Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness
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Supreme Court

A very interesting week for the laws of marriage and the legal status of alternative lifestyles produced a very interesting moment for the importance of story telling and remembering our cultural history. The discussion of Proposition 8 in front of the Supreme Court produced one of those moments when words and what they mean became the focus. The word for the week was marriage as both Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act sought to define the word, not in use but in the eyes of the law.

The legal definition of words and the common usage of words are frequently at odds but the process of changing the meaning in the courtroom differs from changing word meanings on the street only in who listens to the appeals. In law, we have judges, while in common use, all of us sit on the court. The stories that we tell become the anecdotal evidence, the very core of how we change our usage of words and what they mean on the street and in the courts. In the middle of the arguments on California's Proposition 8, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “If you tell a child that somebody has to be their friend, I suppose you can force the child to say, ‘This is my friend.’ But it changes the definition of what it means to be a friend.” The Chief Justice made it very clear that words and their meanings change in unintended ways under the influence of both legal cultural actions.

In practice, lawyers argue the legal meaning in front of judges by citing law and precedent, while interest groups argue common meaning while citing stories and experience in front of the public. The system works well because it allows culture to change in response to all manner of environmental factors. Democracy in its most primal form written in the nuances of meaning of the words we choose to describe our experience. In order to create political change, we have to create change in the meanings of words.

You do not need Google to find examples of how words change in meaning and usage. While the Supreme Court was hearing arguments about the nature of marriage, a congressman from Alaska spoke about “wetbacks” picking tomatoes on his family farm when he was a boy. He explained that he did not mean any disrespect to migrant workers, just that was the word that was always used by his family and community.

His words led to immediate rebuke from Republican leaders who are doing their best to redefine the meaning of "Republican" with Hispanic voters. In this case, words have enormous political power that can impact who gets elected to the White House. Using a word that is currently in disfavor with the culture, allows the public to define a politician based on the words that are chosen and use the definition to create labels that add even more to the meaning of the original word.

Something over thirty years ago, a movement began to influence the words we use to describe each other that had its roots in feminism. The hope was that by creating fewer gender specific terms (like policeman or fireman) that words that were not gender specific would lose some of the implied meaning imposed by culture (like nurse or executive). “Political correctness” meant to define the process of the culture doing its best to influence word meanings by telling the stories of how those words were impacting the lives of very real people. The ultimate failure of political correctness has nothing to do with the merit of the idea. Its failure has to do with the long term failure of all censorship. Humans carry their innate curiosity and creativity around with them 24 hours a day and no organization or tyrant has yet found a way to turn that off. You can tell someone what words to use, but not how they will be perceived or understood. It is not possible to regulate our stories that are the foundation of meaning. Censorship may succeed in legal word choice but always fails in cultural definitions.

The effect on words goes even further because whether culturally invoked or legally mandated, demanding that a certain word be used in a certain way changes the meaning of the word according to John Roberts and Story Chip.

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