“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” –Lewis Carroll
I’m not really sure if the above quote really applies to what I want to talk about today, because I think in the case of “Political Correctness” most people are at least in general agreement about what it means. They just differ on what it means.
Oh, that does sound like an Edward Learian/Lewis Carrollian dollop of nonsense, doesn’t it? I mean, “mean” means the same thing, as “mean,” know what I mean? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. It really depends on perspective, which in language we usually refer to as context. “I mean what I say” and “He was mean to me” use the same word, but they mean (pardon) entirely different things. From context it is easy to glean which interpretation to go with, at least in this case. In others? Not so much. Let’s talk about that.
The term “politically correct” or just “PC” has come up a lot lately, especially in the actual political arena and now, even closer to home, the programming for the upcoming World Fantasy Convention. But here’s the thing—it is almost always used dismissively, as in, “Oh, that’s just them being PC.” Or more likely, “I’m sick of this PC garbage.” So…what PC garbage are they talking about? We have to go on context here, because context is how we have to glean meaning. The dictionary tries to be helpful, so let’s use the example from Merriam-Webster: “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.”
Okay, seems clear enough. Until you take a hard look at the phrase “political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race)” and suddenly matters are not quite so clear. So if I had to speak to a group of KKK members, say, in this context it would be very un-PC of me to mention that non-white people in this country are not being treated fairly. My audience might be offended. They might even beat me to a pulp immediately, or at least give me a long, loud lecture on how it was really white people who are the victims here. Funny thing, though, as I mentioned above, the term is almost never used in this context.
Let’s face facts (also not PC in some circles): it is as close to impossible as you’d want to measure to voice a strongly-held opinion in this country or this planet without offending someone, likely many multiple someones. On any subject whatsoever. Dog walking. Guns in Schools. Regular vs Decaff. Am I lying? Look around you. Read a little bit and think about it. I have, and the inescapable conclusion I’ve come to is that the dictionary definition of PC is both accurate and completely meaningless. Most decent, thoughtful people willing to express a firm opinion understand that there are those who might disagree and generally are prepared to engage at that level, without giving a flying flip as to whether their opinion is “PC” or not. The term never arises. No. The term “Politically Correct” is used in one context, and one context only in this country—“You’re daring to suggest that I’m doing or saying something ignorant, bigoted, or thoughtless, and trying to make me feel bad about that and change my behavior.”
You doubt this? Read anything you want to in, for instance, the present Presidential campaign (if you can stand it) where the term is thrown about, and you’ll notice what direction it’s coming from. Always the same one—a case where someone does dare to suggest that maybe someone else wasn’t being entirely fair, or even decent, to another person or group of people, and immediately gets “PC” thrown in their face. Whatever its original meaning, this is what “PC” is now—an accusation that forms the first and last line of defense for indefensible behavior.
Which brings me back, in my roundabout fashion, to the World Fantasy Convention. The situation in its specifics are pretty straightforward—drafts of the programming became public, and more than a few interested parties suggested that, perhaps, the programming was a little light on subjects specific to writers of color and new voices and trends in fantasy literature and perhaps it was time to bring the tone of WFC a bit forward in time. To put it mildly, these suggestions were not well received. Apparently the phrase “a few PC ignorami” was used in reference to those making said suggestions, which told me that a thoughtful and measured response was off the table. I would say the programming chair is a bit old-school, but really that is something that could as well be said of WFC itself. Its roots are deep in pulp culture and the field as it existed during the heyday of Weird Tales. This is not a bad thing. It’s only bad if it’s used as an excuse to resist change and growth.
I want to be very clear on one thing—I love the World Fantasy Convention. It’s the one convention I can say this about–If I had time and the means, I would go every year. That doesn’t mean I expect it to keep the same focus—other than the focus it has always had on the professional aspects of the field, and no one has suggested it do otherwise. No. You respect the past, but do we really need one more panel on Lovecraft, especially at the expense of taking a better look and discussing more aspects of what the field is today? I don’t think so.
This is not “a few PC ignorami.” This is an intervention. Everything changes, grows, or dies. We love you, WFC. We don’t want you to die.
If you think that’s PC, you’re not listening. Which is what PC really means.