Today, guest blogger Rachel Stanton shares her thoughts on how Christians should approach the subject of “Political Correctness.” Should Christians eschew the notion as a product of liberal media bias? Should we embrace it?
A few months ago a leading presidential candidate sent out this tweet:
So many ‘politically correct’ fools in our country. We have to all get back to work and stop wasting time and energy on nonsense!
It seems that many Americans, including many evangelical Christians, would agree with him. These days the phrase “political correctness” is almost always used in a derogatory manner to refer to an extreme and tyrannical speech code from which we all need to be liberated. But should we who call ourselves Christ followers really pride ourselves on being “politically incorrect?”
Certainly it’s possible for speech codes to become oppressive. And there have been instances where people have been unfairly demonized for using language that offended others. But we sometimes act as though exercising sensitivity in our speech is unreasonable and excessively burdensome. I believe that what is often dismissed as “political correctness” is simply a demonstration of kindness and love and we who follow Jesus, especially those of us in majority culture, need to spend more time listening to and learning from others.
Learning About Ethnic Identification
I began to understand the importance of language while working as the Family Involvement Coordinator at an elementary school. This job gave me the opportunity to learn more about the experiences of communities beyond the majority white culture in which I grew up. One of the staff members I often collaborated with was the English Language Learner teacher. Elena is a first-generation immigrant from Mexico who cares passionately about her students, and she was an essential partner and guide in my outreach to Spanish-speaking families.
In one conversation, Elena explained that she hated the term “Hispanic” because it had its roots in the brutal Spanish conquest of Latin America. She asked that she and others from Central and South America be referred to as “Latinos.” This surprised me as I had heard other people self-identify as Hispanic. At least one other staff member responded to Elena’s antipathy for the word Hispanic with annoyance and disdain. But it seemed clear that loving and respecting Elena would mean being willing to learn from her and honor her request. Elena also taught others never to refer to any human being simply as “an illegal,” a label often heard in today’s political climate.
Another learning opportunity came during a presentation for the Family Involvement Coordinators by the director of the Indian Education Program. She explained how her program provided educational support and cultural connection for the student population they served. After she finished speaking, I nervously raised my hand and said, “Ummm…Your program is called the Indian Education Program. I thought that term was offensive and we should say Native American, not Indian. Is that correct?”
She replied, “Some of the people in our community do call themselves American Indians. This is what they have called themselves all their lives and they don’t want to change it. Others want to be called Native American. If you are getting to know someone, just find out from them what they prefer. Personally, I’m fine with either term.” Then she laid her hand over her heart, smiled and said, “But you have my heart because you asked.”
This was a new concept. I had learned in majority culture that we should avoid asking people questions about their ethnicity. Such conversations might be awkward and uncomfortable. Instead we should pretend that we are “color-blind” and then muddle along, often keeping others at a distance for fear that we might unwittingly offend them by our ignorance. But this woman was telling us that it was okay to ask a new acquaintance about their ethnic identification and that she had felt respected, not insulted, by the question. Surely if we love someone it is worth finding out what language would make them feel most valued.
Honoring the Dignity of the Vulnerable
I learned more about the significance of language while listening to Joni Eareckson Tada’s radio show. Joni has spent nearly 50 years as a quadriplegic and has an international ministry to people with disabilities. During one episode of Joni’s daily commentary, she introduced the concept of “people first language.” She encouraged listeners to refer to people with special needs using terminology that emphasized their humanity first and their disability second. She explained that there was a subtle but powerful difference between, for example, the phrases “autistic child” and “child with autism.”
People-first language made sense. I wondered though if Joni might be accused of being a member of the “PC police.” Many of Joni’s listeners are fellow white evangelicals and we have tended to push back against anything that we might label “political correctness.” But our community has clearly recognized the dehumanization inherent in phrases like “fetal tissue mass” or “products of conception.” Why then have we resisted being careful with our speech in describing other groups of people loved by God and made in his image?
The Way Forward
Our desire should be to use language that respects others and upholds their worth and dignity. We all have more to learn and that is okay because in Christ, there is no condemnation. We do not have to be ashamed of what we don’t know or feel afraid to be corrected. But I believe that it is wrong to willfully ignore the preferences and requests of others and to proudly flaunt our insensitivity. Being careful and deliberate with our words is not a form of oppression. Rather it is simply seeking to, as Proverbs 31:26 says, have “the law of kindness on our tongue.”