC proponents to dismiss all opposition as bigotry or defensiveness is to turn a blind eye to their movement’s own intolerance and abuses that have invited such resistance.

Consider Price’s description of “white privilege:”:

“This is where the phenomenon of white privilege comes in. According to Berg, the problem with talking about social inequality is that “privilege is never experienced as privilege, but marginalisation is always experienced as marginalisation.” He means that we don’t see white, middle-class values as white, middle-class values. We see them as normal. Conversely, we see needs that fall outside of these values as ‘special interest’ issues that perhaps deserve attention, but not too much attention.”

Certainly, those who do not experience discrimination may go through life blissfully unaware of the harm it causes others. And they did not do anything to earn their status.  It was something they were born into.  But does this constitute a “privilege”?  The word “privilege” connotes the possession not only of something one has not earned, but of something one really has no right to.  It implies a benefit that has been granted by someone else and that can and perhaps should be revoked by someone else.

There is something insidious about this.  It is an upside-down way of looking at discrimination.  Instead of seeing behavior that ends up marginalizing groups of people as the problem, it turns our attention to those who are not marginalized.  To declare that they are thereby “privileged” is to hint that they are somehow culpable in the harm that has been done — whether or not any specific individuals ever actually engaged in discriminatory speech or actions themselves.

Using the word in this way is also to accept bigotry as the default.  To assert that not being harmed by discrimination is some kind of “privilege” is to assert that oppression is or should be the norm and suggests, in a manner reminiscent of PC’s Maoist roots, that those who do not suffer from discrimination ought to.

To declare that non-oppression is a privilege is to lay the intellectual groundwork for bringing everyone down to the level of the oppressed.  Wouldn’t empowering everyone be a more noble goal?

The way proponents of Political Correctness tell it, their movement is all about respect:  respect for everyone, regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status.  But an honest appraisal of how that movement has played out tells a very different story.  In the effort to rid our culture of language and behavior that denigrates some members of society, the movement has found new groups to denigrate; despite proclaiming that people should be judged on their merits rather than their skin color or gender, it has made this kind of group affiliation even more significant both in policy and in discourse; and while trying to get people to look critically at how they speak about one another it has imposed rigid doctrines of acceptable speech.

The use of the word “privilege” is just one more step on this counterproductive path.  It is unfortunate that a movement founded on a claim of sensitivity to the conditions of others remains so blind to the impact of its own words and deeds, to its own intolerance and rejection of diversity, and to its own use of language as a tool for social control.

Originally published on MattCockerill.com, September 10, 2012