“The retarded are people who need people. They can be helped.” These are the words of Barbara Streisand from her 1971 PSA for The Retarded Children’s Association. Back then, the term “retarded” was a socially acceptable term for those with mental disabilities like autism. Now, videos like Barbara’s are difficult to watch. In the present day and age, the terms that society deems to be appropriate change on a weekly basis. The idea of “political correctness” has taken on an entirely new significance. When exactly did it change, though, and why? How did we go from creating organizations titled The Retarded Children’s Association to demanding an apology every time someone uses the term in reference to someone with mental disabilities?
The word retarded originates from the verb “to retard” which means “to delay.” Before the 1970s, short people could say “I’m not small, gravity’s physical attraction to me just retards my growth” in a perfectly acceptable manner. Eventually, the word took on a noun form, retard, which also maintained the original definition. It wasn’t until around the 1980s when retard adopted a negative connotation as people began to use it as a replacement for “idiot” or “moron.”
Retarded is not the only word to be politically correcticized (yeah, I just made up a verb, so what, SUE ME). Merry Christmas, once a widely accepted December greeting, has now become mildly offensive due to its Christian roots. Gay individuals must now be referred to as homosexuals and overweight people should be called plus-sized. (Or so I’ve heard.)
The debate over many of these words remains strong, and for good reason. Who is to say that a Christian cannot put up a “Merry Christmas” sign in their home window when Christmas as a holiday has become so commercialized, its religious association has become less significant? Who determines what is politically correct anyway?
That last question, I think, is the most important. After all, why is “white trash” not considered politically incorrect? Why do people let this phrase slide while, at the same time, there are people out there debating the appropriateness of the song “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”? While I’m sure some of you readers are going, “But the word black possesses negative implications and by applying it to animals, it could establish a connection between something or other,” I personally believe there is a line that needs to be drawn when it comes to defining something as politically incorrect. (Side note: I just Googled the origin of the “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep story and its validity is unconfirmed. However, I still wouldn’t put that mindset past some people.)
This line mostly applies to the boundaries between free speech and offensive speech. In 2003, for example, Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, admitted at a concert that she disapproved of President Bush’s decision to go to war and was ashamed to call him a Texan. In the weeks following her confession, Maines received a number of harshly worded letters, some of which were death threats, and witnessed a significant drop in her album’s sales. (Although the song about the event, Not Ready To Make Nice, eventually went on to become one of the group’s most popular hits, proving that irony always wins.)
Maines was not doing anything wrong in saying that she hated George Bush. In fact, if she had said that same thing a few years later, people would have raised their glasses and cheered in agreement. She wasn’t saying anything that was politically incorrect by expressing her opinion. And yet, controversy still sprung up.
If anything, Maines’s situation demonstrates an important aspect of PC’s transformation: that what people determine is offensive depends on what issues society finds most significant at the time. As the studies on mental retardation became more extensive, society’s sensitivity to the term “retard” grew. (I suspect when global warming finally starts to gain greater recognition, terms like “climate change” will be replaced with “global puberty” or “menopausal Earth effect.”) Similarly, as gay rights begin to gain momentum as a social and political issue, the language surrounding it is changing.
Surprisingly, a good portion of this change is not controlled by the offenders of political incorrectness but rather, the victims of it. The term queer, for example, has historically been considered an insulting label for gay individuals. However, around the 1990s, the term lost it’s significance as an insult when the gay community began to embrace it. The addition of Q to the LGBT acronym (standing for Queer or Questioning) and the inception of TV shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy demonstrate the term’s changing connotations. In other words, by welcoming the use of queer as an acceptable label, the gay community was able to reclaim its meaning and render it ineffective as a politically incorrect expression.
So, to answer the original question, political correctness has become more prominent in our society simply because our country’s values have finally gained a voice. The younger generation is one of the most politically involved in history, at least when it comes to human rights. With the demand for equality comes a demand for equal representation, especially in language. In the end, political correctness is like a bed of hot coals. (You have made it this far into the post, readers, you cannot bail on me now. I’m going somewhere with this, I’m pretty sure.) The hotter the coals get (aka, the more passionate society becomes about equal rights), the more careful you must be when walking on them. Simple (?) as that.
Image via NoisyRoom.net