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Senior Correspondent

Language In Black and White, and Blue and Red

Language In Black and White, and Blue and Red


A few years ago, if a conservative wanted to write someone off, he called her a liberal. That was not as demeaning as calling her a Socialist, but those who used either term derisively did it with the same sneer. These days, that fire has somewhat cooled and we no longer fall over in anguish at either term. Bernie Sanders has gone a long way toward redeeming both appellations. Is there another term that can be used with the appropriate snicker, if these no longer cut it?

Eureka! There is the term "politically correct." Accusing someone of being politically correct is now a term of derision. But just what does the term imply? Consider the following tongue in cheek example, excerpted from Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner:

There once was a young person named Red Riding Hood. One day her mother asked her to take a basket of fresh fruit and mineral water to her grandmother.

On the way to Grandma's house, she was accosted by a wolf, who asked her what was in her basket. She replied, "Some healthful snacks for my grandmother."

The wolf said, "You know, my dear, it isn't safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone."

Red Riding Hood said, "I find your sexist remark offensive.”

The wolf knew a quicker route to Grandma's house, burst in, ate her, put on Grandma's nightclothes and crawled into bed. Red Riding Hood entered the cottage and said, "Grandma, I have brought you some fat free, sodium-free snacks to salute you in your role of a wise and nurturing matriarch."

The wolf jumped out of bed intending to devour her. Red Riding Hood screamed, not out of alarm at the wolf's apparent tendency toward crossdressing, but because of his willful invasion of her personal space.

Having later peacefully resolved their problems, Red Riding Hood, Grandma, and the wolf felt a certain commonality of purpose. They decided to set up an alternative household based on mutual respect and cooperation.

When assaulted with that sort of ridicule we can respond with a defensive shriek, which will tell conservatives they have hit us where it hurts, or we can recognize our own occasional self-righteous pomposity and laugh along with our accusers.

The truth is, I belong to a group of people tired of the old sexist, racist language that demeans others or fails to face new progressive actualities. I came to terms with this reality a bit late. Just thirty years ago, as a pastor, I came to believe we should quit thinking of God as a male, a man, a father. I suggested to our church choir that we needed to clean up the sexist language in our hymns. There ensued a general revolt.  A hymnal was thrown on the floor and the looks I got challenged me, “Just try it!” While I lost that argument for the moment, the next edition of the hymnal did the job—sometimes grandly and other times awkwardly. It is a tough sell to go back to long-dead poets and attempt to bring their language up to speed. So while I tend to laugh at the ridicule that comes with our political correctness, I know that my laughter defangs what was meant to be an attack.

Conservatives are also good at language manipulation. Frank Luntz suggested that Republicans not call it an inheritance tax, but a death tax. Drilling for oil became “energy exploration.” And how many of you remember when The Defense Department was called The War Department? Much more recently the killing of civilians became “collateral damage.”

I remain proud to be called a liberal and I find good reason to celebrate the fresh progressive thinking that comes with using language that still says so.

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