Just Say It Means Vagina...
It started as a joke. 

In the 1970's, liberal writers used the term "political correctness" as self-satire to deflate blind extremism in themselves by gently poking fun at the tendency.  In the 1990's the phrase fell into the wrong hands and has been used to bash some pretty good, decent impulses in civil society ever since.  "Political Correctness" is a phrase so insidiously pejorative that if you had hired a think tank so blatantly grasping and evil that they had decided to call themselves "The Selfishly Ruining Everything for Everybody Foundation,"  it still would have taken them years and years and billions and billions of dollars (just to cover the cost of  postit notes and whiteout) to come up with anything half as corrosive.

Think about it.  Nothing could be called "Political Correctness" and sound like a good idea.  First there is the "political" part.  Although we all have our views on how we'd like our countries to be run, the actual business of governing is considered by many average citizens to be pretty dirty.  When we say someone is being "political," we usually mean that they're kind of lying.  Politics and religion are subjects that the etiquette book folks  advise us to avoid at the dinner table.  So right here at the beginning of the phrase we have the impression of aggressive mendacity.  In other words, you're starting out already in great danger of being what the kids like to call a "douche."

And that's even before we get to the "Correctness" part.  There are few terms that are more of an affront to the American soul.  (I mean U.S. American here, but I think we can probably include everyone from Canada down to Terra Del Fuego on that one.)  We like to think of ourselves (whether we are or not) as free and unfettered, unfenced in, rebels who fight the law even if we know the law will win, mavericks quitting our jobs and figuring out a way to call it "going rogue," etc.  "Correctness" we associate with prissy, uptight people with metaphorical sticks up uncomfortable parts of  their anatomy. This image of ourselves is so strong in fact that even the prissiest, most uptight person you know with the biggest stick up the most uncomfortable part of their anatomy still thinks he or she is a rebel in some way.  Ask them sometime.  They've probably got a Harley t-shirt wrapped up in plastic somewhere in their house that proves it.

Imagine if we called the idea that when a group of people decides they don't want to be called something anymore and we agree to call them something with less bad associations "Civility in Speech."  Would Bill Mahr have called his show "Incivility in Speech"?  Would people say, "Well, this joke may be a little un-Civil, but..." or "I don't know what the Civil term for those people is now, but..."  All the above would tend to make the speaker sound like what the kids like to call a "douche."  And when you think about it, isn't calling someone a name they've told you hurts their feelings one of the hallmarks of douchery?

But we're stuck with "Political Correctness" now.  People feel downright proud of themselves for casual douchebaggery towards whole segments of the population they may or may not know anything about.  Political Incorrectness may even serve as the moth-balled Harley t-shirt that makes them able to think of themselves as a True American Rebel.

There is a work-around though.  I found this out the other day when I saw that in 2003 Arizona had decided to rename Squaw Mountain Piestewa Peak.  Surprised at this civil move from the state that is currently guilty of the most infamous example of legally sanctioned intolerance since the 1960's, I decided to investigate.  It turns out that in 1992, Native American activist Suzan Harjo got on the Oprah show and said that "squaw" meant "vagina" in Algonquin.  Etymologists are not sure this is 100% true.  There are lots of words in Native American languages that kind of sound like "squaw" and just mean "woman."  What is true is that White people have never used the word as a compliment.  There's been nothing in the way "squaw" has been used for a couple of centuries now to really separate it from secretly or even not-so-secretly being a dirty word for the female anatomy.

Innocent or not, the damage is done to the word "squaw" now.  After years of complaining from Native Americans falling on deaf ears, one little hint that this word was really a naughty word for lady parts has erased "squaw" off the map - literally.  Idaho, Maine, and Arizona have renamed mountains, roads, waterways, and islands to get rid of the word.  The American Ornithologist's Union even renamed a duck.

What's amazing to me is that I never heard about any of this.  I might not have been paying attention at the right time to the right thing, but the whole "squaw" brouhaha completely passed me by.  I remember in the seventies and eighties how people laid down on the floor kicking and screaming when Native Americans objected to sports teams being represented by cartoon Indians with big noses and googly eyes.  People acted like not being able to do the tomahawk chop or whatever it was at a Braves game was on par with spitting on their grandmas.

This a thing I've never understood about Civility in Speech.  What does it cost you to stop saying something that offends someone else?  Yes, it is embarrassing to be the one who didn't get the memo about a term being declared douche-y.  It happened to me on the Oriental/Asian thing.  I grew up in a part of the country so homogeneous that it was ethnic to be Methodist.  It's one of the only places outside Sweden where you can go into a store and find that hair colors of all shoppers range from light brown to white-blonde and all eyes are blue, green, or blue-green.  I didn't know any Asian people.  Someone had to say,  "Oriental is considered offensive now. Hadn't you heard?" No, I hadn't.  A moment of embarrassment for me, but we all managed to go on with our day. 

If you find yourself thinking,  "You know what's really holding me back?  My life would be so much smoother if I could just call someone a n**ger if I want to," let me tell you something about yourself.   You're a racist.  Not a little racist, either.  You're a great big ol' racist. Not being able to use offensive words is only holding you back in the same way not being able to wear a white hood to the grocery store is.  You need to be held back.  It makes things much nicer -- and safer -- for the rest of us.

Anything short of that and being careful about the words you choose is not going to hurt you.  It may be awkward to use new terms until you get used to it.  You may have an embarrassing gaffe if you forget or don't get the memo that you need to edit your vocabulary.  If we called this word thing "Civility in Speech" then maybe it wouldn't be a big deal for the etiquette people to publish columns in newspapers or websites that listed which terms had been declared "in" or "out."  I think I remember them doing that in the 1970's.  We laughed a while about the idea that our "mailman" might now have to become a "personperson" but since our "mailman" was actually the old mailman's daughter, "postal worker" or "mail carrier" turned out to be less awkward verbiage than we'd been using before.  And so, we all went about our day unharmed -- which is how it should be if we could just get rid of this notion that there's something romantically rebellious about douchebaggery.

You know, I think I have heard that "politically correct" was a term used by Victorian pornographers to refer to the vagina...


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