Censorship and political correctness: a fine line

On a fl teacher List recently there occurred an exchange on the issue of censorship. While I despise the term “politically correct? as an invention of the Right to silence those who protest derogatory speech meant to put someone in “their place?, I nevertheless get nervous over the lengths to which some people go in trying to “clean up? speech.

Several terms used by today’s students still bother me. One is “ghetto?; to me it equates with Black or Jewish, nothing else. When kids say, “he’s so ghetto?, I immediately think they are attributing characteristics of African-Americans to someone in a derogatory way. Not so. They just mean something like “slummy?, “poor?. In the past, at least, people sometimes used the word “welfare? this way. They did not mean that the person was literally on welfare but only that characteristics attributed to welfare recipients were shared by that person.

All of these terms involve a certain degree of ridicule of and contempt for the poor, no doubt about it. But I cannot assume now that someone who says “ghetto? is referring exclusively to African-Americans. It just ain’t so.

Another word is “gay?. That one really took me by surprise; I was just getting used to its meaning as “homosexual? when it cropped up as something negative. Now it is easy to condemn such a usage since it obviously comes from people assigning negative characteristics to homosexuals. However, there is some question as to whether or not a person fifteen years of age makes that connection. How many of you feel you are practicing “localism? when you call someone “urbane? in a positive way, contrasting him with “rural? or “country?. Now come on, you know the word “urban?, so how can you miss the connection? But you do, because that’s the way language works. (BTW, in looking up “urbane?, I saw “uranography?; I thought it meant writing in the snow with your urine, but it doesn’t ).

So words become disconnected from their source. “Nice? originally meant something like retarded, from Latin “nescio? = “I don’t know? and then evolved to something like harmless and then pleasant in character and manner.

The outstanding problem in this area is “nigger?, used by African-Americans, often in an aggressive and challenging way, daring Whites to say anything about or try to use the word themselves. I must admit, I did hear it recently from a middle-aged Black woman used toward her cousin in an affectionate way. That was common 40 years ago and remains a staple among many African-Americans, but this new use around Whites is something else.

So the issue on the List was: do we restrict students? use of some of these words? My own response was: do what you want but be aware that your district can enforce only what has been written out and mostly that’s ethnic slurs and so-called “four letter words?. I doubt “gay? is in there or any reference to sexual orientation. If it is, great. Do your best to show students that it is a derogatory term, but be prepared for it to persist. And do not assume that all your students who use it are actively hostile toward gays.

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