Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Help for the politically correct

Philip Corbett has a blog in the New York Times in which he talks about linguistic issues that come up in reference to Times articles. In his latest column he talks about “Discussing Disabilities”, citing an admonition in the paper’s stylebook to avoid using phrases such as “the disabled” and “the blind”, preferring those words’ use as adjectives (“blind people”) rather than as nouns.

Mr Corbett goes on to say this:

The difference between “the disabled” and “disabled people” (or “people with disabilities”) is subtle but significant. The shorthand might occasionally be unavoidable — in tight headlines, for example. But it’s better to refer to people who, among other characteristics, have some disability, rather than to use the disability as the sole label.

Some advocates, in fact, object to any phrase that refers to the disability before the person. They would uniformly use “people who are blind” rather than “blind people,” or “a person with a disability” rather than “a disabled person.”

To me, all of this, and that second paragraph especially, represents the pinnacle of hyper-PC silliness. All of the examples in the “Discussing Disabilities” section seem just fine as written. And that makes sense, since none of them are talking about a person — they are all talking about the disabilities, so it makes sense that the emphases lie there.

Note the difference between the article that’s talking about software that reads food labels to people who can’t (where I think “the visually impaired” works fine), and an article that might be talking about how social workers need to work differently with blind people than with sighted ones. In the latter, I do agree that the emphasis is on working with people, and the phrasing should support that.

But apart from that, English uses word order for understanding, not for decoration. Indeed, it certainly can sometimes be used for emphasis... but more often, we say things as we do because that’s the way it’s said in English. Adjectives (and other modifiers) come before what they modify; when I say that I have a bottle of “red wine”, I’m not emphasizing the redness at the expense of the wine-hood. And a phrase like “wine that is red”, unless it’s taking poetic or humorous license, looks foolish.

Take this New York Times article, for instance, with the headline, “Helping a Blind Woman Build a Future”: does it in any way undervalue the woman because it puts the word “blind” first? Of course not. It would sound contrived to say it as, “Helping a Woman Who Is Blind Build a Future”; that’s just not the word order we’d normally use in English.

Insistence, in general, on convolutions such as “person who is blind” because of some illusion that “blind person” dehumanizes the subject is misguided. We should write in a way that works well for what we’re writing. Respect (or dis-) comes from the whole, not from one or two disembodied phrases.

Give me your people who have been deprived of rest, your people who are economically disadvantaged,
Your large groups of people forced to spend time in close quarters who are yearning to breathe free,
Those in unfortunate circumstances in your overcrowded communities.
Send these, people at high risk of being without housing and having to spend nights exposed to the elements, to me,
I lift my politically correct thesaurus beside the golden door!

— freely adapted, with apologies, from Emma Lazarus


Lisa Simeone said...

Totally agree. All this pc nonsense is crap.

I remember once having to stop an interview cold because my guest kept using the term "developmentally disabled" (Christ -- now I'm sure even that's been dustbinned as "insensitive" in favor of something else equally convoluted). I simply didn't know what she was talking about. So I stopped the interview and asked her. Somewhat sheepishly, as if she were doing something wrong, she said, "That's the term we now use for what we used to call 'mentally retarded.'"

I couldn't believe it. It was so goddamn stupid. (Yeah, I know, all the pc-ers out there are just ready to pile one.)

It's like you're now not supposed to say "autistic" but "autism" is okay. ???!! Hello! Stop saying "American" or "Irish" or "Italian." Instead, you should be saying "American people" or "Irish people" or "Italian people" or take your pick. Because god forbid we "dehumanize" them.

What a load of shit.

Barry Leiba said...

Lisa, the end of your comment reminded me of an argument that went on when the PBS program "The Jewish Americans" aired. Apparently, some people were offended by the word order, preferring "American Jews" with the idea that the order said something about the priority between being American and being Jewish. (Of course, some thought that "Jewish Americans" emphasized Jewishness over Americanism, and others thought "American Jews" did that... so go figure.)

The show's creator, David Grubin, actually took the "controversy" seriously, and replied to it. My thought, as the Irish might say, was, "Oh, bugger that!" Or, as my grandmother would have said, "This is all they have to worry about? I should be so lucky!"